Victorian Cultures of Self-Help
Self-help (or, as George Meredith labels it in The Egoist (1879), ‘self-assistance’), is a much-used yet frequently misunderstood term. Created in the mid-nineteenth century and popularised by Samuel Smiles’s bestselling 1859 book of the same name, self-help has been simplified to a mechanism whereby, through maxims of hard work, perseverance and ‘self-culture’, the middle classes might be swelled. Crudely reductive, it was (and remains) associated with individualism, discipline and, almost always, masculinity.
Such accounts of Victorian self-help ignore both how the ideology grew out of the period’s cutting-edge scientific preoccupations, and the important contributions of female writers to this pervasive nineteenth-century discourse. My thesis will investigate how three novelists in particular – Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and George Meredith – responded to and fed back into the work of scientists such as Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, and James Sully, who together investigated the ways in which the mind could be beneficially impacted upon through self-exertion. In their hands, self-help reached far beyond advice to ‘rise early and study hard’, and propelled investigations into the nature of the mind, in the context of an increasingly distant, and sometimes wholly separate or extinct, God.
I seek to build on the recent ‘cognitive turn’ in Victorian studies, structuring my work around the science of Victorian physiological psychology, and tracing the dialectic that emerged between this and self-help from its early manifestation in the ‘pseudo-sciences’, such as phrenology, to the development of a ‘new psychology’ near the end of the century. This thesis will thus develop ideas latent in the literature of the ‘novel mind’, one that is inscribed with inwardly efficacious, psychologically motivated precepts.