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Had Samuel Smiles been ever asked to give advice about becoming a detective, then what would have come of it?

He would have no doubt maintained, as he does of every other profession, that successful detectives are made only through industry and perseverance. This is Smiles’ one answer, rather as doctors had once prescribed bleeding. “Industry and perseverance” is the starting-point and conclusion of his world-bludgeoning handbook Self-Help (1859). Had detectives ever featured in Self-Help, then Smiles would have listed example after example of those who had risen to pre-eminence in this desired way. Goody-goody detectives, all of them identically industrious and persevering, all of them like model pupils being proudly turned out from the Samuel Smiles Academy of Excellence.

Smiles would have soon contracted a bad case of aphorismitis. He would have found some occasion when the detective Dupin had remarked that, “diligence and application have been the only bread I’ve broken” or when it was said of the Murder in the Red Barn that, “honest industry shall win the day.” These aphorisms always correct the foolish or put somebody in their place. Soon Smiles would have stitched every line in his expanding embroidery of homilies and adages out of the same unchanging thread. “Industry and perseverance” – a single motto repeated in different, unimaginative ways until it has sewn together an entire book.

The format of Self-Help is essentially that of the commonplace book, a usually private scrapbook in which writers were meant to squirrel away little titbits cut from their reading for later contemplation. Smiles himself commends, “the practice of writing down thoughts and facts for the purpose of holding them fast and preventing their escape into the dim region of forgetfulness.” The innovation of Self-Help is that it is a commonplace book ready-made for those without the time or resources to compile one of their own. More exactly, it is such a book for those who may be lacking in the wisdom to select the choicest of self-improving quotations.

When Paul Somerset, the adventurer in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiter (1885) wishes to “turn detective,” he does not reach for Self-Help. His own ideas on personal reinvention instead issue from an almost diametrically opposed compilation of cuttings and excerpts, albeit one that had exerted a similarly incalculable influence over the Victorian psyche. During the Victorian period, the masses were on the move. There was an unprecedented drain from the countryside, a movement that the revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had applauded for rescuing “a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” And something of this age of energy and flux was reflected in its proliferating translations, adaptations, and pastiches of the Arab short story anthology the One Thousand and One Nights.

The heroes of the Nights invariably ascend to fabulous wealth, but seldom do they do so through industry and perseverance, or at least not in the manner that Smiles had stipulated. Instead, fortune is the dynamo of their stories. A hero will sometimes owe his break to a magical intervention, but it far more commonly results from the pure chance of the city streets. For instance, in “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” one of the oldest stories in the Nights, both the humble porter and the disguised caliph are brought to the mysterious house of the story by accident. The narrative implies that there is an infinity of adventures awaiting on the streets of Baghdad and that the porter and the caliph could have just as easily ended up in different houses, upon different adventures.

At the beginning of The Dynamiter, Somerset is feverish to experience such adventures for himself and he reckons that he will have a flair for them. He raves that “the man of the world is a great feature of this age; he is possessed of an extraordinary mass and variety of knowledge; he is everywhere at home.” A detective is henceforth, in Somerset’s estimation, the very opposite of a specialist: he is ultimately an expert in general knowledge. According to Somerset, “our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective.”

Somerset’s opening idealism is put forward powerfully and with tremendous eloquence, before it sinks from the story without a trace. There is a self-contained quality to the “Prologue of the Cigar Divan,” a dazzling innocence and glamour that are missing from the rest of the book and that overwhelmingly outshine the consequent stories. The Dynamiter is thus an exercise in anti-climax. One could put the prologue at the start of a completely different book – say, a collection of detective adventures for adolescents – without registering any incongruity.

According to Somerset, a detective should owe their entire character to chance. Rather than complying with Smiles’ strict injunctions and sitting down to years of deliberative self-improvement, the detective will accrue their “vast stores of unconnected knowledge” purely through drift. The pattern of their adventures will be likewise dictated by this force:

“Challoner… is it possible that you hold the doctrine of Free Will? And are you devoid of any tincture of philosophy, that you should harp on such exploded fallacies? Chance, the blind Madonna of the Pagan, rules this terrestrial bustle; and in chance I place my sole reliance.”

Needless to say, Smiles was not a pagan and he was not a fan of chance. To be lucky, in his morality, is at best inconsequential; at worst, it can actively corrupt the individual, leading to complacency and indolence. “Accident does very little towards the production of any great result in life,” he warns, adding that “the common highway of steady industry and application is the only safe road to travel.” He observes that, “it will often be found that men who are constantly lamenting their luck, are in some way or other reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, improvidence, or want of application.” It might appear incredible that these lines could be written in the years following the Irish famine, but it is probably preferable that they were not around to be read during it.

For Smiles, self-reinvention should not be playful or cocksure, but a difficult, earnest, God-fearing undertaking. Success is not legitimate or indeed likely, in his worldview, unless its pursuer has started out with nothing, foregone food, sleep and leisure, plunged his wife and children into bitter poverty and filled every unforgiving minute with remorseless self-betterment. The fanciful adventures of the Nights naturally shrivel up under the stern glare of this moralising. Under Smiles’ influence, the Victorians increasingly thought that those who relied on luck belonged in workhouses. Smiles condemned romance and idle reading as “the indulgence of a sort of intellectual dram-drinking, imparting a grateful excitement for the moment, without the slightest effect in improving and enriching the mind or building up the character.” He didn’t like dram-drinking much either.

In contrast to the languid and exotic decadence of the Nights, Smiles was popping the performance-enhancer of English nationalism. Self-Help can fill in as an informal National Dictionary of Biography, in which the character of England is gleaned from those of its supposedly most characteristic citizens. Although Smiles is at home in France and knowledgeable about French genius, the examples of this that he cites are typically Protestant. He was, incidentally, Scottish. “The spirit of self-help,” he booms confusingly, “has in all times been a marked feature in the English character, and furnishes the true measure of our power as a nation.” He uses the term “British” only when it is unavoidable, such as when referring to the British army or the British Museum.

Smiles and Stevenson were both Lothian Scots, in being born respectively in Haddington and Edinburgh. Neither Stevenson’s letters nor his biographers record his views on Self-Help, though Joseph Farrell, the author of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa (2017), breaks ahead of the pack in claiming that “R.L.S. admired Samuel Smiles’ famous work.” The source for this statement appears to be an address that Stevenson had delivered to some Samoan missionary students in 1890. Farrell insists that Smiles’ “robust teaching… could clearly be heard” behind it. The model of a self-improving talk to some appreciative young men sounds like a distinctly Smilesian one, and indeed Self-Help had originated in the writing up of just such a talk, given in 1845 to a Mutual Improvement Society. Smiles had “felt that a few words of encouragement, honestly and sincerely uttered, might not be without some good effect.”

Stevenson had corresponded with Smiles a mere once and on a dispute about his family’s history rather than about literature. If The Dynamiter often reads like it is deep in vigorous conversation with Self-Help, it might be more broadly interlocked with the Victorian work-ethic that Self-Help had given expression to. Stevenson could never hope to be included in any revised future edition of Self-Help. He had remained dependent upon his parents’ wealth long into his thirties, the biggest no-no of all in Smiles’ morality. He seems to have spent most of his life in bed or on holiday, unhelpfully illustrating that Smiles’ formula for success didn’t work when it came to himself. Yet Stevenson had still absorbed enough of Self-Help from somewhere to be able to confirm its wisdom in The Dynamiter.

This confirmation is partly an ironic stance – as though Stevenson is a bather who is taking a gleeful, theatrical relish in Smiles’ cold water – or as though he is ruefully paying lip service to Smiles’ inevitable realism. The problem in The Dynamiter is not the One Thousand and One Nights per se; it is that the detectives are unable to live up to the demands that it makes upon their resourcefulness. So they should instead set their sights lower and live up to those that are made by Self-Help.

Somerset’s beloved Chance has to author most of his story because he is lacking in many of the virtues that Smiles had acclaimed, namely industry, energy, application, manliness, and sobriety. Chance will indeed lead Somerset straight to the door of the dynamiter, though, in a mocking irony, this villain is not out there to be discovered on the London streets but he is instead closeted indoors as a lodger inside Somerset’s own home. Somerset sets out as a “detective” and almost immediately becomes housebound, with his only adventures being “his periodical excursion to a decent tavern in the neighbourhood.”

When trying to recruit lodgers, Somerset resembles a child who is home alone and playing at house. He daubs childlike pictures to advertise the property and displays them in the windows, in doing so conspicuously breaking one of Smiles’ edicts (“the pursuit of art is… a long and continuous labour”). In keeping with Somerset’s love of fantasy and reinvention, the “racier of the two cartoons” transforms his empty rooms into “the paradise of the Mohammedan.” In “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” as in many of the Nights, it is quite natural for a city walker to stumble across a mysterious suburban palace that contains such a paradise, but not in Somerset’s lodgings. A prospective tenant visits and his own adventure ends prematurely, with a disenchanting conversation about “slops.”

Eventually, the would-be terrorist and the aspirant detective are fixed up as colocataires. Somerset is now unconsciously escaping to the streets from the adventures at home: “All day, he wandered in the parks, a prey to whirling thoughts; all night, patrolled the city; and at the peep of day he sat down by the wayside in the neighbourhood of Peckham and bitterly wept.” If Somerset cannot detect any crime out of doors on London’s streets, his lodger, the anarchist Zero, is equally hopeless at defacing them. True to his name, Zero’s attempts to blow up London’s landmarks will leave not a mark:

….we await the fall of England, the massacre of thousands, the yell of fear and execration; and lo! a snap like that of a child’s pistol, an offensive smell, and the entire loss of so much time and plant.”

Zero is so completely a failure that one is inevitably drawn to measuring him up against the Victorians’ foremost guide to succeeding. In his 1866 Preface to Self-Help, Smiles responded to the charge that he was unsympathetic towards failure by pointing out that “readers do not care to know about the general who lost his battles, the engineer whose engines blew up… the painter who never got beyond daubs…” Chuck in Clara Luxmore, the storyteller whose tales are not believed, and this could be a synopsis for The Dynamiter.

When at last Zero’s dynamite triumphs, he has only blown up his home address. Significantly, if Somerset has been rendered housebound by his detective fantasy, Zero’s corresponding equivalent of this fantasy leaves the house in ruins.

Smiles vents the revolutionary side of the bourgeoisie’s historical role when proclaiming that, “The mighty fall, and the humble are exalted. New families take the place of the old, who disappear among the ranks of the common people.” This fate will be also very familiar to readers of The Dynamiter, but the irony is that the overthrown Prince Florizel of Bohemia sounds like he is a conscientious reader of Self-Help. He actually represents a composite of values, in smiling on Somerset’s romantic irresponsibility even as his own ear is turned to Smiles’ work-ethic.

After contemplating the “hundred pounds” that is broached at the start of the story, Florizel remarks that, “If you are of that stamp of man that rises, a penny would be as useful; if you belong to those that fall, a penny would be no more useless.” This maxim could join the fund of remarks within Self-Help about the worthlessness of small change, which includes an anecdote about the painter John Martin persevering even when he had lost his last shilling and the contention from an “eminent judge” that the majority are successful at the bar “by commencing without a shilling.”

The Dynamiter ends with realism in the ascendant and romance in a state synonymous with that of its chief daydreamer Zero: “no adequate remains were to be found.” Prince Florizel is destined to remain a shopkeeper. The last that we ever see of him, he is traversing the whole of his realm from his cramped suburban backrooms to “take the shop.” The rain drumming on the roof sets the mood of oppressive realism. He will have to submit to a long lifetime of self-improvement before he can rise again, cigar by cigar.

We might grow indignant at this choice of Smilesian realism over fantasy because Self-Help is, in its own way, as far-fetched as the One Thousand and One Nights. Self-Help is a flight of fancy, albeit one that might be at first too innocently exuberant to be recognisable as propaganda. The vision of meritocracy that prevails in Smiles’ book is worse than laughable. It represents the continuous belching of a monstrous political naivety.

Smiles effectively denies that the class system has any meaning or reality. Any penniless orphan can, for him, rise “from the humblest ranks of industry to eminent positions of usefulness.” They can become an admiral or a government minister with scarcely any education and by dint of sheer hard graft. And if it occurs to any of his readers that they are not admirals or ministers, then Smiles rages, beneath his ostensible encouragement, that they have only themselves to blame.

Self-Help is not so much an open invitation to the Victorian middle class as a glossy, rather-too-good-to-be-true brochure for only the most suitable applicants. Reading it becomes increasingly like entering into an abusive relationship. It is a book full of nagging and bossiness but it is far from harmless. It is ultimately vicious in its cankerous heart, in its inhumane desire to bury the vast loss of human potential that was necessary to pre-modern capitalism beneath its prurient, exculpating moralising.

After a while, you begin to search for anything that is consciously sly in Smiles’ argument. You have to wonder whether his heart was really in this book – did he genuinely believe in his own realism? Most of the “eminents” that he cites came from the artisan class and, though very poor, they had enough independence to wriggle out from under the lid of perpetual factory bondage. Did Smiles ever pass a mill or a pit and look up with no clouds in his eyes, to finally connect with the reality that the majority of the minions of these hellholes could never feasibly escape from them?

The mysterious explosion of an ordinary London house would be normally the starting-point of a detective story, but in The Dynamiter it represents the dashing of Somerset’s adventure. He takes a job behind the counter in Florizel’s cigar shop and perseveres, joining the enormous, anonymous army of the Victorian self-helping. This story will only begin, and begin again properly in a way that Smiles would have approved of, at its very end, when Somerset takes this inevitable place. His whole adventure has been nothing but a Zero.