MATERIAL AMBITIONS: SELF-HELP AND VICTORIAN LITERATURE by Rebecca Richardson, Reviewed by Kyoko Takanashi

By Rebecca Richardson
(Johns Hopkins, 2021) x + 255 pp.
Reviewed by Kyoko Takanashi on 2022-07-09.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Despite its immediate, enduring, and wide-spread popularity in the Victorian period, Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859) has not received much critical attention. Rebecca Richardson places this important text--and the self-help genre more generally--at the center of Victorian discourse on individualism and ambition. In doing so, Richardson shows how writers including Thackeray and Trollope as well as Dinah Craik and Miles Franklin grappled with the double effect of individual ambition: while it could help individuals rise and thus benefit the nation, it could also be a selfish pursuit that deprives others, near and far. The concept of ambition as good generated autobiographies, novels, and self-help stories that strove to present models of individual success in an increasingly crowded world. But applying theories of gender, disability, ecocriticism, and colonialism, Richardson exposes the systemic injustices that these stories often disguise as virtues, reminding us how we continue under the spell of this troubling (yet all too attractive) narrative in the twenty-first century.

Material Ambitions is a welcome and provocative addition to the body of work on individualism and self-improvement in Victorian literature. Building on work by scholars such as Ian Watt, Nancy Armstrong, Andrew Miller, and Bruce Robbins, Richardson argues that in its portrayal of ambition, the self-help genre is just as important as the novel. But to study ambition to is to consider how individuals compete with others. So Richardson's book also takes its place with studies of the individual's relation to crowds (as in Emily Steinlight's Populating the Novel, 2018, and Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many, 2008), to the nation (as in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, 1983), and to the state (Lauren M. E. Goodlad's Victorian Literature and the Victorian State, 2003). While specialists in the novel have long studied its focus on individuals interacting with their social environment, Richardson shows how the social consequences of individual ambition had to be calibrated by means of narrative forms and techniques crossing multiple genres.

Beginning with Charles Dickens, Richardson shows how his fiction refers in passing to popular self-help texts, how other writers repurposed his biography as a paradigmatic self-help narrative, how his own ambition led to overwork, and how his novels expose the cost of ambition by casting characters with too much of it as antagonists. While thus moving fluidly between genres (self-help, biography, and novels) and across registers (fictional as well as non-fictional narratives), Richardson shows how authors themselves can serve as real-life models of individual ambition.

Nevertheless, Richardson's key text is Smiles's Self Help, which--as the introduction explains--exemplifies how nineteenth-century writers used narrative to calibrate the costs as well as the benefits of ambition in a world of limited resources: taking more for oneself means taking away from others, from the surrounding environment, and even from oneself. Swerving from the self-help literature that came before it and also redefining a term that once denoted an unseemly desire for power, Smiles's Self Help aimed to distinguish the laudable kinds of ambition from the pernicious ones. Richardson contextualizes the self-help genre in the Victorian culture of mass education and, more importantly, in the milieu of urgent population issues, including the rise of class antagonism, population growth, and urbanization. Such vividly felt crowding, Richardson argues, created a pressing sense that there was not enough to go around, leading Victorian writers to "[rely] on forms that stage zero-sum games" (29). The self-help genre, then, portrayed ambition as something to be managed in a world of limited resources, both local and global.

The first two chapters, focusing respectively on Smiles's Self-Help and Harriet Martineau's autobiographical and fictional writing, provide a conceptual frame for the analysis to follow. Starting with Smiles, Richardson shows how the self-help genre works as "a moralized cover story" that validates individual ambition and success (8). Smiles's success stories took the form of short, compressed biographies and portable maxims, reducing the complexity of individuals to a handful of traits that could be universalized and imitated without regard to context. Stressing survivorship, these compressed biographies typically present personal challenges as merely obstacles to be overcome. But ambition proves a two-edged sword. While obsessive and even monomaniacal individuals who succeed can be models of self-help, those who fail exemplify mental illness.

To further investigate the costs of ambitious individualism Richardson turns to Martineau. Her Life in the Sick-Room (1844) and Autobiography (1877), Richardson explains, show how Martineau's gender and disabilities both enabled and limited her own ambitions as a writer. Even as she used economic need to justify her writing career and to become a model of self-help, her ambition was constrained by her health and limited time, and both affected her writing. Just as Martineau personalizes economy in her autobiographical writing, her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) show Malthusian principles playing out on a wider scale, thus illustrating what the self-help genre does not: how individuals must compete for limited resources afforded by the environment. According to Richardson's close reading of them, both Ella of Graveloch and Weal and Woe in Graveloch (both 1834) show how a closed system of land and economy entangles individuals--including women and disabled characters--"in both environmental and social dependencies" (77). For Richardson, then, Martineau exposes the fallacy of Smiles's assumption that everyone is able and self-sufficient. By contrast, Richarson argues, Martineau accentuates the broader political economy in which ambitious individuals compete.

To further this line of argument, Richardson examines the virtuous protagonist of Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman (1856). By setting Halifax beside the disabled and marginalized narrator, Richardson explains, Clark shows how the cult of self-help marginalizes both women and disabled people. Critiquing ambition from a different angle, Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848) is shown to mock the over-ambitious by means of Becky Sharp, whose "little" status as well as the limited scope of her activities as a woman make her ambition non-threatening. Turning from Thackeray to Trollope, Richardson notes that the multi-plot narrative of The Three Clerks (1857) pits more than two characters against each other in the civil service exam and the marriage market. While the plot limits Trollope's ability to compare more than two characters at a time, Richardson finely shows how he uses such nuanced comparisons to specify the right amount of ambition. Turning finally to Miles Franklin, Richardson places her two bildungsromans--My Brilliant Career (1901) and My Career Goes Bung (1946)--in the context of settler colonialism. Though Franklin's white female protagonist tells what her ambition has gained, she can do so only by overlooking what settler colonialism has taken from the environment and the indigenous population, whose losses are subtly intimated by descriptions and metaphors.

The above summary by no means does full justice to the book. Deftly keeping in play the multiple, interrelated threads of her sometimes repetitive argument, Richardson makes her account of individual writers' authorial ambitions inform her close readings. Thackeray's ambivalent ambition as an author, for instance, directly feeds into her analysis of his self-reflexive narrative voice. She also does a remarkable job of highlighting subtle moments in novels that resonate with the tropes, clichés, and narrative form of the self-help genre. Each chapter presents careful readings of texts that attend closely to issues of form, style, and narrative. Interwoven throughout are highly relevant references to the contemporary legacy of self-help. This underscores the importance of her argument without detracting from historically nuanced analysis; for example, her discussion of the Miles Franklin literary prize bolsters her argument about Victorian authors' literary ambitions and extends it to the present day. Throughout, Richardson urgently asks us to question the assumptions behind narratives of ambition, especially amidst the crises we face today with eroding environments and aggravated economic and social inequality.

I found Material Ambitions profoundly but also productively unsettling. My main source of discomfort is the idea of the zero-sum game, which Richardson explicitly addresses. While scholars optimistically envisioned how we might move beyond zero-sum thinking (for example, Bruce Robbins's Upward Mobility and the Common Good, 2007, and Caroline Levine's Forms, 2015), Richardson urges us to consider how well Victorian narratives grappled with the "sustainability of individual ambitions" that inform our own moment (30). In essence, Richardson seems to insist that we should read skeptically or suspiciously when faced with a "moral cover story," like the idea of self-help that continues to have such staying power. Such narratives have persisted because it feels good to read stories in which a hard-working winner deservedly takes the prize. But reading Richardson's analysis of, say, John Halifax, Gentleman reveals that even when morally upstanding individuals succeed for the right reasons (to benefit their communities) and in the right way (working hard while being caring and mindful of others), someone somewhere still ends up losing. Such a conclusion left me feeling unsettled, wanting to challenge zero-sum thinking and longing for a more optimistic, constructive vision of a world where individual agency matters. But that, I think, is the very point of Material Ambitions--to urge us to face uncomfortable realities and to help us recognize the narrative trappings that prevent us from doing so.

Kyoko Takanashi is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University South Bend.

Leave a comment on Kyoko Takanashi's review.