‘An Overpowering “Itch for Writing”’: R.K. Philp, John Denman and the Culture of Self-Improvement*

AbstractThe abstract for your paper is included below. This will appear online only.After a briefly prominent career in Chartism, Robert Kemp Philp (1819–82) became one of the most widely published authors in Victorian Britain, promoting self-help and self-improvement through education. From a background in magazine journalism, he moved to producing serialised reference works which, when completed, were re-published in book form. This hybridisation of periodical journalism and the non-fiction book created a genre distinct from popular novels, non-fiction and magazines, yet one which was indebted to all three. The best known, Enquire Within Upon Everything (1856) sold almost 1.3 million copies by 1900 and remained in print until 1973. However, Philp has not enjoyed an enduring reputation: almost all his work was published anonymously, while the consumption of popular non-fiction has been largely overlooked in histories of the printed word. John Denman (fl. 1863–9) inhabited the shadier world of horse racing, where he was a high-stakes gambler and promoted off-course betting after it was criminalised. The article establishes a profound connection between the apostle of self-improvement and the mercurial man of the Turf: Denman was Philp’s alias. Their careers are reconstructed and analysed. Social ambition and a desire for fame impelled Philp to be a profligate author; but both he and his alter ego claimed to systematise hitherto opaque, confusing and inaccessible fields of knowledge. Philp took significant risks legally, financially and with his family’s reputation and well-being. This contrasts sharply with the picture of domestic contentment Philp assiduously promoted as a writer, but ideals of self-improvement underpinned them both.