He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, coming out 31st wrangler in the mathematical tripos in 1835. He was recognized by the ablest of his contemporaries there as a man of superior gifts, and likely to make his mark in after life. As a member of the "Conversazione Society", better known as the Apostles, a society established in 1820 for the purposes of discussion on social and literary questions by a few young men attracted to each other by a common taste for literature and speculation, he was associated with Charles Buller, Frederick Maurice, Richard Chenevix Trench, Monckton Milnes, Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson.
His first literary effort, Thoughts in the Cloister and the Crowd (1835), was a series of aphorisms upon life, character, politics and manners. Soon after leaving the university Arthur Helps became private secretary to Spring-Rice (afterwards Lord Monteagle), then chancellor of the exchequer. This appointment he filled till 1839, when he went to Ireland as private secretary to Lord Morpeth (afterwards earl of Carlisle), chief secretary for Ireland. In the meanwhile (October 28, 1836) Helps had married Bessy, daughter of Captain Edward Fuller.
He was one of the commissioners for the settlement of certain Danish claims which dated so far back as the siege of Copenhagen; but with the fall of the Melbourne administration (1841) his official experience closed for a period of nearly twenty years. He was not, however, forgotten by his political friends. He possessed admirable tact and sagacity; his fitness for official life was unmistakable, and in 186o he was appointed clerk of the Privy Council, on the recommendation of Lord Granville.
His Essays written in the Intervals of Business had appeared in 1841, and his Claims of Labor, an Essay on the Duties of the Employers to the Employed, in 1844. Two plays, King Henry the Second, an Historical Drama, and Catherine Douglas, a Tragedy, published in 1843, have no particular merit. Neither in these, nor in his only other dramatic effort, '\'Oulita the Serf'' (1858) did he show any real qualifications as a playwright.
Helps possessed, however, enough dramatic power to give life and individuality to the dialogues with which he enlivened many of his other books. In his Friends in Council, a Series of Readings and Discourse thereon (1847-1859), Helps varied his presentment of social and moral problems by dialogues between imaginary personages, who, under the names of Milverton, Ellesmere and Dunsford, grew to be almost as real to Helps's readers as they certainly became to himself. The book was very popular, and the same expedient was resorted to in Conversations on War and General Culture, published in 1871. The familiar speakers, with others added, also appeared in his Real male (1868) and in the best of its author's later works, Talk about Animals and their Masters (1873).
A long essay on slavery in the first series of Friends in Council was subsequently elaborated into a work in two volumes published in 1848 and 1852, called The Conquerors of the New World and their Bondsmen. Helps went to Spain in 1847 to examine the numerous manuscripts bearing upon his subject at Madrid. The fruits of these researches were embodied in an historical work based upon his Conquerors of the New World, and called The Spanish Conquest in America, and its Relation to the History of Slavery and the Government of Colonies (4 vols, 1855, 1857-1861). But in spite of his scrupulous efforts after accuracy, the success of the book was marred by its obtrusively moral purpose and its discursive character.
The Life of Las Casas, the Apostle of the Indians (1868), The Life of Columbus (1869), The Life of Pizarro (1869), and The Life of Hernando Cortrés (1871), when extracted from the work and published separately, proved successful. Besides the books which have been already mentioned he wrote: Organization in Daily Life, an Essay (1862), Casimir Maremma (1870), Brevia, Short Essays and Aphorisms (1871), Thoughts upon Government (1872), Life and Labors of Mr Thomas Brassey (1872), Iras de Biron (1874), Social Pressure (1875).
His appointment as clerk of the Council brought him into personal communication with Queen Victoria and the Prine Consort, both of whom came to regard him With confidence and respect. After the Prince's death, the Queen early turned to Helps to prepare an appreciation of her husbands life and character. In his introduction to the collection (1862) of the Prince Consort's speeches and addresses Helps adequately fulfilled his task. Some years afterwards he edited and wrote a preface to the Queen's Leaves from a Journal of our Life in the Highlands (1868). In 1864 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. He was made a C.B. in 1871 and K.C.B. in the following year. His later years were troubled by financial embarrassments, and he died on the 7th of March 1875.