John Halifax, Gentleman (1856, this edition 2014) is set in rural England in Norton Bury, Suffolk, from about 1778 to 1850.
Narrated by Phineas Fletcher (‘puny and diseased’ from birth), two years older than the 14-year-old orphan John Halifax, the story begins with Fletcher’s father employing Halifax at a time when Britain and France were fighting in the Revolutionary War. The Fletcher family are hard-working Quakers operating their own tanning business and flour-mill.
Fletcher notes that Halifax is different. He has a sense of ‘tenderness’ in his nature: ‘… that rare thing, tenderness. A quality different from kindliness, affectionateness, or benevolence; a quality that can exist only in strong, deep, and undemonstrative natures, and therefore in its perfection is oftenest found in men. John Halifax had it more than any one, woman or man, that I ever knew.’ Fletcher and Halifax had a fraternal bond – they were like brothers.
Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1826-1887) presents a rags-to-middle-class-riches moralistic story, a bit like Oliver Twist (1837) by Charles Dickens – commercially successful, selling 200,000 copies in its time. The public loved its tale of virtue. It is, though, predominantly a tale of education triumphs all, and it begins with Halifax reading to gain knowledge – Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, the Arabian Nights, the works of Shakespeare – any book that Phineas gave him.
On every birthday, Halifax conducted an ‘internal and external self-investigation’ process of his own qualities, good and bad, and what needed improvement.
Halifax wants to marry and he wants to marry above his class. This he does when he is 21, when he marries Ursula March (‘most certainly a lady’). Still in poverty, they are not ashamed of their financial struggles (with typical Victorian stoicism): ‘We don’t care who knows it. We consider that our respectability lies solely in our two selves.’ But ‘if Mrs. Halifax had a weak point, it was her prejudice against the French or Jacobinical.’
Interwoven into the story of Halifax’s progression from orphan to gentleman are the historical events of the time: the 1800 ‘dear year’ and the 1825 ‘panic year’ spanning war, famine, the expansion of cities, and the rise and fall of trade and business. Historical ups-and-downs have their associated personal blessings and crises, such as the celebratory years and the wretched year of 1812-1813, family disagreements, the love of the same woman, brother-against-brother torment, and a long separation.
All the while, John Halifax, Gentleman, remained a man who ‘all over the country was known for ‘’his word being as good as his bond’’ … in whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.’
This novel is on par with the successful novels of the 1800s in exploring brotherhood, love, loss, family disputes, and the bonds of friendship.