Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
When Phineas Fletcher and his father, Abel, first see John Halifax, they are immediately struck with his honest face and behavior; although the boy is only fourteen years old and an orphan, he will accept help from no one. Instead, he prefers to make his own way, even though it means that he is always half-starved. Phineas is only sixteen years old and is disabled; he would have enjoyed having John for a companion, but Abel Fletcher, a wealthy Quaker, puts the boy to work in his tannery. Although Abel is a Christian and wants to help others, he knows that the boy will be better off if he helps himself. Then, too, there is a class distinction between Phineas and John that even Abel cannot entirely overlook.
Phineas and John become good friends; the orphan is the only friend Phineas ever loves as a brother. John rises rapidly in the tannery because of his honesty and his willingness to work at any job. He also has the ability to handle men, an ability ably proved when a hungry mob tries to burn down the Fletcher home and the mill that the Quaker owns. John arranges to have the workers get wheat for their families, and from then on, they are loyal to him through any crisis.
When they are in their early twenties, Phineas and John take a cottage in the country so that Phineas might have the advantage of the country air. While there, they meet a lovely girl, Ursula March, who took her dying father to the same spot. John is attracted to the modest girl from the beginning, but since she is a lady, he believes that he cannot tell her of his feelings. After the death of her father, it is learned that she is an heiress. She is therefore even more unattainable for John. When Ursula is told of John’s feelings for her, however, she, knowing his true character, is happy to marry him. Everyone is shocked but Phineas, and Ursula’s kinsman, a dissolute nobleman, refuses to give her her fortune. John will not go to court to claim the fortune as is his legal right as Ursula’s husband.
After the death of Abel, Phineas lives with John and Ursula and their children, the oldest of whom, Muriel, is a lovely blind girl. Abel made John a partner in the tannery, but because John does not like the tanyard and it is losing money, he sells it and puts the money into the operation of the mill. Times are often hard during the next few years, but eventually, for political reasons, Ursula’s kinsman releases her fortune. After settling a large amount on his wife and children, John uses the rest to lease a new mill and expand his business interests. His hobby is a steam engine to turn the mill, and before long, he begins to be successful. The family moves to a new home in the country and lives many long years there in peace and happiness. John becomes influential in politics, especially in connection with the Reform Bill and the abolition of slavery. He makes powerful enemies, too, but his concern is always for what is right. He becomes a wealthy man during this time, and his family moves to a more opulent home.
The steam engine, built and put into operation, gives John new advantages. Nevertheless, he provides generously for his workmen so that they will not suffer because of the efficiencies of the machine. Then tragedy strikes the family. Shortly after the birth of Maud, their last child, Muriel dies. It is a sorrow from which John never completely recovers. The years bring other troubles. When two of his sons fall in love with the governess of their little sister, they quarrel bitterly and the loser, Guy, leaves home and goes abroad. After two or three years, they learn that Guy nearly killed a man in Paris and fled to America. From that time on, Ursula ages, for Guy is her favorite son.
Shortly afterward, Lord William Ravenel reveals to John that he is in love with Maud. Not only is Lord Ravenel the son of a worldly family, he also leads a useless and sometimes Byronic life. John will not listen to the man’s pleas, and Lord Ravenel, agreeing that he is unworthy of Maud, leaves without telling her of his love. John revises his opinion of the man somewhat when, after the death of his father, Lord Ravenel gives up his inherited fortune to pay his father’s debts. After this incident, Lord Ravenel is not heard from for many years. Maud does not marry. Her parents know that she never lost her affection for Lord Ravenel, although she does not know that he returned her feelings.
Years pass. The married children give John and Ursula grandchildren. John could have had a seat in Parliament, but he rejects it in favor of others. He continues to do good with his money and power, even when suffering temporary losses. He always longs for his lost blind child, just as Ursula longs for her missing oldest son. Their own love grows even deeper as they reach their twilight years. John often suffers attacks that leave him gasping in pain and breathless, but in order to spare his family any unnecessary worry, he keeps this information from all but Phineas.
Then comes the wonderful news that Guy is coming home. All the family rejoices, Ursula more than any other. They have six anxious months when his ship seems to be lost at sea, but at last Guy arrives. He was shipwrecked but eventually makes his way home. With him is Lord Ravenel. Both men did well in America but lost everything in the shipwreck. This seems of little importance in the happy reunion. John now realizes that Lord William Ravenel proved himself worthy of Maud, and the two lovers are at last allowed to express their love for each other. Guy, too, begins to show interest in a childhood friend, and another wedding in the family seems likely.
John feels that his life is now complete, his peace and happiness being broken only by longing for his dead child. He is soon to join her. One day he sits down to rest, and his family finds him in the peaceful sleep of death. That night, as she sits by her husband’s body, Ursula feels that she cannot live without him; later the children and Phineas find her lying dead beside her husband. They are buried side by side in the country churchyard.