(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)