Of the more than twenty novels that Dinah Mulock wrote, John Halifax, Gentleman, was by far the most popular, not only during her own lifetime but also well into the twentieth century. Toward the end of that century, critical interest turned to those among her novels that deal with gender issues from a woman’s point of view, among them Olive (1850) and Agatha’s Husband (1853), and to some of her nonfictional work, such as A Woman’s Thoughts about Women (1858). Mulock herself married late, in 1865; for a period in her early life she was responsible for supporting her family financially after her father, a nonconformist preacher, had been committed as insane.
Some of this personal experience of successful independence permeates John Halifax, Gentleman. It was, however, also a period when the British Victorian dream was closest to the American Dream, when people believed that anyone could make it to the top through sheer hard work and good character. Samuel Smiles’s best seller, Self-Help, appeared a few years after Mulock’s novel, in 1859. Both works owe a great deal to Thomas Carlyle, who posited the idea of new meritocracy in the form of a sort of neofeudal industrialism.
The breakdown of the old English class structures is clearly portrayed in John Halifax, Gentlemen. Central to this account is the figure of John Halifax, who is orphaned and destitute at the beginning of the novel. His belief that he is already a gentleman never wavers, nor does his life’s ambition to manifest this to the world. He first convinces Abel Fletcher, who as a Quaker is already committed to a more democratic worldview. Then he convinces Ursula March, who loves him before she knows he is an apprentice tanner. Her guardian, Richard Brithwood, is never convinced, but he is shown to be part of a degenerate upper class whose claims to being the ruling class are morally bankrupt. His wife, Lady Caroline, is more sympathetic but equally morally bankrupt, and Mulock shows her to be literally destitute at the end. John also stands up to Lord Luxmore, Lady Caroline’s father, during a corrupt election. In this episode, Mulock demonstrates her ability to describe both character clashes and socioeconomic ones. William Ravenel’s renunciation of his title and estate is a sign of his moral worthiness to become part of the new Halifax family.
The debate on what constitutes a...
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