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 gentleman was conducted in a number of contemporary novels, the one chronologically nearest to Mulock’s book being North and South (1854-1855) by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of her acquaintances. Gaskell’s novel deals with a woman learning to accept a self-made man as an equal. Mulock manages to explicate the man’s mind. Charles Dickens deals with the same issue in Great Expectations (1860-1861) but in a much less straightforward fashion. Mulock hints in the character of Guy that inherited wealth (or the promise of it) can be corrupting, but she allows him to redeem himself. Dickens portrays much more openly the corruption of wealth not earned through hard work, and in Hard Times (1854), he parodies the self-made Josiah Bounderby. In fact, it has been argued that since John’s only record of ancestry is that his father was a gentleman, he is merely retrieving a lost rank.
Mulock, like Gaskell and Dickens, defines the term “gentleman” as a Christian man, within the context of a largely undogmatic, uninstitutionalized Christianity. This puts the norm well outside the traditional Church of England “squirearchy.”
The case of the rise of a new middle-class meritocracy illustrates well Mulock’s very straightforward views and their portrayal. As...
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illustrated by the Reform Act and the emancipation of slaves, progress is coming. Mulock never portrays the evils of industrialism, keeping the setting determinedly pastoral. In fact, one of the stated subtexts to the novel is Phineas Fletcher’s own ancestor of the same name, a Caroline poet whoseThe Purple Island (1633) is quoted as the epitome of pastoral idyll. John seeks to capture that idyll at his first rural dwelling, Longfield. As his status in life rises, however, he feels, despite Ursula’s objections, that he should move to a grander house.
Mulock never resolves the apparent paradox of the impossibility of the pastoral in a life of increasing wealth, since it is her firm Roman philosophy that wealth brings public duty, and duty comes even before love, let alone pastoral seclusion. That is her moral platform.
John, for no clear reason, refuses political office, in much the same way as Mulock, unlike Mrs. Gaskell, refused political debate. By setting the story one generation back from her own, she is dealing, in fact, with issues that had largely been settled. Her preference is to concentrate on domestic issues, and it is in this that her enduring attraction as a writer lies. Although certain plot sequences are stereotyped and predictable, among them the blind daughter, the child’s death, the mother’s boy who errs, and the brothers’ quarrel, there is nevertheless real observation, resulting in a convincing study of family relationships. The absence of any sort of united family in Mulock’s own life may have created a desire in her for a fictional one, but she is realistic enough to know that changelessness, the pastoral dream of otiosa, is ultimately impossible. Suffering and unrest always lie lurking, whether for the poor or for the rich.
Indeed, as a result of the narrative viewpoint, that of Phineas, the novel constantly reminds the reader of sickness. Although in his adult years Phineas’s poor health is never alluded to, he vowed never to marry so as not to pass on his genetic disease, and this androgynous stance comments ironically at times on the sexual passions that touch the other characters. Phineas is a man of peace, without pretension, and he mediates Mulock’s admiration for strength, action, and heroism, above all in his friend and brother John. He thereby ensures a totally sympathetic narrative account of this ideal Victorian.