Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

John Halifax, Gentleman

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The illustration shows Phineas on crutches in the foreground with Jael, looking towards John Halifax, who is walking toward him carrying a hobo's bindle à la Dick Whittington.  The caption reads: “I smiled, for I, at least, had no difficulty in recognizing John Halifax.” John Halifax, Gentlemen (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Publishers, 1897). 

Introduction

Dinah Mulock Craik’s (1826-1887) novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) follows John Halifax’s journey from an impoverished orphan boy to self-made tradesman hero. As their friendship unfolds, Phineas Fletcher, the novel’s disabled first-person narrator, relates John’s narrative of heroic strength, and the invalid’s physical immobility and pre-bachelor dandy femininity forms a stark contrast to the masculine strength of John Halifax. Scenes depicting Phineas’s admiration of John’s able body and John’s tenderness as he carries his feeble friend in strong arms emit a homoerotic charge that was apparent even to Craik’s contemporary readers. Victorian critic R.H. Hutton remarked, “it is hard to suppress the fear that Phineas Fletcher will fall hopelessly in love with John Halifax, so hard is it to remember that Phineas is of the male sex” (258). Modern critics continue to remark on Phineas’s femininity its possible impact in making the novel popular with an audience of middle-class women readers. For instance, Kiran Mascarenhas interprets Phineas as a stand-in for the female novel reader, observing that his “repression and circumscription makes him a character that they identify with, and along with whom they could look—with some longing—at John, the epitome of ideal masculinity” (257).

Craik wrote extensively about the lives of disabled men and women in Victorian society, with many of her novels, such as Olive (1850), A Noble Life (1866), and The Little Lame Prince (1875) offering complex and often contradictory representations of the experiences of disabled protagonists. Phineas is no exception, and scholars continue to debate about whether Phineas provides a positive glimpse into the pleasures of bachelor invalid domesticity or serves as a helpless, negative foil to John’s middle class determination. In either case, the relationship between Phineas and John underscores the importance of caring for one another; John’s tenderness with Phineas proves as important to his development as gentleman as his devotion to labor. In the following excerpt, John has just met Phineas for the first time after Phineas’s father, Abel Fletcher, trusts Phineas to the strong young man’s care. John’s body willingness to carry not only a heavy meal sack, but also its human equivalent—a weary Phineas— underscores his value as both a hearty, masculine laborer and a gentle caretaker. 

Primary Source Text

I lifted myself, and began looking for my crutches. John found them and put them into my hand, with a grave, pitiful look.

“You don’t need those sort of things,” I said, making pretense to laugh, for I had not grown used to them and felt often ashamed.

“I hope you will not need them always.”

“Perhaps not—Doctor Jessup isn’t sure. But it doesn’t matter much; most likely I shan’t live long.” For this was, God forgive me, always the last and greatest comfort I had.

John looked at me—surprised, troubled, compassionate—but he did not say a word. I hobbled past him; he following through the long passage to the garden door. There I paused—tired out. John Halifax took gentle hold of my shoulder.

“I think, if you did not mind, I’m sure I could carry you. I carried a meal sack once, weighing eight stone.”

I burst out laughing, which may be was what he wanted, and forthwith consented to assume the place of the meal sack. He took me on his back—what a strong fellow he was!—and fairly trotted with me down the garden walk. We were both very merry, and though I was his senior, I seemed with him, out of my great weakness and infirmity, to feel almost like a child.

Source

Craik, Dinah Mulock.  John Halifax, Gentleman. 1856.  Ed. Lynn M. Alexander. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.  Page 43.

Date

1856

Further Reading

  • R.H. Hutton, “Novels by the Authoress of ‘John Halifax.’” North British Review 29 (1858)
  • Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, The Corporealities Series (Ann Arbour: U of Michigan P, 2004). 
  • Mascarenhas, Kiran. “John Halifax: A Counter Story,” Antifeminism and the Victorian Novel: Rereading Nineteenth-Century Woman Writers (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009) 255-269.
  • Mitchell, Sally.  Dinah Mulock Craik. Boston:  Twayne Publishers, 1983. Available online: <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/craik/index.html>
  • Sussman, Herbert. Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art. Cambridge University Press, [1995] 2008.

Contributor

Melina Moore


Collection

Citation

Craik, Dinah Mulock, “John Halifax, Gentleman,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed December 11, 2017, http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/20.

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