Friday, October 26, 2012

John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik

John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is a classic of the Victorian era.  It is the story of a David and Jonathon-like friendship.  It is also about a long and happy marriage.  But mostly it recounts the life of a man who never backs down from his principles.  The book proposed the “revolutionary”  idea that a man is not a gentleman primarily because of wealth and title, but because of integrity, honor and hard work.

Halifax is a poor orphan who works his way up from poverty; his story is narrated by Phineas Fletcher, a sickly boy whom he befriends:  

From my birth I had been puny and diseased; my life had been a succession of sicknesses and I could hope for little else until the end…  But I was very content; I had a quiet home, a good father, and now I believe I had found the one thing I wanted – a good friend.

Later when Phineas asks how he will get on in the world, Halifax replies that he has “NIL” to which Fletcher replies, “Except youth, health, courage, honor, honesty and a few other such trifles.”  These trifles made Halifax one of the most beloved characters in Victorian literature.

This is a slow-moving but satisfying book.  It uses old fashioned words like “discomfited” and “sententious”.  But it is no more sentimental than, say, Little Women
, and much less moralistic than Elsie Dinsmore. I have read novels in which the hero or heroine are too good to be true (Little Lord Fauntleroy comes to mind), but I did not find this to be the case with John Halifax.  

There is one teeny-tiny episode of bad theology, but for the most part this book celebrates true manliness and womanliness, the joys of family life, and the virtues of walking in God’s ways.

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