THE VICTORIAN PATRIARCH AND HIS QUEER FRIEND: JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN

Looking for a Victorian Literature topic suitable for an MA dissertation I came across very enthusiastic reviews in GoodReads for the novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) by Dinah Maria Craik (née Mulock, 1826-1887). I’m sorry to say that though I have come across occasional references to this once popular author, I had never heard about this novel. I asked my colleagues but none had read it, though one remembered having seen the 1974 BBC adaptation (the other two were made in 1915 and 1938). I downloaded the novel anyway (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2351) and it turned out to be a totally engrossing rags-to-riches story about the titular character, John Halifax, narrated by his best friend, Phineas Fletcher (yes, like his ancestor, the real-life Jacobean poet). Craik made a most peculiar choice of narrator for Phineas is not only clearly in love with his friend John but also, once he marries, the third adult in his household, together with his wife Ursula. These Victorians never cease surprising me!

Phineas, 16 and the son of a Quaker tannery owner, meets orphaned working-lad John, 14, when the younger boy volunteers to take the older disabled boy home. The name of Phineas’ debilitating disease is not mentioned but it is understood that is has a debilitating effect and causes regular episodes of deep pain. Later in the novel Phineas overcomes it enough to walk for himself but here he still moves about in a singular hand carriage (the novel is set between 1784 and 1825, for you to understand the medical context). During this episode Phineas is fascinated by John, whose “face had come like a flash of sunshine” because he is “a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine”. He himself makes the connection between his sudden interest in John with the Biblical story of Jonathan and David, whom the former loved “as his own soul”. Indeed, once they become close friends, Phineas often uses the name of David for his friend, though towards the end of the novel he calls that impulse just a youthful folly.

In view of this candid Biblical declaration and of the many passages in which Phineas reports how pleasurable it is to be carried in John’s powerful arms and how fulfilling their conversations are, I expected that there would be plenty of academic work on Craik’s novel as a homoerotic text. This is not the case. I came across a very juice post by Clare Walker Gore, signing as silverforketiquette, “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel” (2016) https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name-queer-desire-in-the-mid-victorian-novel/ but, as happens, most articles and book chapters dealing with John Halifax, Gentleman focus on Phineas’ disability and have been written from a Disabilities Studies point of view. They do focus, as Gore does, on the matter of whether Phineas’ disability places him in a ‘feminine’ position, which defuses any implicit homoerotic association with John but not his interpretation as an openly queer character. It appears that one of the original reviewers, R.H. Hutton, observed in his review “Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax” (North British Review 29, 1858, 253-262) that “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”. But this is disingenuous for despite his disability and his assumption of a necessary celibacy because no woman would marry him (he thinks) Phineas is not feminine or asexual but a queer man. The original Victorian readers seems to have been satisfied that as long as there is no chance of sex between the two men, their friendship is perfectly acceptable and so are Phineas’ frequent references to their mutual love and, above all, their mutual caring for each other.

Craik’s novel has often been read as a paean to the ‘captains of industry’ in Carlyle’s famous phrase but, actually, John just gets lucky several times in this tale of social mobility. First, he just happens to be near Phineas when his services are needed and, most crucially, his wife Ursula is a gentlewoman and an heiress (though not without difficulties). Once Halifax gets his foot into the tannery that Phineas’ father runs he does his best to prove his mettle, that is true, but John has his friend constantly scheming to his advantage and even giving him an education. In fact, those who expect a spectacular story about John’s social rise will not find it, for the scale of the novel is far more local and personal than I expected. In any case, Craik emphasises above all an ethos of mutual care and this is what binds John and Phineas. When, as Craik has it, the Fletcher tannery fails and Phineas finds himself an adult orphan with no working skills, John returns the favour received by inviting his friend to be a permanent member of his household, thus creating quite an interesting triangle.

Phineas’ most frank acknowledgment of how he loves John comes in the passage when, remembering the last day he spend alone with his friend before his courtship of Ursula started he writes that “that Sunday was the last I ever had David altogether for my own—my very own”. Phineas, however, finds that “It was natural, it was just, it was right” that John wished to marry: “God forbid that in any way I should have murmured”. To his wife-to-be Phineas declares that “John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me” and from that she deduces not that there is something improper going on between the men but that her future husband “must be very good”, hence a good choice for her because “good men are rare”. There is no question of jealousy between friend and wife at all, quite the opposite: they soon find themselves comfortable in each other’s company. Once John is married, Phineas tells his readers that now “others had a right—the first, best, holiest right—to the love that used to be all mine”; seeing his David happy, Phineas writes, “I rejoiced both with and for my brother” though he does miss him from their common house. He is welcome into the newlyweds’ home in his first visit as a ‘brother’ as this is what he becomes to both for more than thirty years.

I believe that what makes John Halifax, Gentleman even more interesting as a text, then, is not only that Phineas and John’s first youthful friendship becomes brotherhood but that this is sanctioned by Ursula and so becomes the pillar of their triangular association. By sheltering Phineas, John saves him from poverty (his only income comes from some houses rented by working-class families) without making him feel dependent. Phineas claims that he “resisted long” the invitation to join John and Ursula’s household, for “it is one of my decided opinions that married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close and dear, living permanently with them, to break the sacred duality—no, let me say the unity of their home”. Yet, his presence, far from breaking this unity turns him into Uncle Phineas, a sort of third parent, in quite a singular way; after all, he is no blood relative of the married couple and the three are more or less the same age. I cannot think of any arrangement like this in current times (though it is true that in Great Expectations Pip lives for more than a decade with his close friend Herbert Pocket and his wife Clara, and their children). Apart from being the reporter for the reader’s benefit of his friend’s life, Phineas becomes an essential part of the family when he is given an important task: “the children’s education was chiefly left to me; other tutors succeeding as was necessary” and a governess for the younger girl. Do let me know where else, in fiction or in real life, you have seen something similar.

The last part of the novel, once the three protagonists are in their fifties and John has become “the patriarch of the valley”, as Phineas calls him, is not totally voided of the queer discourse of the first part, with some peculiar interventions from Ursula. When she catches Phineas looking at John during a party and considering how great his ‘brother’ looks for his age, Ursula knowingly voices aloud this very same impression. And when she falls seriously ill, she implores “Phineas, if anything happens to me, you will comfort John!” In a contemporary novel, the words would carry an unmistakable message but coming from an 1850s novel, they can only mean ‘be my husband’s support’. I imagine that Craik may have realized that she had a problem at the end of the novel for, if John died first, Ursula and Phineas would be forced to either go on living together (hardly conceivable) or separate with much sorrow to avoid an awkward situation. If she died first, then could John and Phineas go on living as brothers in the former’s mansion? I’m not telling you, of course, what solution Craik found, only that it does reveal the fragility of this unique triangular couple.

Of course, for this arrangement to work John can be the object but not the subject of a queer love, and this love must be disconnected from any kind of possessiveness. On John’s side there is no doubt that what he feels is a very deep affection for Phineas that not even the label brotherhood explains well; in fact, two of John’s sons quarrel and fail to speak for each other for years, a situation that is simply unthinkable in John and Phineas’ case. Phineas says that John’s main quality in tenderness and if we were not so obsessed with sexuality we would see that this is the foundation in this novel of a type of love between men that we understand very poorly. I believe that Phineas’ love for John is closer to homosexuality but though subtly erotic it is not sexual, which puts the novel in the territory of the homoerotic. I have no idea whether Craik was aware of what she was doing in having her two male character bond so intimately but, looking at things from another perspective, perhaps the novel and the triangular arrangement works so well because sex is not part of the equation. This may sound absurd to 21st century readers and proof incontrovertible of Victorian prudishness but it can be enriching now and then to explore human affection beyond sexuality. I am aware that by using the word queer I am sexualizing Phineas’ love in many ways but perhaps this is so because we lack a nuanced vocabulary to discuss friendship apart from sexuality. Don’t we?

Craik could have narrated her novel in many ways and, obviously, using a third person omniscient narrator was one. Her choice of Phineas as a first person narrator certainly complicated very much her approach to her main character, for Phineas had to be given necessarily a place as close to John as possible. He could still have played the role of Uncle Phineas and continue living in his own home but Craik possibly decided that this would limit her access to the dynamics of John and Ursula’s domestic life. It is true that at moments Phineas plays the role of fly-on-the-wall (he often sits in his corner by the chimney in the family’s drawing room with none noticing him there) and that his feelings are no doubt subordinated to those of his ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ but I believe that without Phineas John’s story would by no means be as interesting. If he manages to be a gentleman fully accepted in society, this is because Phineas imagines him as such carried by his affection for the ‘homeless lad’ he first meets. In fact, though John is himself a very generous man, nothing compares to Phineas’ generosity towards his friend, in terms of how little he gets personally out of their living together for, logically, Ursula and the children come first. Judging by our own criteria, Phineas’ life is a sad case of unrequited homosexual love, and it can be certainly read like this, but seen from another point of view, and considering that he lives in the early 19th century, he makes the most emotionally of his bond with the otherwise classically patriarchal John.

If you’re into Victorian fiction, please do not miss John Halifax, Gentleman, and see how you would feel in Phineas’ shoes. Fascinating…

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