John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Mulock Craik (1856)


Dinah Mulock Craik, who did not marry until she was forty, was a professional woman who supported herself and various members of her family from an early age. She was born on 20 April 1826 to a nonconformist minister, Thomas Samuel Mulock, and the daughter of a well-to-do tanner, Dinah Mellard. Craik was the eldest child and had two brothers. By the time she was six, her father had been briefly confined to a lunatic asylum, forcing him to give up the chapel in Stoke-on-Trent, and the family had moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme. According to a family history, her early education was at Brampton House Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, where she studied French, Italian, and Latin. While she was in her teens, Craik became an assistant at the school her mother had opened to help support the family. In 1839 the family moved to London when Craik’s mother came into a small inheritance upon the death of her mother. In 1842 Mrs. Mulock’s health began to fail, and at age 16 Craik had to assume most of the responsibilities for the household. After Mrs. Mulock’s death in 1845, Thomas Mulock deserted his children entirely and refused to contribute to their support. Since the money from their grandmother’s trust would not be available until they came of age (two more years in Craik’s case), the children were responsible for their own support. Tom Mulock, the oldest of the brothers, gave up art school and went to sea. He was killed in an accident just before the start of his second voyage in 1847. Ben, the youngest child, began studying to be an engineer. Craik turned to writing, first children’s books, then, after she had saved some money and begun building a reputation, novels.

When Ben turned twenty, in 1850, and came into his inheritance, he moved to Australia. At this point Craik decided to share a flat with Frances Martin, who later founded the Working Women’s College. As Elizabeth Gaskell reportedly told a friend, they were "two handsome girls, living in lodgings by themselves, writing books, and going about in society in the most independent manner, with their latch-key. Such a phenomenon was rare, perhaps unexampled in those days." While Craik’s early novels were successful, it was with John Halifax, Gentleman that Craik’s reputation as a novelist was firmly established. And it was as " by the Author of John Halifax, Gentleman" that her subsequent works were sold. Her brother, Ben, returned to England and lived with Craik sporadically. But he suffered from ill health—whether alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness is unclear—and eventually had to be institutionalized. He died in 1863 after being hit by a vehicle while trying to escape from the asylum.


Soon after Ben Mulock’s death, Craik moved to a community outside of Glasgow. There she rekindled a friendship with George Lillie Craik, the nephew of a close friend. The two had formed a relationship in the 1860s after George had been severely injured in a railway crash in or near London that resulted in the loss of a leg. Reports vary, but whether the wreck was near her home and he was taken there immediately or doctors in London asked if he knew anyone in the area and he contacted Craik as a friend of the family, he spent several weeks at Craik’s home following the amputation. George and Dinah Craik were married by special license on 29 April 1865 in Bath. She was 40, he was 29. Shortly after the wedding Alexander Macmillian offered George Craik a position at his publishing house and the couple took up residency in London. Craik continued to write and with her money build a new residence: The Corner House, at Shortlands. In January 1869 the Craiks adopted a female infant who had been found abandoned, naming her Dorothy, "the gift of God." Although not as prolific during her daughter’s early childhood, Craik continued to write until her death on 12 October 1887 during preparations for Dorothy’s wedding. During forty-one years of writing Craik published twenty novels, twelve children’s books, three travel narratives, a female advice book, and more than 150 short stories and essays. She edited and translated works from the French and contributed numerous occasional pieces to be sold for the benefit of charities. Her poems number in the hundreds and have been collected in four separate volumes. The respect with which she was held during her lifetime is indicated by the membership of the committee that was formed to place a memorial for her at Tewkesbury Abby, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning Professor T. H. Huxley, Sir John Everett Millais, Mrs. Oliphant, and Lord Tennyson.

John Halifax, Gentleman has remained Craik’s most enduring work and is one of the first of a long list of Victorian novels dealing with self-made or would-be gentlemen, including William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne (1858), Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61), George Meredith’s Evan Harrington; or He Would Be a Gentleman (1861), George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Jude the Obscure (1896). By 1858 Craik’s publishers, Hurst and Blackett, had run through four editions of the novel, with over 250 thousand copies sold by 1897, 80 thousand sold in the six-penny edition during the final six months of the year, and by 1898 the novel was listed by eleven English publishers and there were forty-five different pirated editions in America. The first cheap edition of the novel was illustrated by John Everett Millais. In an 1863 list of the era’s most popular books, John Halifax, Gentleman was second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In an obituary for Craik the Academy noted that Craik’s novels "were more widely read than are the productions of any other writer after Dickens," then declared that "so long as the social views and individual ideas therein faithfully represented are those dominant among our middle classes, so long will Mrs. Craik hold her place." John Halifax, Gentleman remained in print continuously until the end of the twentieth century, perhaps for the reasons mentioned in that obituary: society’s continued belief in the rewards of self-determination, self-control, and self-help.



John Halifax, Gentlemanis in many ways the archetypical Victorian novel: its story of the poor male orphan who makes good through hard work, honesty, and initiative upheld the ideals of the new, industrial middle class. In a time when many middle-class families "cherished the belief that they were in fact descended from landed gentry who at some period had lost their estates in a suitably gentlemanly way," John Halifax, Gentleman focuses on two closely related issues–self-improvement and class–as suggested by the name and specified rank of the titular character. Halifax, a town in Yorkshire in the north of England, has been the center of English woolen manufacture from the fifteenth century and is thus an appropriate surname for a laborer who becomes the owner of a woolen mill; John is a name suggesting an everyman figure, allowing him to represent the middle-class readership as a whole; and the title "gentleman" was the topic of numerous debates and commentary during the age.

The idea of the gentleman was important to Victorians because by the mid-nineteenth century the strict social hierarchy which had defined it was in flux, resulting in applications of the term that seemed both relative and arbitrary. The term gentleman came into common usage after a 1413 statue from the court of Henry V decreed that all applicants to the court must supply proof of "estate, degree, or mystery." But the Victorians tended to equate manners and morality and as they became disillusioned with a seemingly amoral and politically corrupt aristocracy, they began to emphasize morality over birth in defining what made a gentleman. The Industrial Revolution’s creation of an upwardly mobile middle class had begun to cause breaks in a class system that had been previously viewed as absolute. Various self-help and conduct books warned of the dangers of focusing on the external, as did Samuel Smiles: "There is a dreadful ambition abroad for being ‘genteel.’ We keep up appearances, too often at the expense of honesty; and, though we may not be rich, yet we must seem to be so. We must be ‘respectable,’ though only in the meanest sense–in mere vulgar outward show.

In John Halifax, Gentleman, Craik created a narrative that encompasses a blend of plots that goes far beyond the rise of a poor orphan to a Captain of Industry. There is the love story of Ursula and John Halifax, which also includes issues such as women’s right of inheritance, parental responsibilities, and the building of an enduring marriage in which both partners participate in the day to day activities. Also included in the narrative is a paradigm on proper social behavior, including Christian belief, duty, hard work, and responsible participation in all aspects of society including politics. A major issue within the narrative is religious tolerance, for Catholics as well as dissenters. Not only do readers witness the injustices incurred by Abel Fletcher because he is a Quaker, and know that Lord Ravenel cannot take the family seat in Parliament because he is Catholic, but also in one scene Halifax refuses to identify himself with any particular sect, saying only "‘I am a Christian.’" As Phineas Fletcher explains, "It was a new doctrine; foreign to the practice, if familiar to the ear." The concept is reinforced with repeated statements that although the family regularly prays and reads the bible, it does not attend any church and is therefore not aligned with any particular religious group. Thus, with Halifax as a role model, the message is that it is the belief that is important, not the membership in a particular sect. And finally, more subtle but no less important, is the message conveyed about the positive role of the handicapped in society. Two major characters within the novel are handicapped: Phineas Fletcher, the narrator, has an unspecified, life-threatening disability which leaves him weak and unable to fully participate in society; Muriel Halifax, the oldest child, is born blind. Yet both characters are shown to happy with their lives and to fulfill a role within the family. And perhaps it is because they do fully participate within the family unit at the heart of the story that readers are sometimes startled when reminded of their disabilities.

Despite the currency of the issues, Craik set her novel sixty years in the past. In fact, the story spans the central years of the Industrial Revolution, 1794-1834, and John Halifax participates in virtually every critical event of the age. As Ursula, his wife, reminds him toward the close of the novel, "‘What with your improvements at Enderly, and your Catholic Emancipation–your Abolition of Slavery and your Parliamentary Reform–why, there is hardly any scheme for good, public or private, to which you do not lend a helping hand.’" Yet Halifax’s participation in historical events, and Craik’s careful dating of the story, exceeds Ursula’s list of political events. Born in 1780, when enclosure was marking the end of agrarian society and Boulton and Watt were working on the rotary drive that would transform steam power, Halifax himself begins as a displaced, starving agricultural laborer looking for work as a factory hand. When the story opens in 1794, the Reign of Terror holds France, and the novel contains references, characters, and issues tied to the Revolution and English attitudes toward the French. Likewise readers witness typical and changing reactions to religious dissent: early in the novel the militia will not help protect Abel Fletcher’s house or mill because is a Quaker and later Lord Luxmore’s son cannot run for Parliament because he is Catholic; yet throughout Halifax speaks of religious tolerance without aligning himself to any particular denomination.

A number of social and economic issues also reflect Craik’s careful attention to the times. Halifax is one of the first to vaccinate his children against smallpox, and he helps prevent a bank closure by lending funds to the local banker. Halifax is also one of the first woolen manufacturers to introduce steam into his mill, and because he explains why and avoids displacing workers he prevents the violence which plagued other manufacturers who did so. And finally, shortly before the novel closes, Halifax is invited to run for a seat in the House of Commons following the passage of the First Reform Bill in 1832. As Sally Mitchell has pointed out, although controversial within the context of the story, by the time the novel appeared most Victorians approved of the ideas that Halifax espoused. Yet this essential anachronism allows Craik to focus on two related issues that were still concern to mid-Victorians, self-help and the idea of the gentleman. That Craik should choose to use the defining issues of the age to explore the more abstract concerns of self-improvement and class is not surprising since the redefinition of the gentleman became one of the most important ideas of the Victorian era, what Asa Briggs called "the necessary link in any analysis of mid-Victorian ways of thinking and behaving." Further, Craik may have reasoned that the approval Victorian readers felt for the ideas that Halifax advocates could be tacitly carried over to the more controversial idea of the self-made gentleman.

Electronic Resources

Currently the only print edition of John Halifax, Gentleman available is an expensive facsimile edition. There are, however, two versions available on-line: one at A Celebration of Women Writers and the other at Project Guttenberg. Either version is acceptable. You can also bring me two disks (IBM format) and I will copy the text for you.


To find out more about Craik generally, you might visit the West Midlands Literary Heritage page or an on-line encyclopedia such as Xrefer. One of the most useful resources is found through the Victorian Web--Sally Mitchell's critical biography of Craik (we have the biography in the library). If you are interested in the themes explored within the novel, I recommend you take the time to look at Professor Mitchell's work.

Questions for Study


1. What is Craik's idea of the "gentleman"? Does it seem to change over the course of the novel? How does she view the aristocracy?

2. What is the importance of Halifax's New Testament and the inscription inside?

3. What is Ursula's role within the novel? Does it change over the course of the novel? How is she typical of Victorian women? How is she atypical?

4. What is Phineas' role in the novel? Why did Craik make him the narrator? How would Victorians view him?

5. Are names significant in this novel? In what ways might they be symbolic?

6. What is the role of religion within the novel? How might Halifax be seen as an example of the Protestant Work Ethic come to life?

Illustrations are from the 1897 edition published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.
Lynn Alexander, December 2002
Return to British Novel home page