Disability and Narrative Voice in Dinah Mulock Craik’s ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’

Dinah Mulock Craik’s novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is a fictional biographical account of John Halifax’s development as a self-made man, told by his best friend, the physically disabled Phineas Fletcher. Throughout the novel, Phineas is very much preoccupied with bodies and physicality, often expressing his deep admiration for John’s physical strength and health.

From the very beginning, John’s masculinity is highlighted when Phineas introduces John and admires his able-bodiedness, even before mentioning his name, which provides the readers with a lens through which to approach and read John in the rest of the narrative. John’s physical health is emphasised through the strong contrast between his bodily strength and Phineas’ lack thereof (see also Fig. 1):

In person, the lad was tall and strongly-built; and I poor puny wretch! so reverenced physical strength. Everything in him seemed to indicate that which I had not: his muscular limbs, his square broad shoulders, his healthy cheek, though it was sharp and thin – even to his crisp curls of bright thick hair.[1]

This stark contrast between the ‘strongly-built’ and ‘muscular’ John and the ‘poor puny wretch’ Phineas, as well as Phineas’ statement that he ‘so reverenced physical strength’, suggest a wider social preoccupation with the importance of able-bodiedness as a key element of Victorian masculinity. Indeed, as Erin O’Connor notes, the Victorian ideal of male health favoured ‘physical wholeness’ since ‘a strong, vigorous body was a primary signifier of manliness’.[2]

While the scene above seems to suggest a preference for physical fitness over disability, the novel’s overall stance on able-bodiedness is in fact much more ambiguous. Central to the novel’s engagement with physical health is Phineas’ role as a narrator, as he controls the novel’s ideological and moral values. In what follows I will explore Phineas’ narrative voice and the ways in which the novel uses this to challenge the nineteenth-century ideology of able-bodiedness.

By giving the disabled Phineas the role of the narrator, through whom the readers access Victorian notions of able-bodiedness and masculinity, the novel approaches these topics in a rather unconventional way. Indeed, in many other nineteenth-century novels, such as Mulock Craik’s Olive (1850) and The Little Lame Prince (1875), George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) or Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), the disabled characters’ voices are framed though a (presumably) able-bodied narrator. In John Halifax, Gentleman, by positioning Phineas as the narrator of the biography of his able-bodied friend, the (presumably able-bodied) readers are invited to look at physical fitness and masculinity from the viewpoint of a disabled person, which exposes the seeming normalcy of able-bodiedness by representing it as an extraordinary quality. As Robert McRuer notes, in the nineteenth century, able-bodiedness was considered to be a ‘normal’ or even ‘compulsory’ bodily attribute for life in the industrial capitalist system,[3] which resulted in able-bodiedness becoming the ‘natural order of things’ and thus a ‘nonidentity’.[4] In the passage discussed above, Phineas challenges the idea that able-bodiedness is the norm by inviting the readers to consider John’s ‘physical strength’ as an exceptional quality rather than a seemingly normal attribute.

This connection between disability and narrative voice has also been discussed by various scholars. Russell Perkin, for example, argues that Phineas is ‘not a very convincing male voice’ since he is ‘feminized by the fact that he is a chronic invalid, so that from the first page of the novel his weakness and passivity are contrasted with John Halifax’s strength and assertive masculinity’.[5] Such a reading is, however, problematic, because it precisely reproduces the supposed superiority and normalcy of physical health, which the novel attempts to expose. Similar to Perkin, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discusses disabled voices by exploring the connection between disabled characters and ‘normate readers’, and she argues that disabled characters are denied subjectivity or agency since the narrative ‘usually benefits from the disabled figure remaining other to the reader’.[6] John Halifax, Gentleman, however, challenges this by granting Phineas a narrative voice, so that the readers are forced to look at the novel’s world through the perspective of a disabled character and, in this way, identify themselves with him rather than perceiving him as the ‘other’.

Through the internal focalisation of Phineas, the readers are involved affectively and share Phineas’ emotions and feelings, for instance, when he states:

Friendship was given me for love—duty for happiness. So best, and I was satisfied. This conviction, and the struggle succeeding it—for, though brief, it was but natural that it should have been a hard struggle—was the only secret that I had kept from John.[7]

By confiding the ‘secret’ of his ‘hard struggle’ to the readers but not to John, Phineas enters into an intimate relationship with them. Indeed, as Anne Dufourmantelle shows, secrets can act as both ‘an assembling force’, unifying individuals who share them, as well as a force of separation, ‘erecting barriers between those who have access to a certain knowledge and those who are not aware of what remains inaccessible’.[8] Because it is known to the readers, Phineas’ secret functions as a unifying force between him and the readers, allowing them to become intimately connected to the disabled voice of Phineas.

Throughout the novel, Phineas is portrayed as an observer figure who closely watches John and his family as he describes their lives to the readers. When Phineas observes John’s maturing body as a young man, John describes Phineas’ eyes in the following way: ‘Big eyes, much given to observation, which means hard staring’.[9] In her discussion on staring and disability, Garland-Thomson notes that that ‘appearance of disability in the public sphere makes, then, for a stareable sight. […] if the male gaze makes the normative female a sexual spectacle, then the stare sculpts the disabled subject into a grotesque spectacle’.[10] The fact that the disabled character Phineas is the framework through which the readers access and perceive John and the fictional world of the novel thus turns Garland-Thomson’s argument on its head. Rather than depicting the disabled character as a ‘grotesque spectacle’, the novel gives Phineas the agency of the starer and portrays the healthy body of John as the object to be stared at so that John becomes a ‘stareable sight’ for both Phineas and the readers. Therefore, by granting Phineas the role of the narrator and observer, John Halifax, Gentleman exposes and reverses the Victorian power hierarchy based on able-bodiedness, portraying physical disability as a powerful and subversive bodily state.

Figure 1. Alice Barber Stephens, ‘“We May Both Be Old Men Yet, Phineas’”, 1897.[11] Barber Stephens’ illustration shows the contrasting bodies of Phineas and John: Whereas John is tall and sturdy, Phineas is unable to move independently and relies on crutches.

Fabia Buescher is working on her Master’s degree at the University of Cambridge, specialising in nineteenth-century literature. She has recently completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Zurich, where she wrote her BA thesis on disability and male friendship in Dinah Mulock Craik’s novel John Halifax, Gentleman. Her research interests include Victorian fiction, disability studies, medical humanities, gender studies, queer theory and aging studies.

Notes & references

[1] Mulock Craik, Dinah Maria, John Halifax, Gentleman (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, [1856] 2014), p. 2.

[2] O’Connor, Erin, Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 104.

[3] McRuer, Robert, ‘Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence’, in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. by Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 391-401 (p. 392); McRuer, Robert, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 8.

[4] McRuer, Crip Theory, p. 1.

[5] Perkin, Russel, ‘Narrative Voice and the “Feminine” Novelist: Dinah Mulock and George Eliot’, Victorian Review, 18 (1992), 24-42 (p. 33).

[6] Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 11.

[7] Mulock Craik, John Halifax, Gentleman, p. 62.

[8] Dufourmantelle, Anne, In Defense of Secrets (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), p. 81.

[9] Mulock Craik, John Halifax, Gentleman, p. 62.

[10] Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, p. 20-6.

[11] Barber Stephens, Alice, illustrator, “‘We May Both Be Old Men Yet, Phineas’”, in John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Mulock Craik (New York: Crowell Company Publishers, 1897), pp. 524.


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