Residual feudal values in ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’

In John Halifax,Gentleman, the character of John Halifax acts as a  paradigm for the emerging working class; a gentleman by ideology and work ethic rather than mere blood. He is an idealic, mythological hero for the emerging class of workers who rely on factory work and mills as opposed the feudal system’s reciprocal relationship between landowners and peasants, where land was often given in exchange for physical labor. In the time the book is set, feudal systems have begun to dissipate and the working class’ rise to prominence is due to the industrialization of the economy and their demand for social power. However, John Halifax, Gentleman does not contain all working class ideals, or only the emerging ideology concerning social mobility and status. And John Halifax himself, though a figure the working class can look up to, does not explicitly display working class ideals. There is still evidence of residual feudal values expressed throughout the text, showing that even as the working class emerged to upend Bourgeois ideology and control, there still existed underlying beliefs that the proletariat and working classes must be protected and lead by the superior upper classes, and that the relationship still must be reciprocal.

Remnants of the feudal system can be seen in John Halifax’s decision to take on the role of local hero to save the town bank from default. He uses his own money to secure the bonds and savings of the townspeople, protecting the lower working class from financial ruin. The idea that the working class is a portion of society needing to be cared for derives from the feudal relationship between the laborers’ health and security, which was directly related to the income and prosperity of the nobility. John knows he is “their master”, that “they [are] his servants”, and that the townspeople will “work the better, because they will work from love” (308). John’s willingness to help the town reflects the idea of poor relief being a mutually beneficial act, rather than one of unselfish charity. It is to John’s benefit that the citizens retain their financial security, and therefore it is inherently feudal for him to use his own means to save them. The portrayal of a feudal relationship in this instance is implicit and concealed by the novels overarching ideal of the working gentleman and the respected working class. The feudal tendency to treat the poor as if they are reliant on the rich is still present regardless, and the townspeople are to remain in debt to John Halifax, even if it is due to the conditions that the rich institute and perpetuate, asserting the upper class’s control of  the citizens.

More explicitly, feudal values are expressed by Lord Luxmore in his conversation concerning ideologies with John Halifax at a dinner party one evening. The two start off by talking about religion (John expressing predominantly liberal ideals surrounding religious freedom) when Lord Luxmore casually states that “the people have no more brains than the head of [his] cane”, and that they must “be led or driven like a flock of sheep”, the upper class being “their proper shepherds” (265).

This imagery of the proletariat being lesser creatures, mindless animals tended by the bourgeoisie whose value resides in the income they produce, is reflective of the system values held in a feudal economy, where the lower class peasants and serfs were controlled and maintained by the upper Nobility for the sake of the economic sustainability of the upper classes. In John Halifax, Gentleman,  the emerging working class has not completely wiped away the old world ideologies; in actuality, with the division of labor starting to take effect, industry moving from the country to the cities, and the disregard for the individual worker exacerbated by the demand for faster production at lower cost and less health and safety precautions, the upper class feudal values seemed to have simply been repackaged for a more modern era rather than disappear completely. That is, they have evolved into a crueler kind of labor. It is this disregard for the individual worker that will continue to be a problem throughout the industrial revolution as class struggle and demand for workers’ rights increase. Lord Luxmore represents the hereditary upper class and expresses his superiority over the working class, a practice in feudal values, showing evidence that while at this time the democratic working class is emerging, they are still looked down upon by the upper classes.

These are only two examples that prove the existence of residual feudal values in John Halifax, Gentleman; in the text, there are far more, proving further that these values actually existed in this point in history. The novel shows that while the working class ideals are emerging and at play, the hegemonic devices keeping the upper class in power and at a superior level socially are still in effect and still expressed by members of the upper classes.  And it is due to the continued existence of these values in this point in history that there is a struggle between the upper and lower classes, as their conflicting interests clash, and the working class demands rights and social mobility.

 

Work Cited: Dinah Mulock Craik, John Halifax, Gentleman. Ed. Lynn M. Alexander. Broadview, 2005

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