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Significant Scots
John Galt

GALT, JOHN.—This popular novelist and multifarious writer was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, on the 2d of May, 1779, and was the son of a sea-captain, who was employed in the West India trade. The stay of young Galt in a district with which he afterwards made the world so well acquainted, was not long-continued, as his parents removed to Greenock when he was eleven years old. In this town of commercial bustle and enterprise, his education was soon finished, as he was destined to follow the occupation of a merchant; and by way of acquiring a proper knowledge of his future profession, he was, in the first instance, employed as a clerk in the custom-house of Greenock, and afterwards in a counting-house in the same town. This was unfavourable training for that life of authorship which he followed with such ardour in after periods; but his diligence and persevereance in self-education during the hours of leisure, not only formed the groundwork, but the incitement of his future literary undertakings. His first attempts, as is usual with young aspirants, were in poetry; and one of these, a tragedy, founded on the history of Mary Queen of Scots, he sent to Constable for publication, but had the MS. returned unread. He was consoled, however, for this disappointment by having his smaller lucubrations occasionally published in the "Greenock Advertiser," and one or two of the Scottish magazines. He thus saw himself in print, and the consequences it is easy to divine—his enthusiasm would expand into full-grown authorship. Undismayed by the rejection of his tragedy, Galt next attempted an epic, the title of which, was "The Battle of Largs." It was written in octo-syllabic rhyme, and he prided himself not a little on the fact, that in this matter at least he had preceded Sir Walter Scott. This poem, written in five cantos, was enabled partly to struggle into light in consequence of detached portions of it having been published in the "Scots Magazine" for 1803 and 1804. It is as well that the world was not troubled with it in toto, as the following invocation to Lok, which is in "Ereles’ vein," will sufficiently testify:—

"The hideous storm that dozing lay,
Thick blanketed in clouds all day,
Behind sulphureous Hecla, we
Roused to this wrecking wrath for thee,
And sent him raging round the world,
High in a thund’ring chariot hurl’d;
Whose steeds, exulting with their load,
As the grim fiend they drag abroad,
Whisk with their tails the turrets down
Of many a temple, tower, and town."

Or take the following description of Erie, one of the Norse Eumenides, in which the sudden alternations of rising and sinking can scarcely be paralleled even by Sir Richard Blackmore:--

"Her looks sulphureous glow—
Her furnace-eyes, that burn’d below
A dismal forehead, glaring wide,
Like caves by night in Hecla’s side,
And what her fangs for staff did grasp,
‘Twas fired iron—Hell’s hatchway’s hasp.

* * * * * *

At length she stood,
And scowling o’er the weltering flood,
That louder rag’d, she stretch’d her hand,
Clutching the red Tartarean brand
Aloft, and, as the black clouds sunder’d,
Dared the high heavens till they thunder’d."

It was in London that this poetical attempt was made. He had gone to the metropolis in 1803 or 1804, and there, a few months of leisure at his first entrance, had encouraged those desperate conceptions in Runic mythology, which he extended through five mortal cantos. It was not, however, by writing epics that he could support himself in London. He therefore commenced business in good earnest, and entered into partnership with a young countryman of his own: but they soon disagreed; their affairs were unsuccessful, and in about three years the concern became bankrupt. This combination of poetry and business was not sufficient for the versatile mind of Galt; other subjects of study occupied his attention, among which were astrology, alchemy, history, and political economy. Was it wonderful then that his name, before it figured in authorship, should have found a place in the bankrupt list?

After this mercantile disaster Galt tried to re-establish himself in business along with a brother; but this attempt also proved abortive. Sick of merchandise, and impatient to try something else, he resolved to devote himself to the profession of law; and for this purpose entered himself at Lincoln’s Inn. He was soon overtaken by a nervous indisposition, that unfitted him for the dry studies of "Coke upon Littleton;" and, by way of solace, until the malady should pass away, he sat down to write a book. The subject was ready to his hand; for, in a walk with some friends through the colleges of Oxford in 1805, he had felt indignant that Cardinal Wolsey, the founder of Christ Church College, should have been allowed to bequeath such a boon without a fitting commemoration from its learned disciples; and since better might not be, he had resolved, alien though he was, at some time or other to repair the deficiency. That season had now arrived; and accordingly, about the beginning of 1809, he commenced a life of Cardinal Wolsey, and finished it in a very few months. The short time that he took for the necessary reading and research, as well as writing, which such a subject required, will give an adequate conception of the natural impetuosity of his intellect. But with this haste and hurry there was curiously combined the grave methodical arrangement of the counting-house: he transcribed upon one part of his writing-paper the historical facts extracted from Cavendish, Fiddes, and Hume, and wove round them, upon the margin and between the interstices, his own remarks and deductions, until a gay party-coloured web was the result; after which he systematized the whole into a continuous narrative. "I was desirous," he says of it, "to produce a work that would deserve some attention." This work, which he afterwards improved and extended, was not published till three years afterwards. As his health did not improve, he now resolved to try the effects of travel before being called to the English bar; and in 1809 he left England for a tour, which extended over three years. The result of this long journey was two separate works at his return. The first was entitled, "Voyages and Travels in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811, containing Statistical, Commercial, and Miscellaneous Observations on Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, and Turkey;" and the second, "Letters from the Levant, containing Views of the State of Society, Manners, Opinions, and Commerce in Greece and several of the principal Islands of the Archipelago."

These were not the only works which Galt published on his return to England. His poetical inspiration still haunted him, but so much sobered down, that during his tour he had been employing himself in writing dramas on the plan of Alfieri, where the simplicity of the plot and fewness of the characters were to be compensated by the full force of nature and poetic excellence. This was certainly a great sacrifice in one whose imagination so revelled in plot, and was so fertile in incident. The volume, which was published in 1812, contained the tragedies of Maddalen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia, and Clytemnestra; and as only 250 copies were printed, the work being published on his own account, it had little chance of undergoing the test of public opinion. Even as it was, however, it was roughly handled in the Quarterly Review, by an ironical criticism, in which Galt was elevated to the rank of a second Shakspeare. Soon after his return, he married Elizabeth, daughter of Dr. Tilloch, editor of the "Philosophical Magazine," and proprietor of the "Star," a newspaper on which Galt had been for some time employed. In the same year, also (1812), so prolific in his publishing adventures, he sent through the press his "Reflections on Political and Commercial Subjects."

Having now abandoned all thoughts of devoting himself to the bar, Galt was compelled to have recourse to authorship, until something more stable should occur. He therefore wrote in the "Monthly Magazine," and other periodicals of the day. He also projected, with Mr. Colburn the publisher, a periodical which, under the title of the "New British Theatre," should publish the best of those dramatic productions which the managers of the great play-houses had rejected. It was hoped that in this way deserving talent would be rescued from oblivion; and "many a gem of purest ray serene" be made to glitter in the eye of a delighted world, instead of being trampled among the dust of the green-room. It was a most benevolent and hopeful speculation, of which Galt, the proposer, was appointed editor. But little did he anticipate the flood-gates of mud which such a proposal opened. There was an instant jail delivery of manuscript plays, enough to have converted the country into a literary Botany Bay or Alsatia; and Galt, amidst the heap of dramatic matter, under which he was well-nigh smothered, was obliged to confess at last that the managers of theatres were not such reckless or unjust rejectors as they had been called. The work at its commencement was successful, but soon afterwards fell off, although the plan was improved by the admission of plays that had been written but not presented. Before it expired, Galt possessed and availed himself of the opportunity of inserting some of his own dramatic productions, among which was the tragedy of "The Witness," afterwards performed in several towns with altered titles. After this, his career for some years was one of active business, combined with authorship. During his travels he had conceived the idea of importing British goods through Turkey, in spite of the continental blockade by which Napoleon endeavoured to exclude our commerce; and upon this plan he employed himself diligently for some time both in England and Scotland. But the conception appeared too bold and hazardous to those traders who were invited to the risk; and his efforts ended in disappointment. Another occupation with which he was commissioned, was to superintend a bill through the House of Commons, intrusted to him by the Union Canal Company. As enough of leisure was afforded him in London during the suspense of this bill, he wrote the "Life and Studies of Benjamin West." He also wrote a romance, of which the hero was the Wandering Jew. Of this work two considerable editions were sold, although it had never been reviewed. This neglect the author, who affectionately clung to the remembrance of his Wandering Jew to the last, regarded with some surprise. "How the work," he says, "should have been so long unnoticed, while others which treat of the same subject have attracted considerable attention, I cannot say; but this I know, that many of my own far inferior productions, in originality and beauty, have been much applauded, and yet I doubt if they have sold so well." We suspect that few of our readers have been among the purchasers of this wonderful myth, or have even heard its name till now.

Amidst all the toil and struggle of these literary attempts, John Galt had not yet discovered where his strength lay. History, biography, travels, epic and dramatic poetry, romance—he had tried them all, but attained success in none. His over-boiling imagination and erratic fancy were too much even for fiction, whether in prose or verse; and when he attempted sober narrative, his love of originality was ever leading him into some startling paradox, which the facts of history were unable to make good. The eccentricity of his political opinions had also given not a little offence to the still predominant party; for although a Tory in theory, he seemed a very Radical in practice, and had more than once run a muck against the powers that be, when he found them stopping up his way. On this account he had also brought down upon his head, the ire of the Quarterly Review, whose censure was enough to blight the popularity of an author among Tory readers, and throw him out upon neutral ground. Thus, up to 1820, his attempts were a series of literary blunders, and his production of that year, "The Earthquake," a stern, sombre novel, in three volumes, which has shared the fate of his other productions written before this period, should, in ordinary circumstances, have been his last attempt in authorship. But in his long search in the dark he had hit upon the right vein at last. It was not in the wild and wonderful that he was to excel, but in the homely, the humorous, and the caustic. "The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute," with which he had tried to enchant the world, but to no purpose, were to be exchanged for the vulgar bagpipe and stock-and-horn. His first attempt in this way was the "Ayrshire Legatees"—a work which originated in mere accident. One of his enjoyments was to "show the lions" to such strangers as were introduced to him in London; and of these, as might be expected, were many original characters from the far north, whose sensations among the wonders of the great metropolis were a rich feast to his keen observant eye and quick sense of the ludicrous. It soon occurred to him that these peculiarities might be embodied in particular personages, and illustrated by correspondent adventures. The whole materials were before him like those of a rich landscape, and only needed artistic selection and combination to form a very choice picture. Upon this idea he set to work, and without any formal plot for his story, scene after scene grew upon his hand as it was needed, until the "Ayrshire Legatees" was the result. It was in this way that "Humphrey Clinker" was produced—the best of all Smollett’s productions. As fast as the chapters of Galt’s new attempt were written, they were published in Blackwood’s Magazine of 1820 and 1821, and their appearance excited universal attention, while they continued to rise in popularity to the last; so that, when finished, they were published separately, and eagerly devoured by the novel-reading public. It was a style of writing which had been so long disused, as to have all the charms of originality, while the truthfulness of the different characters was such as to impart to fiction all the charms of reality. Galt found that he had succeeded at last, and followed up his success with the "Annals of the Parish," which was published in 1821. This work, however, although so late in its appearance, was, properly speaking, the first of Galt’s Scottish novels, as it had been written in 1813, but laid aside, until the success of the "Ayrshire Legatees" encouraged him to commit it to the press. In this work, also, he had not troubled himself about the construction of a regular plot, and, like its predecessor, it was all the better for the omission. Long before he commenced the "Annals," his ambition had been to "write a book that would be for Scotland what the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ is for England;" and this was the result. He certainly could not have adopted a better model.

No one can imagine that the pen of Galt, so indefatigable when success was against it, would now relapse into idleness. In the "Annals of the Parish" he had exhibited the progress of improvement in a rural district of the west of Scotland; he was now desirous of describing the same progress in a town. Such was the origin of the "Provost," which was published in 1822. He had now learned the true secret of novel-writing, as is evident from the following statement:—"In the composition of the ‘Provost’ I followed the same rule of art which seemed to me so proper in the ‘Annals of the Parish,’ namely, to bring impressions on the memory harmoniously together; indeed, I have adhered to the principle in all my subsequent compositions, and sometimes I fancy that the propriety of doing so may be justified by nature. I think no ingenuity can make an entirely new thing. Man can only imagine the old together; join legs, and arms, and wings as he may, only the forms of previously-created things can be imitated. The whole figure may be outré, and unlike anything in the heavens, or the earth, or the waters under the earth; but the imitations of the human hand in the details will ever be evident. . . . In my youth I wrote a poem called the ‘Legend of St. Anthony,’ which I undertook with the intention of depicting comical phantasms; but I had not proceeded far till I was induced to change my mind, by observing that my most extravagant fancies were only things of curious patchwork, and that the same defect might be discerned in all those things in which the ‘creative’ power of genius was said to be more indisputable. . . . I therefore give up all pretension to belonging to that class who deal in the wild and wonderful; my wish is, to be estimated by the truth of whatever I try to represent."

The next work of Galt was the "Steam-boat," a novel, published originally in Blackwood, in which he wished to give such an account of the coronation of George IV. as an "abortive bailie" from Scotland might be likely to do. This was followed by "Sir Andrew Wyllie," in which he wished to exhibit the rise and progress of an humble Scotchman in London. In this tale, however, he gave way to his literary besetting sin, a fault of which he was afterwards fully conscious; and he says of it very justly, "The incidents are by far too romantic and uncommon to my own taste, and are only redeemed from their extravagance by the natural portraiture of the characters."

But, indeed, either accurate conception or finished execution could scarcely be expected from Galt in his writings at this period, when we remember that the three last-mentioned works, viz., the "Provost," the "Steam-boat," and "Sir Andrew Wyllie," were all published in 1822. In the following year he produced his "Gathering of the West," which was also published in the first instance in Blackwood’s Magazine. The subject was the visit of George IV. to Scotland—an event that appeared in so many ludicrous aspects to the mirthful satirical mind of Galt, that he could not repress his profane chuckling at this great avatar, even when he endeavoured to look the most composed. He therefore says of the "Gathering," and its kindred work, the "Steam-boat"—"Notwithstanding the deference for magnates and magnificence under which these works were written, the original sin may be detected here and there peeping out, insomuch that those who consider Toryism as consisting of the enjoyment of at least pensions, must be dreadfully shocked to think even a moderate politician of any sort could be so far left to himself as to speak so irreverently of things which concerned the affairs of empires and burgh towns."

We have already alluded to Galt’s exuberance in the productions of 1822; but that of the following year was still more excessive, so that it might well be said of him, vires acquirit eundo. Thus the "Entail," "Ringan Gilhaize," and the "Spaewife"—each a three-volumed novel—were published during this year of portentous abundance. The first of these novels was founded upon an incident related by the Lord Provost of Glasgow to Galt. It was in this way that he was accustomed to make the most of everything that he had heard or witnessed, by either laying it down as the groundwork of a tale, or introducing it as an amusing episode; and in this faculty of adaptation lay much of the excellence of his popular works. Thus his vigorous and picturesque description of the northern coast of Scotland, in the "Entail," was expanded from an interesting account of the locality given to him by a daughter of Sir John Sinclair; while many of the grotesque events and humorous jokes with which his other tales abound, had long previously enlivened the firesides of the peasantry. In him, however, it was no small merit that he should have introduced them so happily, and told them so well. As a proof of the acceptability of his last-mentioned work, Galt tells us, in his "Literary Life and Miscellanies," that Sir Walter Scott had read it thrice, and Lord Byron as often. Of "Ringan Gilhaize," he also tells us that it received the unique and distinguished honour of being recommended from the pulpit by one of the ministers of Aberdeen. This tale, in which the narrator, a persecuted Covenanter, relates the history of his grandfather, gives a sketch of the rise and progress of the Reformation in Scotland, from the days of Knox and Murray to the close of the reign of the Stuarts; and for the purpose of collecting materials, and preserving the accuracy of the narrative, Galt went to Rinsory-house to gather traditions, and collected several relics of the battle of Killiecrankie. The cause which incited him to write such a work was indignation at the popularity of "Old Mortality," in which the Covenanters were held up to ridicule; and he was animated with a chivalrous zeal to vindicate the character of these heroic but much-vilified sufferers in the cause of conscience and religion. But unfortunately Ringan Gilhaize was no match for Balfour of Burley. In this tale Galt very rashly abandoned his own field of broad reality and plain every-day life, for one where nothing but history and imagination could aid him; and therefore it exhibited a marked deficiency both in execution and popular interest. It was still worse, however, with the "Spaewife," where he went back from the Covenanting periods, with which the Scottish public can still sympathize, to the fifteenth century of Scottish history, about which they know little and care still less; and with all his attempts at the sublime, which often swelled into the turgid, he could not interest his readers one jot in the Duke of Albany and his worthless brood, or even in James I., our heroic ministrel king. It was certainly an over-ambitious attempt, and as such it failed. At this period the empire of historical romance belonged to Sir Walter Scott, and to him alone, without peer or rival. But that such an attempt was the opening of a safety-valve, and that the work would have exploded in some fashion or other, is manifest, from the following statement of the author:—"The fate of James I. of Scotland early seemed to me possessed of many dramatic capabilities; and in the dream of my youth, to illustrate by tales, ballads, and dramas, the ancient history of my country, it obtained such a portion of my attention, that I have actually made a play on the subject. In riper life, many years after, I wrote the novel; and my knowledge of the age in which the transactions lie, enabled me to complete the story in such a manner that, merely as an antiquarian essay, it merits consideration." To the "Spaewife" succeeded "Rothelan." This also is a historical novel or romance; and not content with going back so far as to the reign of Edward III., Galt transferred the scene to England, where his great forte as a Scottish novelist had to be utterly laid aside; and "Rothelan" was a failure. Among the manifold aims of the author’s ambition, that of being a good musical composer happened to be one; and in "Rothelan," Galt had not only written two songs, but also set them to music. But it unfortunately happened that the printer was smitten with the same ambition, and not liking the tunes, he substituted two of his own, which were printed in the work. "At the time," says Galt, "I was staying with a friend, and a copy of the book was left for me in the morning. On going down stairs I found it in the library, where we usually breakfasted; and as pleased at the sight as a hen with her egg, of which she cannot keckle enough to the world about, I lifted the volumes, and turned to the tunes. Courteous reader, sympathize! Instead of my fine airs, with an original inflection, that had been much admired by a competent judge, I beheld two that surely had been purchased at the easy charge of a halfpenny a-piece from a street piper! I looked aghast, and almost fainted. There was a grand piano in the drawing-room. I rushed, book in hand, upstairs in a whirlwind. It was of no use—the piano too was a particeps criminis, and would only pronounce the Highland coronachs which stand in the publication even to this day; and the worst of it was, my friend, instead of taking out his handkerchief and condoling becomingly, only gave vent to ‘unextinguishable laughter,’ and paid no attention to my pathetic appeals at the figure I must cut, being really no deacon among musicians, at the thought of having two such horrid frights affiliated to me."

A change once more occurred in the life of Galt, in which the active laborious author was to be transformed into the equally active and enterprising man of business. Besides being reckoned only inferior to Sir Walter Scott as a delineator of Scottish character and manners, his reputation stood high as one well acquainted with the principles and practice of commerce; and on this account the inhabitants of Canada commissioned him as their agent to prosecute their claims on the home government for the losses they had sustained during the occupation of the province by the army of the United States. During the negotiations which occurred in consequence, a proposal to sell Crown lands in Upper Canada for the indemnification of the sufferers was made by Mr. Galt, and adopted by government, and a Canada Company was incorporated in 1826, to purchase land and colonize it. During the previous year he had been employed in valuing the lands that were to be exposed to sale, after which he had returned to England; but in the autumn of 1826 he went back to Canada, where he was employed by the company as their superintendent. His able and active management soon secured the confidence of his constituents; new settlements were founded, a village was called by his name, and the township of Guelph was his entire creation. But unfortunately Galt’s activity was not balanced by an equal amount of prudence, and in the ardour of his proceedings he managed to involve himself in quarrels with the colonial government, and with Sir Peregrine Maitland, who was at its head. Such is too often the folly and the fate of those who go forth as the reformers of our colonies; they enter their new sphere of action with their heads filled with Magna Charta and the rights of British citizenship, forgetful all the while of the distance of these colonies from the parent seat of government, and the necessity of a more stringent rule than would be tolerated in London or Edinburgh. This seems to have been the error of Galt; and in consequence of the complaints that were sent home against him, he was superseded by the directors of the company. But, whether in the bustle of action or the chagrin of disappointment, his pen could not lie idle; and during this period he produced the "Omen," a tale that was favourably reviewed in Blackwood’s Magazine by Sir Walter Scott, and the "Last of the Lairds," a novel which he meant to be the continuation of a class that has the "Annals of the Parish" for its commencement. For the encouragement of the drama in Quebec he also wrote a farce, entitled "Visitors; or, a Trip to Quebec," which was acted with great success by an amateur company. Another, which he wrote for New York, to propitiate the Americans, who had taken offence at his "Visitors," was entitled "An Aunt in Virginia," and was afterwards published in Blackwood’s Magazine, with the scene transferred from New York to London. He intended to write a third for his own town of Guelph, where his dwelling-house was to be converted into a theatre, and the drama introduced into this infant settlement; but his design was suspended by more urgent demands, and the necessity of his speedy return to England.

This event occurred in 1829, after he had been two years and a half in America. On his return, without a situation, and almost penniless, Galt’s creditors became urgent, and he was obliged, in consequence, to avail himself of the Insolvent Debtors’ Act. The world was now to be commenced anew; but the elasticity of youth and the ardour of hope were exhausted, and Galt, now at the age of fifty, had already done more than most men have achieved at that period. And yet he must continue an author, no longer, however, from choice, but necessity; for of all that he had possessed, nothing but his pen remained. And bravely he girded himself for the task, and published in succession "Lawrie Todd," "Southennan," and the "Life of Lord Byron." They were written with his wonted rapidity, being produced in 1829 and 1830; but the spirit that formerly animated him had become languid, so that these works, excellent though they are, will not stand comparison with his former novels that so highly interested the Scottish public. While he was occupied with the "Life of Lord Byron," a caustic production, in which his lordship meets with somewhat rough entertainment, Galt accepted the editorship of the "Courier," a newspaper of high Tory principles. But however well-adapted in many ways for such an office, it is easy to guess that he could not continue long to hold it, and that the same independence of spirit which wrecked him in Canada, would mar him as the Corypheus of any political party whatever in the journalism of London. "The only kind of scruple that I felt," he says, "if such it may be called, was in thinking the politics of the journal a little too ardent for the spirit of the times; and in consequence, my first object was to render them more suitable to what I apprehended was the wholesome state of opinion, preparatory to introducing occasionally more of disquisition into the articles. . . . Accordingly, without manifesting particular solicitude to make myself remarkable, I began by attempting gradually to alleviate the ultra-toryism of the paper, by explanations of more liberality than the sentiments of any party." By such an honest procedure either the newspaper or the editor must go down; and Galt thus continues his narrative: "I had not been long installed as editor till I perceived that the business would not suit me. In point of emolument it was convenient; but, as I have elsewhere shown, money matters have ever been perhaps too slightly regarded by me, and my resignation, though it partook of that promptitude of enunciation which all my decisions have uniformly manifested, was, however, the result of very solemn reflection. To men who have juster notions of the value of money than I have ever entertained—not from persuasion, but from habit, if not constitutional carelessness—my resignation in such a crisis of fortune will not be easily comprehensible; but to those who think, as the old song sings, that there are things ‘which gold can never buy,’ no further explanation can be necessary."

About the same period Galt, while thus busied with literature, attempted to form a new American Land Company, but was unsuccessful; and to aggravate his misfortunes, two attacks of paralysis warned him that his day of enterprise had ended—that he was now chained to the oar. He retired to his native country, there to await his time, so doubly uncertain; and to close his eyes, when his hour came, amidst the scenery and society which he had loved so well. Yet he still continued to linger on from year to year, although repeated shocks of the malady inflicted at each visitation the "bitterness of death;" and while his memory was impaired and his mind enfeebled, he was still obliged to toil for the support of a life that seemed scarcely worth having. And yet he could still be happy, for his was that healthful state of feeling that looked habitually upon the bright side of things, and could find itself occupation as long as a single faculty remained in exercise. With an amanuensis, or a chance friend to transcribe from his dictation, he continued to pour forth volume after volume, "to wrench life from famine," as he mournfully expressed it; and although these productions could scarcely bear comparison with those of his happier years, they still retained the impress of his former vivacity and inventiveness, as well as much of his vigorous talent and reach of thought. In this way he produced, among other publications, the "Autobiography of John Galt," in two volumes 8vo, and the "Literary Life and Miscellanies of John Galt," in three volumes 12mo, from which the materials of the foregoing sketch have been mainly derived. At length, after the fourteenth stroke of paralysis, he died at Greenock, on the 11th of April, 1839.

The works of Galt were very numerous, comprising about fifty volumes of novels, and more than a score of dramas, independently of his biographical and miscellaneous works. Of these, however, only a tithe of his tales will continue to be read and valued, not only for their intrinsic excellence, but as the transcripts of a state of society that is rapidly passing away. In this department the name of John Galt will be perpetuated as a national remembrance, and his descriptions be prized when the living reality has departed.

Download the book John Galt by R. K. Gordon to learn more about him

No mere literary man
The neglected work of John Galt by Andrew Hook, August 2017 in the Scottish Review

'The International Companion to John Galt', edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd (Scottish Literature International)

John Galt is a bit of a problem. Born in Irvine in 1779 and buried in Greenock in 1839, he is roughly contemporary with Robert Burns, Walter Scott and James Hogg, but unlike these familiar figures, his reputation today is virtually non-existent. I've asked around among my well-informed friends and the name Galt usually fails to register. Even colleagues interested in Scottish literature struggle to remember anything he has written except perhaps 'Annals of the Parish'.

Yet in his own day Galt's reputation was well-established. His literary output was enormous. He produced work in almost every known literary kind: poetry, novels, short stories, drama, history, biography, autobiography, travel books, essays and children's books. A complete edition of his work would involve almost 50 titles – and individual works often involve three separate volumes. Unsurprisingly, despite the successful completion of the Edinburgh edition of the 'Waverley' novels, the ongoing Stirling edition of the works of James Hogg, and the new OUP edition of Burns, there is no proposal to produce a complete edition of the works of John Galt.

Extraordinarily, however, Galt's reputation and visibility in his lifetime was in no sense merely a question of his literary output. He was also a speculator, a lobbyist and entrepreneur at a time when such roles were just beginning to emerge. 'I have ever held literature to be a secondary pursuit,' he wrote, and 'a mere literary man – an author by profession – stands but low in my opinion.' And he was as good as his word. Business enterprise dominated much of his life.

In 1820 Galt entered on a long-term engagement with imperial Canada. Having earlier had success as a parliamentary agent – or lobbyist – persuading Westminster to pass an act extending the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk, he was employed by a group of Canadians who were seeking compensation from the British government for losses they had incurred during the 1812 war with the USA. He soon recognised the potential for expansion and development that the Canadian province represented and helped to create the Canada Company in 1824.

In 1826 he sailed to New York en route to upper Canada where he took up his post as the company's first commissioner. For three years he ran it with great success. He founded the city of Guelph in Ontario as its headquarters, and the business model he established flourished for many years after his own dismissal and return to London in 1829. For the remaining years of his life he reverted to being 'an author by profession' – beginning, unsurprisingly, with a novel based on his Canadian experience called 'Lawrie Todd: or, the Settlers in the Woods'.

The editors of this book – like all of its contributors – are agreed about the history of neglect of a writer they regard as a major figure. Indeed in their introduction, while trying to account for this situation, Gerry Carruthers and Colin Kidd make some challenging observations about what they see as a flawed tradition in Scottish literary history and criticism. They argue that influential critics of 18th- and 19th-century Scottish writing – such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir – established the view that the weakness of Scottish writing was its failure to address the issues the critics chose to see as crucial in Scottish culture. Specifically, Scottish writers obsessed over religious issues while ignoring the post-1707 question of Scottish nationhood. John Galt was such a writer and is neglected as a result.

In his own essay in the collection, Professor Kidd, himself an historian, sees religion as crucial to the nature of Galt's art. Beginning by suggesting that 'Galt's fiction lives in a way that makes his obscurity not only undeserved, but also a trifle mystifying', he proceeds to argue that 'the matter of Galt's art was the currency of ecclesiastical debate in late-18th-century Ayrshire.' Galt, he insists, is 'a novelist who knows the way the world works. Commerce, agriculture, manufacture, emigration, burgh governance: all are presented with authority and expertise.' But what defines and shapes the matter of his fictional world is something originating in the almost century-long debate between the 'new licht' Moderates and the 'auld licht' Calvinists in the Church of Scotland: a continuing conflict over individual sincerity, hypocrisy, and self-deceit – exactly the kind of material that appears over and over again in Galt's fiction. The case Kidd makes for this view is both compelling and convincing.

Another historian, Christopher Whatley, agrees that 'Galt is worth reading and celebrating as a major Scottish writer' because 'from the historian's perspective he is one of the most perceptive observers of Scottish society during the golden age of Scottish literary production.' And he goes on to make exactly the point that Hilary Mantel is recognised in her Reith lectures on historical fiction: 'what Galt offers the historian of the late- 18th and early-19th centuries is a voice from within, the insights of an insider's eye.'

Current theorising about the nature of historical fiction is ably explored by Alison Lumsden in the context of a discussion of Galt's 1823 novel 'Ringan Delhaize'. Set in 17th-century Scotland, the novel was a kind of riposte to Scott's 'Old Mortality' which Galt felt had done less than justice to the Covenanters and their cause. Gordon Millar makes the case for the view that with novels such as 'The Provost' and 'The Member', Galt should be seen as the pioneer of the political novel in English.

Taken together, the 10 essays in this volume do indeed provide what the editors describe as 'the thick context in which Galt's writings are enveloped.' But the puzzle of his lost reputation remains unresolved. Perhaps the author himself provides a clue. In his autobiography published in 1833, Galt suggests that his fictions 'are certainly deficient in the peculiarity of the novel' – meaning that they were lacking in plot. 'They would be more properly characterised', he goes on, 'as theoretical histories, than either as novels or romances.' (More material here for Hilary Mantel to ponder.)

Galt's surmise about the nature of his plotless fictions may well be accurate. But for today's readers, familiar with modernist and even post-modernist fiction, the absence of conventional plotting should not be a problem. Several contributors here do indeed draw attention to surprisingly 'modernist' aspects of Galt's art. Professor Carruthers, for example, comes up with a feminist reading of some short stories that might well have surprised Galt himself. Even more to contemporary taste is his frequent deployment of first-person narrators – such as the Reverend Micah Balwhidder in 'Annals of the Parish' – who are simultaneously reliable (humanely perceptive) and unreliable (unwittingly prejudiced). Will such aspects of his art be enough to bring contemporary readers back to Galt? Only time will tell.

You can read three of his books below.

See also the city he founded - The Royal City of Guelph in Canada

Read also...

Forty Years Residence in America
Exemplified in the life of Grant Thorburn (the original Lawrie Todd) written by himself with an introduction by John Galt (1834) (pdf)

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