John Galt 1779-1839
Scottish novelist, poet, dramatist, and short story and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Galt from 1980 through 1989. For additional information on Galt's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 1.
Galt is best remembered for his depictions of rural and village life in eighteenth-century Scotland. In his most successful books, including Annals of the Parish; or, The Chronicle of Dalmailing (1821), he endeavored to construct a day-to-day account of one person's experiences, recording the details of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century life and the vernacular speech of Scotland. Galt is thus seen as an early realist author particularly concerned with contemporary social issues. Discursively plotted, Galt's fiction principally focuses on character, featuring highly individual protagonists ranging from uncompromising merchant adventurers to sympathetic country ministers. Galt treats these figures with varying degrees of irony by unmasking their self-deception and moral failings to his readers. In many of his works, Galt additionally confronts the theme of society in transition from simple village life to a modernized commercial and urban existence. Though a number of his lesser writings are generally forgotten, Galt continues to be admired for his insightful observations, historical verisimilitude, skillful blending of irony and pathos, and linguistic mastery of Scottish dialect.
Galt was born in the seaside town of Irvine, Ayrshire. His family moved to nearby Greenock when he was ten years old. The region of western Scotland surrounding these two villages forms the setting for a number of his later novels, which Galt collectively dubbed “Tales of the West.” His father was a merchant sea captain, and Galt's early education focused on the practical matters appropriate for a future businessman. As a youth, he served as a customshouse clerk until 1804, when he departed for London to begin his career. His business activities of the subsequent half decade invariably ended in failure, but in the meantime, he began writing the Gothic poem The Battle of Largs (1804) and submitting articles to various periodicals. After a short, unsuccessful period in law school, he traveled around the Mediterranean with Lord Byron, whom he had encountered in Gibraltar. Returning to England in 1811, he wrote two travel books and a novel, The Majolo (1816), based upon his European experiences. He also spent part of 1812 as editor of the Political Review. In 1813 Galt married Elizabeth Tilloch, the daughter of a fellow editor and early patron. Later that year, he submitted the manuscript of The Pastor to a publisher who rejected it on the grounds that no market for Scottish literature existed. However, eight years later (after the stunning success of Sir Walter Scott's historical novel Waverley), Galt's book was published serially in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine with a new title, Annals of the Parish. Galt left England in 1826 to join the Canada Land Company, by far his most successful business venture. He helped found the Ontario towns of Guelph and Goderich. However, a financial panic in 1829 forced him to return to England. Upon his arrival, he found himself unable to repay his creditors and was jailed for several months in the King's Bench debtors' prison. While there, he resumed his prolific writing career and published a string of novels following his release. Galt suffered a serious stroke in 1832 and, unable to write, had to dictate his autobiography, published in 1833, to a secretary. His health failing, Galt retired to Greenock in 1834 and died in April of 1839.
Galt wrote a number of short stories, travel essays, dramas, and miscellaneous works, but most of his major writings were novels, which he imaginatively classified as “theoretical histories.” Annals of the Parish recounts the lives of parishioners in northern Scotland through the journal narration of a rural pastor, Reverend Micah Balwhidder. In entries dating between 1760 and 1810, Balwhidder writes a kind of social history by describing the growth of the village of Dalmailing in the early phases of the industrial revolution. He details subjects ranging from comic local church events to issues of significant historical upheaval, including the effects of the American Revolution and Napoleonic victories in Europe. Galt's epistolary novel The Ayrshire Legatees; or, The Pringle Family (1821) follows the country minister Dr. Zachariah Pringle, his wife, son, and daughter to London and records their views of life in the English metropolis in their letters to friends back home. The somewhat haphazard and episodic first-person narrative of The Steam-boat (1822) contains the tales of numerous steamboat travelers in Scotland and England, particularly those of Thomas Duffle, a Glasgow merchant. Sir Andrew Wylie, of That Ilk (1822) tracks its eponymous hero, an aspiring young businessman, from Scotland to London. He finds wealth, a seat in Parliament, and, after securing a baronetcy, wins the hand of his beloved Mary Cunningham, daughter of the Laird of Craiglands. Galt's first truly political novel, The Provost (1822) describes the life of the sly, self-centered minister James Pawkie and relates events in the fictional Scottish village of Gudetown. The Entail; or, The Lairds of the Grippy (1823) chronicles the obsessive struggle of a destitute Glasgow orphan, Claud Walkinshaw, to regain the lost inheritance of his landed ancestors. A partial response to the novel Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott, Ringan Gilhaize; or, The Convenanters (1823) is set amongst the religious conflicts in Scotland during the Reformation. Galt also produced several more historical novels—ostensibly in the manner of Scott—which concern Scottish and English royalty: Rothelan (1824), The Spaewife (1824), and Southennan (1830), works that focus on the reigns of Edward III, James I, and Mary, Queen of Scots, respectively. The Last of the Lairds; or, The Life and Opinions of Malachi Mailings, Esq. of Auldbiggings (1826) relates the downfall of Mailings, the final remnant of a crumbling Scottish feudal dynasty, while Bogle Corbet; or, The Emigrants (1831) offers an imaginative fictionalization of Galt's own experiences in Canada. Like Galt himself, the novel's hero leads a group of Scottish settlers to Canada, founds a city there, and adjusts to life in the North American wilderness. Narrated by the Scotsman Archibald Jobbry, The Member: An Autobiography (1832) dramatizes Galt's interests in British parliamentary politics and is a critique of political corruption focused on its Tory protagonist. In the sequel to this work, The Radical (1832), Galt presents his views in favor of political progress and voices his support of the 1832 Reform Act. Among Galt's nonfictional works, the Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey (1812) relates the exploits of the ambitious sixteenth-century Lord Chancellor of England, whom Galt depicts as a rigorous champion of unrestricted individual achievement. In Cursory Reflections on Political and Commercial Topics (1812), Galt documents his essentially realist and progressive ideas on politics and economy.
During his lifetime, Galt's works elicited a largely positive and sustained critical interest. Such figures as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge admired his writing and ensured his popularity until his death. From this time, however, Galt's reputation has declined considerably. In the ensuing years, his “theoretical histories” continue to be remembered for their realistic and detailed evocation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish life and for their humorous and sympathetic portrayal of character. Galt has been criticized, nevertheless, for creating chaotic plots and oversimplified supporting figures in his later works. Despite flaws in craftsmanship, plotting, and a degree of topicality, critics acknowledge that a number of Galt's novels, including Annals of the Parish, The Provost, and The Member, demonstrate an enduring merit. Additionally, some contemporary critics focus on Galt's literary influences, particularly that of David Hume and Adam Ferguson of the Scottish Enlightenment. These commentators describe Galt as a thoroughgoing realist whose collected writings reflect his generally optimistic belief in social, industrial, and commercial progress and his critique of traditional feudal systems as declining and corrupt relics of the past.
The Battle of Largs (poetry) 1804
Cursory Reflections on Political and Commercial Topics as Reflected by the Regent's Accession to Royal Authority (essays) 1812
The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey (biography) 1812
The Tragedies of Maddalen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia & Clytemnestra (dramas) 1812
Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811; Containing Statistical, Commercial, and Miscellaneous Observations on Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Serigo, and Turkey (travel essays) 1812
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 (travel essays) 1813
The Majolo (novel) 1816
The Life and Studies of Benjamin West. 2 vols. (biography) 1816-1820
The Appeal (drama) 1818
The Earthquake (novel) 1820
Glenfell; or, Macdonalds and Campbells (novel) 1820
A Tour of Asia [as Rev. T. Clark] (travel essays) 1820
A Tour of Europe [as Rev. T. Clark] (travel essays) 1820
The Wandering Jew; or, The Travels and Observations of Hareach the Prolonged [as Rev. T. Clark] (travel essays) 1820
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SOURCE: Costain, Keith M. “The Spirit of the Age and the Scottish Fiction of John Galt.” Wordsworth Circle 11, no. 2 (spring 1980): 98-106.
[In the following essay, Costain describes Galt's positive representation of industrial progress in his prose fiction.]
Unlike most novelists in the early nineteenth century, John Galt was concerned with contemporary social problems. As an essayist, a novelist, and a Scot, he was fully aware of the implications of the industrialism that had transformed at least the lowlands of Scotland from “an utterly impoverished country to a prosperous land.”1 In an interconnected series of novels that he wrote in the 1820s and early 1830s, he examines the full range of contemporary phenomena, affirming in 1824 that “all the past has become, in some degree, obsolete, or is only drawn on to furnish illustrations to characters, possessing something in common with that high state of excitement into which we have ourselves been raised by the vast and wonderful events of the age” (The Bachelor's Wife , p. 351). In his fiction and nonfiction alike, Galt defends the present against the past and defines it by contrast with the past. More specifically, all his novels of modern life explore the differences and dramatize the conflicts between feudalism and urban capitalism, especially in relation to the rise of factory industry. Galt emphasizes the...
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SOURCE: Griffith, George V. “John Galt's Short Fiction Series.” Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 4 (fall 1980): 455-62.
[In the following essay, Griffith considers generic difficulties related to Galt's fiction and his role in the early formation of the realist short story.]
When Brander Matthews proclaimed the existence of the short story in 1884, he created a literary problem as much historical as generic, for in defining the genre he placed it in literary history and thus set off the search for literary precedents. The search has been particularly fruitful in Studies in Short Fiction, yielding virtually a complete history of English short fiction.1 Yet it has been slightly evasive as well, many of the studies implicitly denying Matthews' assertion by subtly shifting from short story to short fiction, thus subsuming the generic problem in the historical. The search is then conducted along lines already laid down by the history of English narrative, until eventually the roots of the short story are located in medieval poetic narratives such as The Dream of the Rood. This not only subverts the generic concept, but also excludes from historical consideration any figure not in the mainstream of the history of English narrative.
I propose to set that history aside briefly to examine someone only peripherally connected to it. Such a figure is John Galt. He is an...
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SOURCE: Waterston, Elizabeth. “John Galt's Canadian Experience: The Scottish Strain.” Studies in Scottish Literature 15 (1980): 257-62.
[In the following essay, Waterston discusses Galt's unromantic, middle-class novel Bogle Corbet as it illustrates qualities of Canadian and Scottish life.]
“Vertical Mosaic” is a phrase happily adopted by many critics and historians to explain the quality of Canadian life. “Mosaic” refers to the notion that the individual pieces, the ethnic groups and sub-groups, tend to hold their shape, keep their colour, rather than to melt and meld into “One Nation, Indivisible.” “Vertical” alludes to the fact that certain groups tend to move to high positions in every sort of scale—political, economic, artistic, social. Scottish “pieces” in the Canadian mosaic have always figured high in the vertical pattern.
The Scots came early to Canada, bound for the fur trade, exploring and exploiting the harsh northland: Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, MacTavish, Simpson and McGill. Then a second wave of Scots came in the early nineteenth century for less swashbuckling adventures, making land, setting up machine shops and printing presses, working as early journalists, clerks and salesmen. Even when the Scottish groups no longer predominated at immigration points, Scottish tastes and values seemed so to have permeated Canadian life that a Scottish...
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SOURCE: Costain, Keith M. “The Community of Man: Galt and Eighteenth-Century Scottish Realism.” Scottish Literary Journal 8, no. 1 (May 1981): 10-29.
[In the following essay, Costain investigates Galt's indebtedness to the social, moral, and historical thought of the Scottish Realists.]
When, in The Ayrshire Legatees, the Rev. Dr Pringle arrives in London on top of a coach he fears for his clerical dignity. But his fears prove groundless, in more than a literal sense, for, as he reports to his Session Clerk in the village of Garnock: ‘although the multitude of bygoers was like the kirk-skailing at the Sacrament, I saw not a kent face, nor one that took the least notice of my situation’.1 No longer are the Pringles fully participating members of what Raymond Williams calls a ‘knowable community’, as they were at home in rural Garnock. Now they experience what Dr Pringle's son, Andrew, describes in a letter to a friend as ‘a painful conviction of insignificance, of nothingness’, brought about by the obligation, imposed upon the individual in a modern metropolis, of sharing with ‘the million … that consequence which he unconsciously before supposed he possessed in a general estimate of the world’ (II, The Collected Works of John Galt, Vol. II, hereafter referred to as II], 215-216). The experience of the Pringles in London resembles that of many another...
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SOURCE: McClure, J. D. “The Language of The Entail.” Scottish Literary Journal 8, no. 1 (May 1981): 30-51.
[In the following essay, McClure details Galt's use of Scots dialect to delineate his characters and realistically depict eighteenth-century Scottish society in The Entail.]
The Entail was regarded by John Galt as his masterpiece; and one of its most outstanding features is the author's skill in handling the western rural dialect of Scots. The finest Scots dialogue in Galt's work—indeed, some of the best in all Scottish literature—is to be found in this book. The contribution which this makes to the success of the novel is twofold. As is usual with Galt, The Entail is a social documentary novel: the careful dating of events in the narrative by references to actual history, the passing comments on developments in trade, commerce, agriculture, and even sartorial fashions, and the scrupulous accuracy with which he attempts to present eighteenth-century Scottish society, are features which The Entail shares with Annals of the Parish and The Provost. To a much greater extent than its predecessors, however, it is also a novel of character, with a cast including a wealth of vividly drawn figures. The importance of Scots here is obvious: the lively dialogue of the major (and several minor) characters contributes greatly to the striking impression which they...
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SOURCE: Wilson, Patricia J. “John Galt at Work: Comments on the MS. of Ringan Gilhaize.” Studies in Scottish Literature 20 (1985): 160-76.
[In the following essay, Wilson offers a stylistic analysis of Ringan Gilhaize, illuminated by Galt's manuscript of the novel.]
In 1969 Ian Gordon discovered the MS. of John Galt's novel Ringan Gilhaize in the Edinburgh offices of the publishers Oliver & Boyd.1 There it had probably lain since the publication of the three volumes on 2 May 1823. By arrangement with Oliver & Boyd the MS. on its rediscovery was deposited in the National Library of Scotland where I have been able to consult it.
The MS. is incomplete but illuminating about Galt's method of composition. He was a practised writer and novelist by the time he was working on Ringan and the novel, or “theoretical history of society,” as he preferred to call it, bears witness to that skill; always the alterations Galt makes are improvements.
The novel is subtitled The Covenanters but covers in fact the period of the Reformation as well. Galt rightly disclaims the sentiments Ringan, his eponymous Covenanting hero, expresses as not being the author's but nevertheless the sentiments are ones he understands in the marrow of his bones. Two of Galt's ancestors had suffered for their beliefs in the period known in...
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SOURCE: Gordon, Ian A. “Galt's The Ayrshire Legatees: Genesis and Development.” Scottish Literary Journal 16, no. 1 (May 1989): 35-42.
[In the following essay, Gordon comments on Galt's popular novel The Ayrshire Legatees and the revisions it underwent in the transition from periodical publication to novel form.]
John Galt's first published Scottish novel made its initial appearance in monthly instalments from June 1820 to February 1821 in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. The editor, ‘Christopher North’, announced in the magazine the following year that the series (‘the very best that ever had been in any periodical work’) had ‘increased our sale prodigiously’. For both publisher and author the appearance of The Ayrshire Legatees was a turning point. It consolidated the position of Blackwood's Magazine as the leading Scottish literary journal; and it launched John Galt on his career as a novelist.
Galt had to wait for years before he attained such popular esteem. He had left Scotland as a young man, to establish himself in London. By 1819, when he had reached the age of forty, he was known on the London scene as a busy (if not always successful) entrepreneur who had found his way into polite society and as an indefatigable writer who had learned from sheer necessity to turn his hand to almost anything:...
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Groves, David. “Galt, ‘Delta,’ and Fraser's Magazine.” Notes and Queries 40, no. 1 (March 1993): 46.
Observes the likelihood of Galt's anonymous contribution of an article on author David Moir to Fraser's Magazine in 1833.
Groves, David. “John Galt's Review of ‘Howison's Canada’ in Blackwood's Magazine.” Notes and Queries 40, no. 4 (December 1993): 471-72.
Mentions Galt's positive review of David Howison's Sketches of Upper Canada … And some Recollections of the United States of America for the perspective it gives on Galt's values as a writer.
Scott, P. H. “Annals of the Parish and Ringan Gilhaize.” In John Galt, pp. 25-38, 78-92. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
Examines two of Galt's theoretical histories, depicting Annals of the Parish as a skilled evocation of early nineteenth-century Scotland and Ringan Gilhaize as an insightful study of the cause and effect of religious violence.
Winn, Sharon A. and Lynn M. Alexander, eds. Introduction to The Slaughter-House of Mammon: An Anthology of Victorian Social Protest Literature, edited by Sharon A. Winn and Lynn M. Alexander, pp. xv-xxv. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hills Press, 1992....
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