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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1761

First published: 1821

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social chronicle

Time of work: 1760-1810

Locale: Scotland

Principal Characters:

The Reverend Micah Balwhidder, minister at Dalmailing

Lord Eaglesham, the minister’s friend and patron

Betty Lanshaw, the first Mrs. Balwhidder

Lizy Kibbock, the second Mrs. Balwhidder

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(The entire section contains 1761 words.)

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First published: 1821

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social chronicle

Time of work: 1760-1810

Locale: Scotland

Principal Characters:

The Reverend Micah Balwhidder, minister at Dalmailing

Lord Eaglesham, the minister’s friend and patron

Betty Lanshaw, the first Mrs. Balwhidder

Lizy Kibbock, the second Mrs. Balwhidder

Mrs. Nugent, a widow and the third Mrs. Balwhidder

Mr. Cayenne, an industrialist

Lady MacAdam, a high-spirited old lady in the parish

The Story:

As a young man just out of divinity school at the University of Glasgow and recently accepted for the ministry, the Reverend Micah Balwhidder was appointed to the charge of the established Presbyterian Church in the village of Dalmailing in western Scotland. Because he had been appointed by a great landowner, without their approval, the people of Dalmailing tried to prevent Mr. Balwhidder from taking his post. On the Sunday Mr. Balwhidder was installed, the officiating ministers had to enter the church through a window, because the door had been nailed fast. Nor did they try to go to the church without a guard of soldiers.

Immediately after being installed, Mr. Balwhidder began a series of visits to his parishioners, as he believed a good Calvinistic clergyman should do. He was rebuffed at door after door, until Thomas Thorl, the minister’s most outspoken opponent, relented and accepted him. The rest of the parish followed within a matter of weeks. Soon after the excitement died down, Mr. Balwhidder married his first wife Betty Lanshaw, a cousin with whom he had grown up; he believed strongly that a minister should be married to accomplish his best work.

During the first few years of his ministry in the 1760’s, Mr. Balwhidder fought earnestly against two habits among his parishioners, smuggling and drinking. He felt that both were sinful. In the end, however, he became reconciled to tea as a beverage, for he thought it better for his people to drink that instead of spirituous liquors. His main objection to smuggling was that it encouraged lawlessness among his people and resulted in the appearance of illegitimate children.

One of the chief problems in Dalmailing, so far as the minister was concerned, was the Malcolm family, composed of Mrs. Malcolm, a widow, and her five children. The minister always tried to help them succeed, for they were hardworking folk who had known better days. The first ray of success for them came when Charles Malcolm was made an officer in the merchant marine, an event which gladdened Mr. Balwhidder’s heart. In that same year, the first Mrs. Balwhidder died. Her death saddened the whole parish, for everyone had come to love her.

In the following year, 1764, Mr. Balwhidder tried to write a doctrinal book. He found, however, that he had too much to do to keep his house and servants in order and decided to look about for another wife; this decision was none too soon, for one of his maidservants was pregnant. Some of the village gossips blamed the minister, although the actual father admitted his part in the affair. As soon as a year and a day had passed after his first wife’s death, Mr. Balwhidder married Lizy Kibbock, the daughter of a very successful farmer in the parish.

The second Mrs. Balwhidder immediately set out to augment her husband’s stipend. She purchased cattle and hogs and set up a regular dairy. Within a year, she had sufficient income from her projects so that the minister’s pay could be put into the bank. Her husband approved heartily of her industry, not only because he himself was made comfortable but because the industry of his wife encouraged greater efforts on the part of other women in the parish. In that year, three coal mines were opened in the parish, bringing new prosperity to the people.

In 1767, a great event occurred in the village’s history. Lord Eaglesham, after being thrown in a muddy road that ran through the village, resolved to have a fine highway built to prevent a second occurrence. The new road made transportation much easier for the villagers. The event also caused the lord and Mr. Balwhidder to become friends, for at the time of the accident the clergyman had lent Lord Eaglesham some dry clothes. Through the nobleman’s influence, Mr. Balwhidder was on many occasions able to help the people of his village.

Scandal threatened the pulpit in 1772, when a visitor from another parish, Mr. Heckletext, was invited to speak. Shortly after his sermon, the church session learned that he was the father of an illegitimate child by one of the village girls. It was a bitter lesson for Mr. Balwhidder, who resolved never again to permit a man to speak from his pulpit until he had thoroughly investigated the stranger’s habits and character.

The 1770’s were disturbing times for the minister of Dalmailing. Mr. Balwhidder was a peace-loving man who hated to see his young parishioners enlist to fight against the rebellious colonists in America. He especially hated to hear of the battles in which some of them were killed. The greatest blow given him by the war was the death of the widow Malcolm’s son, who died a hero in a naval battle with the French. Mr. Balwhidder, who looked upon the fatherless Malcolm family as his charge, grieved as much as if the boy had been his own son.

He was also in difficulties with Lady MacAdam, an older woman who had been at court in England and France in her youth. A spirited woman who wanted to have a good time in life and to dictate to other people, she was distraught when she learned that her son, an officer in the Royal Scots regiment, was in love with the oldest Malcolm girl. She mistreated the girl shamefully, refusing even to listen to the minister’s remonstrations. Using his own judgment, he finally had to marry the young people against her wishes. She soon became reconciled, however, after the marriage had taken place.

After the close of the American Revolution, a loyal American who had returned to Britain settled in Dalmailing. This man, Mr. Cayenne, had a temper as fiery as his name. The weaving mill he set up near the village brought prosperity to the parish, but it also brought troubles. During the 1790’s, the weavers who settled there were in favor of the French Revolution, while Mr. Balwhidder and his more conservative parishioners were all opposed to it. Aside from their political differences, the weavers also belonged to different faiths, a fact which gave the minister grave concern, for he disliked any other church to set itself up as long as the Presbyterian Church was the official church of the land. He fought a lengthy but losing battle against churches which preached other doctrines than his own. It was the one problem which he felt he could not solve, for the tide of history was against him.

In 1796, Mr. Balwhidder again became a widower. Still of the opinion that to serve his people best he ought to be a married man, he took another wife a year later. His third wife was Mrs. Nugent, a widow of good reputation.

As the years passed, the minister’s two children, a son and a daughter, grew up and were married. Finally, in 1810, the church authorities decided that Mr. Balwhidder, who had served his parish for fifty years, should have some help; but he had become so deaf and so forgetful that he himself decided to retire. He preached a farewell sermon to his crowded church and then began to write into a book the annals of the parish he had served so long.

Critical Evaluation:

John Galt was important to his own time both as a settler in Canada and as a novelist who presented Scottish life in fiction. As both a novelist and a leader in the Canada Company, he has, however, been largely forgotten. In the field of fiction Galt was so far overshadowed by Sir Walter Scott in his own time that he never became widely known outside of Great Britain. A Scot himself, Galt wrote in the ANNALS OF THE PARISH: OR, THE CHRONICLE OF DALMAILING about the Scotland he and his parents had known, and he wrote lovingly. His humane feeling and the love he gave to his own country can be marked on almost every page he wrote. In this novel, the strongest and most sympathetically portrayed character is of the Scottish Presbyterian clergyman of strict Calvinist persuasion. Hardly less important are the descriptions of the new class of industrialists.

In the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s MOLL FLANDERS, Galt’s ANNALS OF THE PARISH is a fictional autobiography, chronological in form. It is successful in conveying a diarist’s immediate experience of the kind of daily living that has a way of becoming social and cultural history. Some critics think it blasphemous to juxtapose Defoe’s story of a thief and bawd with Galt’s account of a pious clergyman, but both works share a common psychological impulse: the need of the central protagonist to combine factual objectivity, confessional in spirit, with self-justification.

Galt noted that his desire to write ANNALS OF THE PARISH was sparked by Goldsmith’s THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD. He wanted to do for Scotland what that book had done for England: to record the life of a rural. In the early planning stages of his book, Galt almost switched from minister to schoolmaster because the latter promised to be a better vehicle for transmitting rural values but finally stuck to his original concept and began writing in the summer of 1813. However, publishers discouraged him from continuing with the project, and he did not actually finish the book until 1820 when there was renewed interest in Scottish themes.

With the appearance of Micah Balwhidder, the English literary public finally had the Scottish answer to Dr. Primrose—not to mention Pastor Balwhidder’s similarity to other memorable English fictional characters like Parson Adams, Uncle Toby, and Sir Roger de Coverley. Like them, Balwhidder combined naivete, ingenuousness, and occasional absurdity with common sense, tact, and kindness.

In addition to the memorable creation of Balwhidder, Galt’s book is known as a rich repository of Scottish historical data: agricultural reform, industrialization, domestic economy, rural education, church affairs, and theological fashions. Modern critics find it a fault that Galt filters all the data through Balwhidder’s limited intellect in such a way that readers are not always sure how reliable the information is.

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