John Galt Essay - Critical Essays

Galt, John


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Annals of the Parish; or, The Chronicle of Dalmailing (novel) 1821

The Ayrshire Legatees; or, The Pringle Family (epistolary novel) 1821

The Provost (novel) 1822

Sir Andrew Wylie, of That Ilk (novel) 1822

The Steam-boat (novel) 1822

The Entail; or, The Lairds of the Grippy (novel) 1823

The Gathering of the West; or, We're Come to See the King (novel) 1823

The Howdie and Other Tales (short stories) 1923

Ringan Gilhaize; or, The Convenanters. 3 vols. (novel) 1823

The Bachelor's Wife: A Selection of Curious and Interesting Extracts, with Cursory Observations (novel) 1824

Rothelan (novel) 1824

The Spaewife (novel) 1824

The Omen (novel) 1825

A Rich Man and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1925

The Last of the Lairds; or, The Life and Opinions of Malachi Mailings, Esq. of Auldbiggings (novel) 1826

Lawrie Todd; or, The Settlers in the Woods (novel) 1830

The Life of Lord Byron (biography) 1830

Southennan (novel) 1830

Bogle Corbet; or, The Emigrants (novel) 1831

The Member: An Autobiography (novel) 1832

The Radical: An Autobiography (novel) 1832

Stanley Buxton; or, The Schoolfellows (novel) 1832

The Autobiography of John Galt (autobiography) 1833

Eben Erskine; or, the Traveller (novel) 1833

Poems (poetry) 1833

The Stolen Child: A Tale of the Town, Founded on a Certain Interesting Fact (novel) 1833

Stories of the Study (short stories) 1833

The Literary Life and Miscellanies of John Galt (autobiographical essays, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and short stories) 1834

The Demon of Destiny and Other Poems (poetry) 1839

The Collected Works of John Galt. 10 vols. (novels) 1936


Keith M. Costain (essay date 1980)

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...

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George V. Griffith (essay date 1980)

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...

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Elizabeth Waterston (essay date 1980)

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...

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Keith M. Costain (essay date 1981)

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...

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J. D. McClure (essay date 1981)

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...

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Patricia J. Wilson (essay date 1985)

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...

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Ian A. Gordon (essay date 1989)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 218 words.)