(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.