1902 Encyclopedia > John Galt

John Galt
Scottish novelist

JOHN GALT, (1779-1839), a Scottish novelist, was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, on May 2, 1779. He received his early education at Irvine and Greenock, and read largely from one of the public libraries while serving as a clerk in a mercantile office. His first compositions appeared in the Greenock Advertiser and the Scots Magazine. In 1804 he went to settle in London, where he continued to work at a poem on the Battle of Largs, which was published anony-mously. ' After unsuccessful attempts to succeed in business, Galt left for the Continent, and met Byron and Sir John Hobhouse at Gibraltar, with whom he had a tour in the Mediterranean. He remained abroad for three years, and then returned to London. His early works are the Life and Administration of Wolsey, Voyages and Travels, Letters from the Levant, the Bife of Benjamin West, Historical Pictures, the Wandering Jew, and a volume ef dramas; but he first showed his real power in The Ayrshire Legatees, which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1820. This was followed in 1821 by his masterpiece—The Annals of the Parish ; and, at short intervals, Sir Andrew Wylie, The Entail, The Steam-Boat, and The Provost were published. These are all in his happiest manner, and are unsurpassed as studies of Scottish character. His next works were Ringan Gilhaize, a story of the Covenanters ; The Spaewife, which relates to the times of James I. of Scotland; Rothelan, a novel founded on the reign of Edward III.; The Omen, which was favourably criticized by Sir Walter Scott; and The Last of the Bairds, another picture of Scottish life. In 1826 he visited America for the second time, in con-nexion with the establishment of the Canada Company—an undertaking which involved him in great difficulties, and ultimately proved disastrous to his worldly prospects. It is pleasant to remember that, although Galt's connexion with Canada was unfortuate for himself, his youngest son, Sir Alexander Galt, has had a distinguished career there, and was, for some time, finance minister of the colony. In 1827 Galt founded Guelph in Upper Canada, passing on his way the township of Galt on the Grand River, named after him by the Hon. William Dixon. In 1829 he returned to England commercially a ruined man, and devoted himself with great ardour to literary pursuits, of which the first fruit was Bawrie Todd—one of his best novels. Then came Southennan, a tale of Scottish life in the times of Queen Mary. In 1830 he was appointed editor of the Courier newspaper—a post he soon relinquished. His untiring industry was seen in the publication, in rapid suc-cession, of a Life of Byron, Bives of the Players, Bogle Corbet, Stanley Buxton, The Member, The Radical, Even Erskine, The Stolen Child, his Autobiography, and a collec-tion of tales entitled Stories of the Study. In 1834 appeared his Literary Life and Miscellanies, dedicated by permission to William IV., who sent the author a present of £200. As soon as this work was published Galt retired to Greenock, where he lingered on in bad health till his death on the 11th of April 1839.

Galt, like almost all voluminous writers, was exceedingly unequal. His masterpieces are The Ayrshire Legatees, The Annals of the Parish, Sir Andrew Wylie, The Entail, The Provost, and Lawrie Todd. The Ayrshire Legatees gives, in the form of a number of exceedingly diverting letters, the adventures of the Rev. Dr Pringle and his family in London. The letters are made the excuse for endless tea-parties and meetings of kirk session in the rural parish of Garnock. The Annals of the Parish are told by the Rev. Micah Balwhidder, Galt's finest character. This work is a splendid picture of the old-fashioned Scottish pastor and the life of a country parish; and, in rich humour, genuine pathos, and truth to nature, it is unsurpassed even by Scott. Like his other Scotch novels, it is a fine specimen of the homely graces of the Scottish dialect, and preserves much vigorous Doric phraseology fast passing out of use even in country districts. In this novel Mr Galt used, for the first time, the term " Utilitarian," which has since become so intimately associated with the doctrines of John Stuart Mill and his followers (see Annals of the Parish, chap, xxxv., and a note by Mr Mill in Utilitarianism, chap. ii.). In Sir Andrew Wylie the hero entered London as a poor lad, but achieved remarkable success by his shrewd business quali-ties. The character is somewhat exaggerated, but exces-sively amusing. The Entail was read thrice by Byron and Scott, and is the best of Galt's longer novels. Leddy Grippy is a wonderful creation, and was considered by Byron equal to any female character in literature since Shakespeare's time. The Provost, in which Provost Pawkie tells his own story, portrays inimitably the jobbery, bicker-ings, and self seeking of municipal dignitaries in a quaint Scottish burgh. In Lawrie Todd Galt, by giving us the Scot in America, has accomplished a feat which Sir Walter never attempted. This novel exhibits more variety of style and a greater love of nature than his other books. The life of a settler is depicted with unerring pencil, and with an enthusiasm and imaginative power much more poetical than any of the author's professed poems.

Galt's humour is broader and more contagious than Scott's ; and his pictures of the sleepy life of old Scottish towns are unrivalled in literature. He is generally called an imitator of Scott; but the Annals of the Parish existed in MS. before Waverley was published. As Galt is pre-eminently an illustrator of west-country Scottish life, his range may be said to be narrower than Scott's; but within it he is supreme. It would be difficult to overrate the immense services which Galt has rendered alike to the history of the manners and to the history of the language of the Scottish people.

For further information about Galt, see his Ante-biography ; The Literary Life of John Galt; and a biographical memoir by his friend the late Dr Moir of Musselburgh, prefixed to The Annals of the Parish. (T. GI.)

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