JOHN GALT (1779-1839), Scottish novelist, was born at Irvine, Ayrshire, on the 2nd of May 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. In 1804 he went to settle in London, where he published anonymously a poem on the Battle of Largs. After unsuccessful attempts to succeed in business Galt entered at Lincoln's Inn, but was never called to the bar. He obtained a commission from a British firm to go abroad to find out whether the Berlin and Milan decrees could be evaded. He met Byron and Sir John Hobhouse at Gibraltar, travelled with Byron to Malta, and met him again at Athens. He was afterwards employed by the Glasgow merchant Kirkman Finlay on similar business at Gibraltar, and in 1814 visited France and Holland. His early works are the Life and Administration of Wolsey, Voyages and Travels, Letters from the Levant, the Life of Benjamin West, Historical Pictures and The Wandering Jew; and he induced Colburn to publish a periodical containing' dramatic pieces rejected by London managers. These were afterwards edited by Galt as the New British Theatre, which included some plays of his own. He first showed his real power as a writer of fiction 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 humorous studies of Scottish character are all in his happiest manner. His next works were Ringan Gilhaize (1823), a story of the Covenanters; The Spaewife (1823), which relates to the times of James I. of Scotland; Rothelan (1824), a novel founded on the reign of Edward III.; The Omen (1825), which was favourably criticized by Sir Walter Scott; and The Last of the Lairds, another picture of Scottish life.
In 1826 he went to America as secretary to the Canada Land Company. He carried out extensive schemes of colonization, and opened up a road through what was then forest country between Lakes Huron and Erie. In 1827 he 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. But all this work proved financially unprofitable to Galt. 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 Lawrie 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 succession, of a Life of Byron, Lives of the Players, Bogle Corbet, Stanley Buxton, The Member, The Radical, Eben Erskine, The Stolen Child, his Autobiography, and a collection 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 zoo. As soon as this work was published Galt retired to Greenock, where he continued his literary labours 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 T odd. 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 (which, be it remembered, existed in MS. before Waverley was published) 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. 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 afterwards became so intimately associated with the doctrines of John Stuart Mill and Bentham (see Annals of the Parish, chap. xxxv., and a note by 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 qualities. The character is somewhat exaggerated, but excessively 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, bickerings and self-seeking of municipal dignitaries in a quaint Scottish burgh. In Lawrie Todd Galt, by giving us the Scot in America, 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.
The best of Galt's novels were reprinted in Blackwood's Standard Novels, to volume i. of which his friend Dr Moir prefixed a memoir.
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