'The International Companion to John Galt', edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd (Scottish Literature International)
John Galt is a bit of a problem. Born in Irvine in 1779 and buried in Greenock in 1839, he is roughly contemporary with Robert Burns, Walter Scott and James Hogg, but unlike these familiar figures, his reputation today is virtually non-existent. I've asked around among my well-informed friends and the name Galt usually fails to register. Even colleagues interested in Scottish literature struggle to remember anything he has written except perhaps 'Annals of the Parish'.
Yet in his own day Galt's reputation was well-established. His literary output was enormous. He produced work in almost every known literary kind: poetry, novels, short stories, drama, history, biography, autobiography, travel books, essays and children's books. A complete edition of his work would involve almost 50 titles – and individual works often involve three separate volumes. Unsurprisingly, despite the successful completion of the Edinburgh edition of the 'Waverley' novels, the ongoing Stirling edition of the works of James Hogg, and the new OUP edition of Burns, there is no proposal to produce a complete edition of the works of John Galt.
Extraordinarily, however, Galt's reputation and visibility in his lifetime was in no sense merely a question of his literary output. He was also a speculator, a lobbyist and entrepreneur at a time when such roles were just beginning to emerge. 'I have ever held literature to be a secondary pursuit,' he wrote, and 'a mere literary man – an author by profession – stands but low in my opinion.' And he was as good as his word. Business enterprise dominated much of his life.
In 1820 Galt entered on a long-term engagement with imperial Canada. Having earlier had success as a parliamentary agent – or lobbyist – persuading Westminster to pass an act extending the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk, he was employed by a group of Canadians who were seeking compensation from the British government for losses they had incurred during the 1812 war with the USA. He soon recognised the potential for expansion and development that the Canadian province represented and helped to create the Canada Company in 1824.
In 1826 he sailed to New York en route to upper Canada where he took up his post as the company's first commissioner. For three years he ran it with great success. He founded the city of Guelph in Ontario as its headquarters, and the business model he established flourished for many years after his own dismissal and return to London in 1829. For the remaining years of his life he reverted to being 'an author by profession' – beginning, unsurprisingly, with a novel based on his Canadian experience called 'Lawrie Todd: or, the Settlers in the Woods'.
The editors of this book – like all of its contributors – are agreed about the history of neglect of a writer they regard as a major figure. Indeed in their introduction, while trying to account for this situation, Gerry Carruthers and Colin Kidd make some challenging observations about what they see as a flawed tradition in Scottish literary history and criticism. They argue that influential critics of 18th- and 19th-century Scottish writing – such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir – established the view that the weakness of Scottish writing was its failure to address the issues the critics chose to see as crucial in Scottish culture. Specifically, Scottish writers obsessed over religious issues while ignoring the post-1707 question of Scottish nationhood. John Galt was such a writer and is neglected as a result.
In his own essay in the collection, Professor Kidd, himself an historian, sees religion as crucial to the nature of Galt's art. Beginning by suggesting that 'Galt's fiction lives in a way that makes his obscurity not only undeserved, but also a trifle mystifying', he proceeds to argue that 'the matter of Galt's art was the currency of ecclesiastical debate in late-18th-century Ayrshire.' Galt, he insists, is 'a novelist who knows the way the world works. Commerce, agriculture, manufacture, emigration, burgh governance: all are presented with authority and expertise.' But what defines and shapes the matter of his fictional world is something originating in the almost century-long debate between the 'new licht' Moderates and the 'auld licht' Calvinists in the Church of Scotland: a continuing conflict over individual sincerity, hypocrisy, and self-deceit – exactly the kind of material that appears over and over again in Galt's fiction. The case Kidd makes for this view is both compelling and convincing.
Another historian, Christopher Whatley, agrees that 'Galt is worth reading and celebrating as a major Scottish writer' because 'from the historian's perspective he is one of the most perceptive observers of Scottish society during the golden age of Scottish literary production.' And he goes on to make exactly the point that Hilary Mantel has recognised in her Reith lectures on historical fiction: 'what Galt offers the historian of the late-18th and early-19th centuries is a voice from within, the insights of an insider's eye.'
Current theorising about the nature of historical fiction is ably explored by Alison Lumsden in the context of a discussion of Galt's 1823 novel 'Ringan Delhaize'. Set in 17th-century Scotland, the novel was a kind of riposte to Scott's 'Old Mortality' which Galt felt had done less than justice to the Covenanters and their cause. Gordon Millar makes the case for the view that with novels such as 'The Provost' and 'The Member', Galt should be seen as the pioneer of the political novel in English.
Taken together, the 10 essays in this volume do indeed provide what the editors describe as 'the thick context in which Galt's writings are enveloped.' But the puzzle of his lost reputation remains unresolved. Perhaps the author himself provides a clue. In his autobiography published in 1833, Galt suggests that his fictions 'are certainly deficient in the peculiarity of the novel' – meaning that they were lacking in plot. 'They would be more properly characterised', he goes on, 'as theoretical histories, than either as novels or romances.' (More material here for Hilary Mantel to ponder.)
Galt's surmise about the nature of his plotless fictions may well be accurate. But for today's readers, familiar with modernist and even post-modernist fiction, the absence of conventional plotting should not be a problem. Several contributors here do indeed draw attention to surprisingly 'modernist' aspects of Galt's art. Professor Carruthers, for example, comes up with a feminist reading of some short stories that might well have surprised Galt himself. Even more to contemporary taste is his frequent deployment of first-person narrators – such as the Reverend Micah Balwhidder in 'Annals of the Parish' – who are simultaneously reliable (humanely perceptive) and unreliable (unwittingly prejudiced). Will such aspects of his art be enough to bring contemporary readers back to Galt? Only time will tell.