Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Galt, John
GALT, JOHN (1779–1839), novelist, was born 2 May 1779 at Irvine in Ayrshire. His father commanded a West-Indiaman. His mother was a woman of much character, shrewd, full of humour, and quaintly original in conversation. Gait as a child was delicate and sensitive, fond of ballads and storybooks. At the age of ten his family removed to Greenock, and Galt completed at various schools the desultory education begun at home and at the grammar school of Irvine. He was then placed in the Greenock custom-house to acquire some clerkly experience, whence he was transferred to a desk in a mercantile house in Greenock. He read in the public library and joined a literary society. He wrote a tragedy on the story of Mary Queen of Scots, which was followed by a poem on the ‘Battle of Largs.’ He contributed verses to local newspapers and to an Edinburgh magazine, and wrote a memoir of John Wilson, author of ‘The Clyde,’ for Leyden's ‘Scottish Descriptive Poems’ (1803). In the period of revolutionary excitement Galt already displayed his toryism. He contributed to newspapers quasi-Tyrtean verse and helped in forming two companies of riflemen, which he avers (Autobiography, i. 41) were ‘the first of the kind raised in the volunteer force of the kingdom.’ Though happy enough at Greenock as a clerk, he felt restless. An insulting letter was addressed to his firm by a Glasgow merchant about 1803. Galt, apparently unauthorised, followed the writer to Edinburgh, where he forced him to write a formal apology. Instead of returning triumphant to Greenock, Galt threw up his situation and migrated to London. While looking about him there he published his poem in octosyllabics on the ‘Battle of Largs.’ He suppressed it immediately after publication (extracts from it are printed in the ‘Scots Magazine’ for 1803 and 1804), apparently because poetry might clash with business, and entered into a commercial partnership with a young Scotchman. In its third year the concern came to grief through the misconduct of one of its correspondents.
Galt now entered at Lincoln's Inn (but was never called to the bar), and began a life of Cardinal Wolsey, suggested during a visit to Oxford, where he found materials in the library of Jesus College. His composition was suspended on obtaining employment which took him to the continent in order to ascertain how far British goods could be exported in defiance of the Berlin and Milan decrees. From Gibraltar to Malta he was a fellow-traveller with Lord Byron, whom he also met at Athens. After visiting Greece and Constantinople and Asia Minor he took a house at Mycone in the Greek Archipelago suitable for the purpose of introducing English merchandise. He afterwards formed a connection with the Glasgow firm of Kirkman Finlay (d. 1828) [q. v.], who had formed a similar scheme. The plan collapsed after some further travel, and ultimately Galt returned to London. There he was engaged by Kirkman Finlay to proceed to Gibraltar, apparently with a view to a scheme for smuggling English goods into Spain. The victories of the Duke of Wellington gave, Galt says, a death-blow to his hopes. He would have lingered on at Gibraltar, but a painful disease forced him to return to England for surgical advice. About this time he made a happy marriage with Elizabeth, only daughter of Alexander Tilloch [q. v.], editor of the ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ to which he was an occasional contributor. With the first restoration of Louis XVI in 1814, Galt paid a visit to France and Holland to promote ‘an abortive scheme,’ and then he returned once more to London.
Galt had already published in 1812 (1) ‘Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811, containing … Statistical, Commercial, and Miscellaneous Observations on Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Serigo [sic], and Turkey;’ (2) ‘The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey;’ (3) ‘The Tragedies of Maddalon, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia and Clytemnestra.’ The ‘Voyages and Travels,’ containing some interesting matter, are disfigured by grave faults of style and by rash judgments. He proposed that England should seize and hold for the benefit of her trade all islands anywhere accessible. He attacked continental aristocracies and priesthoods, and was contemptuously noticed in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for June 1812; while his ignorance and faults of judgment and style were pointed out in a bitter article on his ‘Life of Wolsey’ in the same review for September 1812. The latter work contained some curious and previously unpublished matter relating to Scotland. A second edition appeared in 1817; a third, 1846, ‘with additional illustrations,’ formed vol. i. of the ‘European Library,’ edited by William Hazlitt the younger. Galt's tragedies were praised with bitter irony in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for April 1814, and pronounced by Scott to be ‘the worst ever seen.’ In 1812 he also edited for a short time the ‘Political Review,’ and to Stevenson's edition of Campbell's ‘Lives of the Admirals,’ published in that year, he contributed the biographies of Hawke, Byron, and Rodney, that of Admiral Byron being revised by Lord Byron. In 1813 appeared his ‘Letters from the Levant.’ In 1814 he persuaded Colburn to commence a monthly publication, ‘The Rejected Theatre,’ containing dramas which had been refused by London managers, and other unacted dramas. It appeared in 1814–15 as the ‘New British Theatre’ (4 vols.), edited by Galt, who in the preface assailed the monopoly of the London patent theatres. It contained several dramas of his own, with his translation of two of Goldoni's pieces. One of Galt's plays, published in it, ‘The Witness,’ attracted the favourable notice of Walter Scott's friend, William Erskine, through whose influence it was some years afterwards performed at the Edinburgh Theatre as ‘The Appeal,’ with a prologue ostensibly written by Professor Wilson, but which Galt believed to be the joint product of Lockhart and Captain Hamilton, the author of ‘Cyril Thornton;’ Scott himself, he asserts, composed for it a comic epilogue, but did not acknowledge it. In 1816 appeared anonymously Galt's first known fiction, ‘The Majolo,’ founded on a Sicilian superstition. It had become imperative to write for money. He was introduced to Sir Richard Phillips, to whose magazine he contributed, and for whom he executed sundry compilations. In 1816 appeared part i. of Galt's ‘Life and Studies of Benjamin West … prior to his Arrival in England, compiled from materials furnished by himself.’ Part ii., continued to West's death in 1820, did not appear until 1820. He also published his poem, ‘The Crusade,’ another failure. In 1818 he removed from London to Finnart, near Greenock, to carry out a commercial scheme, on the failure of which he returned to London to aid the passing through parliament of a bill promoted by the Union Canal Company of Scotland. This effected, he issued, as ‘collected by Samuel Prior’ (1820), ‘All the Voyages round the World;’ ‘A Tour of Asia, abridged from the most popular Voyages and Travels, by the Rev. T. Clark’ (1820?), a pseudonym which, on account, he says, of his borrowings in it from his own ‘Letters from the Levant,’ he also used on the title-page of ‘The Wandering Jew, or the Travels and Observations of Harreach the prolonged,’ a conglomerate of history, biography, travel, and descriptive geography; ‘The Earthquake,’ founded on the Messina earthquake of 1783; and ‘Pictures, Historical and Biographical,’ drawn from English, Scottish, and Irish history (1821). In 1822 he edited, with a preface, Alexander Graydon's ‘Memoirs of a Life chiefly passed in Pennsylvania,’ published at Harrisburg, 1811 (see Quarterly Review, xxvi. 364).
In 1820 Blackwood accepted for his new magazine ‘The Ayrshire Legatees,’ Galt's first literary success. It follows the lines of ‘Humphry Clinker.’ A completely original work, ‘The Annals of the Parish,’ was published separately in 1821. It had been begun in 1813, and its completion and publication was prompted by the success of ‘The Ayrshire Legatees.’ It is an admirable picture of rural Scotland, and the shrewdness, simplicity, and piety of the supposed narrator are masterly. Its value as a contribution to the social history of the west of Scotland is considerable. Scott pronounced it to be ‘excellent,’ and it was highly praised by the venerable Henry Mackenzie in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ and by Jeffrey in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, edition of 1864, p. 9 n.) says that he adopted the word ‘utilitarian’ from Galt's ‘Annals of the Parish’ (ch. xxxvi.) The word had been used by Bentham himself long previously (Works, x. 390). In 1822 Galt published the ‘Steamboat,’ a collection of travellers' tales, and ‘The Provost,’ a picture of Scottish character, in ‘Blackwood,’ and ‘Sir Andrew Wylie,’ the most popular of his novels in England. It includes a portrait of his patron, Lord Blessington, to whom the second edition was inscribed. In 1823 appeared ‘The Gathering of the West,’ a jeu d'esprit on George IV's visit to Scotland, and, separately, ‘The Entail,’ which both Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron are said to have read thrice. Galt was now so elated by success as to boast (Gillies, iii. 59) that his literary resources were superior to those of Scott, with whom he resolved to compete in historical fiction. Three forgotten novels were the result: (1) ‘Ringhan Gilhaize’ (1823), (2) ‘The Spaewife’ (1823), and (3) ‘Rothelan’ (1824). In 1824 appeared his compilation ‘The Bachelor's Wife.’
In 1823 Galt went to reside at Esk Grove, near Musselburgh, where he formed an intimacy with D. M. Moir [q. v.] He was appointed agent for the claims of some Canadians for losses incurred during the war of 1814. A scheme for the purchase of crown land in the colony by a company, the proceeds to be applied in satisfying the claims of his clients, was suggested by him. The home government would not consent to the plan, but the Canada Company, as it was ultimately called, resolved to go on with the purchase on its own account, and appointed Galt to the post of secretary. Galt devoted himself exclusively to the interests of his new employers, having done his best, though unsuccessfully, for his former clients. The home government appointed a commission, with Galt as one of its members, to investigate the matter in Upper Canada. On its return discussions took place, during which Galt wrote ‘The Omen’ (1825), praised by Scott in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ and the ‘Last of the Lairds’ (1826). Towards the close of 1826 he returned to Canada to organise a system of operations. At the end of eight months he became the company's Canadian superintendent, and directed the execution of his plans for the settlement of its lands. He threw himself into his task with great energy and success. One of his first labours was to found the town of Guelph in what is now the province of Ontario. In 1872 the township contained a population of fifty thousand. The company, however, did not obtain an immediate profit; its stock fell; Galt quarrelled with the lieutenant-governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland, and was at last superseded.
Bitterly disappointed, Galt returned in 1829 to England, and had to meet heavy claims. He was unable to pay 80l. due to Dr. Valpy, a ‘friend’ of long standing, for the education of his sons. According to Gillies (iii. 60–1), he was not only arrested, but suffered a long detention which contributed to the subsequent breakdown of his health. He was now entirely dependent on his pen for the support of himself and his family, and, still sanguine, he calculated that he could make 1,000l. a year by it. His first work after his return was ‘Lawrie Todd, or the Settlers in the Woods’ (1830, reissued in 1831 as No. 21 of ‘Standard Novels’), which contains some graphic sketches of settler life in America. In the same year appeared ‘Southennan’ and a ‘Life of Lord Byron’ (issued as No. 1 of G. R. Gleig's ‘National Library’), which, though valueless, went through four editions, and was translated into French and German. It involved Galt in a controversy with Hobhouse. For a few months in 1830, at the instance of Lockhart and John Murray, Galt edited the tory evening newspaper the ‘Courier.’ In 1831 Galt went to live at Barnes Cottage, Old Brompton, where he was visited by the Countess of Blessington (see Thomson, ii. 110–11). In the same year appeared his readable compilation ‘The Lives of the Players’ (reprinted in 1886), and a novel, ‘Bogle Corbet, or the Emigrants.’ Among the periodicals to which he contributed was the recently founded ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ Carlyle, who met him at a dinner party given by its proprietor, says in his journal (21 Jan. 1832): ‘Galt looks old, is deafish, has the air of a sedate Greenock burgher; mouth indicating sly humour and self-satisfaction; the eyes, old and without lashes, gave me a sort of wae interest for him. He wears spectacles, and is hard of hearing; a very large man, and eats and drinks with a certain west-country gusto and research. Said little, but that little peaceable, clear, and gutmüthig. Wish to see him again.’ In a letter of the following February Carlyle speaks of him as ‘a broad gawsie Greenock man, old-growing, loveable with pity.’ In 1832 appeared (1) ‘The Member,’ a satire on borough-mongering and political jobbery; (2) ‘The Radical;’ and (3) ‘Stanley Buxton, or the Schoolfellows,’ a novel. In this year he had the first of a long series of attacks ‘analogous to paralysis.’ It destroyed his hopes of an active connection with the British North American Land Company, of which a board of directors had been appointed with himself for its provisional secretary.
In 1833 Galt issued a volume of ‘Poems,’ ‘Stories of the Study,’ 2 vols., a novel, ‘Eben Erskine,’ and supplied the letterpress for the first and only instalment of ‘Ouranologos, or the Celestial Volume,’ in which the effects of line-engraving were to be combined with those of mezzotint, John Martin designing and engraving for it ‘The Eve of the Deluge.’ In the same year appeared his ‘Autobiography,’ remarkable for the absence of querulousness and for self-complacency. This was followed in 1834 by his ‘Literary Life and Miscellanies,’ 3 vols. The volumes were dedicated by permission to William IV, who sent him 200l. Mrs. Thomson (ii. 115) speaks of one donation to him of 50l. from the Literary Fund. His three sons had now received appointments in Canada, where one of them, the present Sir Alexander Galt, rose to be finance minister of the Dominion. Galt, poor and paralysed, found, towards the close of 1834, a home at Greenock with an affectionate sister. He bore his sufferings with great fortitude and cheerfulness. In 1836 he edited, with an introduction, ‘Forty Years' Residence in America exemplified in the Life of Grant Thorburn [the original Lawrie Todd], Seedsman, New York, written by himself;’ in 1839 appeared vols. iii. and iv. of ‘Lady Charlotte Bury's Diary, illustrative of the Times of George IV,’ with his preface and an appendix of personal reminiscences. He died at Greenock 11 April 1839, and was buried in the family grave. ‘The Demon of Destiny, and Other Poems,’ was edited posthumously by his friend Harriett Pigott, and privately printed in 1840. In Blackwood's ‘Standard Novels’ (vols. i. ii. iv. vi.) are reprints of his best fictions, ‘The Annals of the Parish,’ ‘The Ayrshire Legatees,’ ‘Sir Andrew Wylie,’ ‘The Entail,’ with some of his minor pieces. He printed at the end of the ‘Autobiography’ a list of his writings, not including his numerous contributions to periodicals. It is reproduced, with insignificant additions, at the end of the volume of ‘Poems.’ In not a single case has he given the date of publication. There is a portrait of Galt with a valueless notice of him in 'Fraser's Magazine' for December 1831, both of which are reproduced in Bates's reprint from that periodical of its 'Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters' (1873). Moir describes him in his forty-fourth year, when in the full vigour of health, as of 'herculean frame.' He was more than six foot in height. 'His hair was thin, jet black; his eyes small, but piercing; his nose almost straight; long upper lip, and finely rounded chin.' In society 'his manner was somewhat measured and solemn, and characterised by a peculiar benignity and sweetness.' Mrs. Thomson (ii. 103-4), referring to his conversation, dwells on his remarkable 'gift of narrative.' 'He spoke in a low monotonous voice, with much of the Greenock accent marring its sweetness, but adding to its effect,' what he said being 'simple, succinct, unambitious in phrase.'
[The chief authorities for Gait's career are his Autobiography and Literary Life. But both works, though diffuse, are provokingly deficient in dates and definiteness of detail, imperfections which are to some extent rectified in D.M. Moir's excellent and sympathetic memoir prefixed to vol. i. of Blackwood's Standard Novels. There are interesting personal reminiscences of Gait in vol. ii. of Mrs. Thomson's Recollections of Literary Characters (1854), 'John Gait,' and a few of less value in R. P. Gillies's Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, 1851.]