The Author of a "Life of Byron"


Here we have John Galt, one of the Anakim of our "Gallery," for he stood some six feet three, with, as Maginn says, "a stoop in his shoulders." The same authority vouches for the likeness of the face; but adds apologetically:—"we think that our Rembrandt has evinced a Dutchmanlike liberality in the article of trousers; we do not believe that Gait procures his pantaloons from the most scientific of Schneiders, but unless the garment in which he is represented be one which he has brought with him ready manufactured by the axe or the saw of a Canadian backwoodsman, we know not where else he could have seduced a carpenter to have fashioned anything like the nether integument in which he is here depicted." To this testimony as to fidelity of resemblance, may be added that of another competent authority. "The likeness of John Gait," says an able writer in The Hour (Nov. 12, 1873), "is one of the most successful- in the volume. He was tall and comely, with gentlemanlike and unassuming manners. There was nothing whatever about him indicative of the dry and 'pawky' humour which breathes in every page of his best novels, or of the amazing vanity which led him to imagine himself a great writer of tragedies."

So much for the outward man. For the rest, John Gait was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, May 2, 1779. His father, the captain of a West India merchantman, obtained for his son a berth in the Custom-house of Greenock, and later, a place, as clerk, with a mercantile firm. By and by, the young man gravitated to London, where he purposed to establish himself as a merchant. Meantime, in the years 1803-4, he published in the Scots' Magazine portions of a poem in octo-syllabic verse, entitled "The Battle of Largs,"[1] on the score of which, as having preceded the metrical romances of Sir Walter Scott, he was wont in after life to assume no small credit. History and Political Economy also engaged his attention; so that disagreement with his partners, pecuniary embarrassment, and final bankruptcy, seem a natural sequence. Gait now determined to abandon commerce, and entered himself at Lincoln's Inn with a view of being called to the Bar; but wishing to see the world, and improve his health, before he settled down, he determined to spend some time abroad, and left England in 1809.

He remained on the Continent nearly three years; later on, describing his peregrinations in his Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810, 1811, etc. (1812, 4to), and Letters from the Levant, etc. (1813, 8vo).

While abroad, he became acquainted with Byron, whose biographer he was afterwards to become; and subsequently called upon him in London, to get him to use his influence with manager Raymond, in favour of one of his plays. "We are old fellow-travellers," wTOte Byron of him, "and with all his eccentricities he has much strong sense, experience of the world, and is, as far as I have seen, a good-natured, philosophical fellow." On his return from the continent he married a daughter of Dr. Tilloch, the editor of the Philosophical Magazine, and proprietor of the Star newspaper, on the staff of which he was placed. He next produced his Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey (1812, 4to), and his Reflections on Political and Commercial Subjects (1812, 8vo). In the same year he wrote a volume of Tragedies ("Maddalen," "Agamemnon," "Lady Macbeth," "Antonia," and "Clytemnestra)," which Sir Walter Scott pronounced "the worst ever seen"; and he followed this by his Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, 8vo). He edited the New British Theatre, and produced for it sundry contributions; inter alia a tragedy of some power, called The Witness. Another tragedy, The Appeal, appeared in 1818.

To some extent, perhaps, dissuaded from poetry and politics by an adverse article in the Quarterly, the literary organ of the party to which he professed to belong, he turned his attention to fiction, and produced the long series of tales, the titles of which with other works, from a pretty complete collection of the original editions before me, I am enabled to give in the interests of bibliography. In 1820, appeared The Earthquake, George III., his Court and Family, and a sort of chronicle, called The Wandering few, published under the pseudonym of Clark; in 1821, Pictures Historical and Biographical, Annals of the Parish, and The Ayrshire Legatees; in 1822, Sir Andrew Wylie of that Ilk, The Steam-boat, The Provost, and Memoirs of a Life chiefly passed in Pennsylvania; in 1823, The Entail, The Spae-Wife, Ringham Gilhaize, and The Gathering of the West; in 1824, Rothelan, and The Bachelor's Wife, besides a "critical dissertation"' on the tales of Henry Mackenzie, prefixed to an edition of the works of that writer, published by Oliver and Boyd; in 1805, The Omen[2]; in 1826, The Last of the Lairds; in 1830, Southennan, Lawrie Todd, and the Life of Lord Byron; in 1831, The Club-Book, and Lives of the Players; in 1832, The Member, and The Radical; in 1833, Eben Erskine, Stories of the Study, The Stolen Child, Poems, and Autobiography; in 1834, My Literary Life, and Bogle Corbet (without date). In the cultivation of this department of fiction, Gait, like John Wilson, James Hogg and Andrew Picken, was incited by the glory with which it had been invested by Scott, in his Waverley Novels; and his tales of Scottish life, with those strongly individualized characters of now extinct type—the honest "Doctor," and the inimitable "Mr. Pringle," "Sir Andrew Wylie of that Ilk," beau ideal of Scotchmen, "Leddy Grippy," admired of Scott and Byron, and the "Provost," whom Maginn is pleased to style the "first of heroes,"—have possibly salt enough to keep them for awhile. They exhibit, we are forced to admit, no lack of shrewd Scotch humour, pawky sagacity, and occasional pathos; but their humanity, somewhat narrowed and localized by provincialism, is less catholic in its sweep than that which lives and breathes in the immortal fictions of Scott; and they are deficient in those touches of nature which bring the whole world into kinship. The Life of Mansie Wauch,—better than any of them, and of which more anon,—is erroneously attributed to Gait, in the obituary notice in the Gentleman's Magazine vol. ii. p. 93. Of the long series of literary productions which I have recorded, extending to nearly four-score volumes, much is mere bookseller's hack-work which does not need or deserve particularization.

Gait, in that Life of Lord Byron, which Maginn pronounces to be "the best and most honest history of the wayward course of that illustrious childe," has rather spoilt a good story in the telling. Speaking of the clever, but eccentric sister of Lord Carlisle, characterized by Charles James Fox as—

"Carlisle, recluse in pride and rags,"

he talks about a "still coarser apostrophe," in the shape of "two lines" written in answer to the command of her ladyship to go about his business, for she "didn't care two skips of a louse for him."[3] Now the fact is, the witty impromptu consisted of four lines instead of two; and forms so admirable an epigram, that, despite its " coarseness," it merits preservation. It is as follows:—

"A lady has told me, and in her own house,
She does not regard me three skips of a louse;
I forgive the dear creature whate'er she has said,
For women will talk of what runs in their head!"

It is hard to botanize on one's mother's grave; and there is something that jars on the mind when we read Gait's story (page 62) of Byron distracting the melancholy of his thoughts by a sparring-bout with his servant on the day of the funeral of her of whom he spoke as his "one friend in the world." Still, it is consolatory to be told by the domestic that his master "hit harder than usual:" and it is on record that another poet,—the "divine" Hayley,—composed a sonnet on his return from the funeral obsequies of his son.

No one will care a jot to learn the minute details of Gait's squabbles with the Canada Company. The brief facts are these. Having been instructed by the Canadians to urge their claims on the home government for alleged losses during the occupation of the provinces by the army of the United States, his proposal was accepted that these claims should be defrayed by the sale of Crown lands in Upper Canada. A company was formed in 1826 to purchase and colonize these, and he went out to value them. Under his directions, the settlements were founded; Guelph is indebted to him for its existence, and the village of Gait preserves the memory of its origin in its name. But his popularity, for some cause, waned; complaints were made by the Governor against him; and he was superseded by the directors,—perhaps in part at least from the "nature of all human assemblies to kick down the ladder by which they have been raised." Anyway, Gait returned finally to England in 1839, when he was compelled by external pressure to take the benefit of the Insolvent Debtors' Act. His younger son. Sir Alexander Galt, is the well-known and influential Canadian statesman.

He now applied himself to literature, as he himself touchingly says, "to wrench life from famine." He became editor of the Courier, but did not hold the appointment long. His health speedily broke up; paralysis supervened; and he died at Greenock, April 11, 1839, a few days after he had undergone a fourteenth attack of palsy.

Literature produced under such circumstances, must not be judged too harshly. The unfortunate author seemed unaware of the failure of his powers, among which, invention, at the least, was active to the last. Novels, tales, magazine contributions, and his immethodic autobiographies, remain to attest to the manly courage with which he battled against adverse fate in his latter days. Macaulay could not have thought much of his literary style if, as alleged, when wishing to characterize something especially vile, he said that it "reminded him of Galt when writing his finest;" and Moore has embalmed some of the choicest specimens of his diction in his lines entitled, "Alarming Intelligence!—Revolution in the Dictionary!!—One Galt at the head of it!!!"—

"God preserve us! There's nothing now safe from assault;
Thrones toppling around,—churches brought to the hammer;
 And accounts have just reach'd us that one Mr. Galt
Has declared open war against English and Grammar!"[4]

  1. "Largs where the Scotch gave the Northmen a drilling."—Sir Walter Scott.
  2. Reviewed by Sir Walter Scott in his Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol, xviii. p. 333, and Blackwoods Magazine, July, 1826.
  3. Life of Lord Byron, p. 33.
  4. Moore's Poetical Works, Longmans, 1854, vol. ix. p. 48.