He also projected, with Mr. Colburn the publisher, a periodical which, under the title of the "New British Theatre," should publish the best of those dramatic productions which the managers of the great play-houses had rejected. It was hoped that in this way deserving talent would be rescued from oblivion; and "many a gem of purest ray serene" be made to glitter in the eye of a delighted world, instead of being trampled among the dust of the green-room. It was a most benevolent and hopeful speculation, of which Galt, the proposer, was appointed editor. But little did he anticipate the flood-gates of mud which such a proposal opened.
There was an instant jail delivery of manuscript plays, enough to have converted the country into a literary Botany Bay or Alsatia; and Galt, amidst the heap of dramatic matter, under which he was well-nigh smothered, was obliged to confess at last that the managers of theatres were not such reckless or unjust rejectors as they had been called. The work at its commencement was successful, but soon afterwards fell off, although the plan was improved by the admission of plays that had been written but not presented.
Before it expired, Galt possessed and availed himself of the opportunity of inserting some of his own dramatic productions, among which was the tragedy of "The Witness," afterwards performed in several towns with altered titles.
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After this, his career for some years was one of active business, combined with authorship. During his travels he had conceived the idea of importing British goods through Turkey, in spite of the continental blockade by which Napoleon endeavoured to exclude our commerce; and upon this plan he employed himself diligently for some time both in England and Scotland.
But the conception appeared too bold and hazardous to those traders who were invited to the risk; and his efforts ended in disappointment.
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Another occupation with which he was commissioned, was to superintend a bill through the House of Commons, intrusted to him by the Union Canal Company. As enough of leisure was afforded him in London during the suspense of this bill, he wrote the "Life and Studies of Benjamin West. Of this work two considerable editions were sold, although it had never been reviewed.
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This neglect the author, who affectionately clung to the remembrance of his Wandering Jew to the last, regarded with some surprise. Amidst all the toil and struggle of these literary attempts, John Galt had not yet discovered where his strength lay. History, biography, travels, epic and dramatic poetry, romance—he had tried them all, but attained success in none.
His over-boiling imagination and erratic fancy were too much even for fiction, whether in prose or verse; and when he attempted sober narrative, his love of originality was ever leading him into some startling paradox, which the facts of history were unable to make good. The eccentricity of his political opinions had also given not a little offence to the still predominant party; for although a Tory in theory, he seemed a very Radical in practice, and had more than once run a muck against the powers that be, when he found them stopping up his way.
On this account he had also brought down upon his head, the ire of the Quarterly Review, whose censure was enough to blight the popularity of an author among Tory readers, and throw him out upon neutral ground. Thus, up to , his attempts were a series of literary blunders, and his production of that year, "The Earthquake," a stern, sombre novel, in three volumes, which has shared the fate of his other productions written before this period, should, in ordinary circumstances, have been his last attempt in authorship.
But in his long search in the dark he had hit upon the right vein at last. It was not in the wild and wonderful that he was to excel, but in the homely, the humorous, and the caustic. His first attempt in this way was the "Ayrshire Legatees"—a work which originated in mere accident.
One of his enjoyments was to "show the lions" to such strangers as were introduced to him in London; and of these, as might be expected, were many original characters from the far north, whose sensations among the wonders of the great metropolis were a rich feast to his keen observant eye and quick sense of the ludicrous. It soon occurred to him that these peculiarities might be embodied in particular personages, and illustrated by correspondent adventures. The whole materials were before him like those of a rich landscape, and only needed artistic selection and combination to form a very choice picture.
Upon this idea he set to work, and without any formal plot for his story, scene after scene grew upon his hand as it was needed, until the "Ayrshire Legatees" was the result. It was a style of writing which had been so long disused, as to have all the charms of originality, while the truthfulness of the different characters was such as to impart to fiction all the charms of reality. Galt found that he had succeeded at last, and followed up his success with the "Annals of the Parish," which was published in In this work, also, he had not troubled himself about the construction of a regular plot, and, like its predecessor, it was all the better for the omission.
He certainly could not have adopted a better model. No one can imagine that the pen of Galt, so indefatigable when success was against it, would now relapse into idleness. In the "Annals of the Parish" he had exhibited the progress of improvement in a rural district of the west of Scotland; he was now desirous of describing the same progress in a town.
Such was the origin of the "Provost," which was published in I think no ingenuity can make an entirely new thing. Man can only imagine the old together; join legs, and arms, and wings as he may, only the forms of previously-created things can be imitated. I therefore give up all pretension to belonging to that class who deal in the wild and wonderful; my wish is, to be estimated by the truth of whatever I try to represent. The next work of Galt was the "Steam-boat," a novel, published originally in Blackwood, in which he wished to give such an account of the coronation of George IV.
This was followed by "Sir Andrew Wyllie," in which he wished to exhibit the rise and progress of an humble Scotchman in London. In this tale, however, he gave way to his literary besetting sin, a fault of which he was afterwards fully conscious; and he says of it very justly, "The incidents are by far too romantic and uncommon to my own taste, and are only redeemed from their extravagance by the natural portraiture of the characters. But, indeed, either accurate conception or finished execution could scarcely be expected from Galt in his writings at this period, when we remember that the three last-mentioned works, viz.
The subject was the visit of George IV. He therefore says of the "Gathering," and its kindred work, the "Steam-boat"—"Notwithstanding the deference for magnates and magnificence under which these works were written, the original sin may be detected here and there peeping out, insomuch that those who consider Toryism as consisting of the enjoyment of at least pensions, must be dreadfully shocked to think even a moderate politician of any sort could be so far left to himself as to speak so irreverently of things which concerned the affairs of empires and burgh towns.
Thus the "Entail," "Ringan Gilhaize," and the "Spaewife"—each a three-volumed novel—were published during this year of portentous abundance. The first of these novels was founded upon an incident related by the Lord Provost of Glasgow to Galt.
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It was in this way that he was accustomed to make the most of everything that he had heard or witnessed, by either laying it down as the groundwork of a tale, or introducing it as an amusing episode; and in this faculty of adaptation lay much of the excellence of his popular works. Thus his vigorous and picturesque description of the northern coast of Scotland, in the "Entail," was expanded from an interesting account of the locality given to him by a daughter of Sir John Sinclair; while many of the grotesque events and humorous jokes with which his other tales abound, had long previously enlivened the firesides of the peasantry.
In him, however, it was no small merit that he should have introduced them so happily, and told them so well. As a proof of the acceptability of his last-mentioned work, Galt tells us, in his "Literary Life and Miscellanies," that Sir Walter Scott had read it thrice, and Lord Byron as often. Of "Ringan Gilhaize," he also tells us that it received the unique and distinguished honour of being recommended from the pulpit by one of the ministers of Aberdeen.
This tale, in which the narrator, a persecuted Covenanter, relates the history of his grandfather, gives a sketch of the rise and progress of the Reformation in Scotland, from the days of Knox and Murray to the close of the reign of the Stuarts; and for the purpose of collecting materials, and preserving the accuracy of the narrative, Galt went to Rinsory-house to gather traditions, and collected several relics of the battle of Killiecrankie.
The cause which incited him to write such a work was indignation at the popularity of "Old Mortality," in which the Covenanters were held up to ridicule; and he was animated with a chivalrous zeal to vindicate the character of these heroic but much-vilified sufferers in the cause of conscience and religion. But unfortunately Ringan Gilhaize was no match for Balfour of Burley. In this tale Galt very rashly abandoned his own field of broad reality and plain every-day life, for one where nothing but history and imagination could aid him; and therefore it exhibited a marked deficiency both in execution and popular interest.
It was still worse, however, with the "Spaewife," where he went back from the Covenanting periods, with which the Scottish public can still sympathize, to the fifteenth century of Scottish history, about which they know little and care still less; and with all his attempts at the sublime, which often swelled into the turgid, he could not interest his readers one jot in the Duke of Albany and his worthless brood, or even in James I.
It was certainly an over-ambitious attempt, and as such it failed. At this period the empire of historical romance belonged to Sir Walter Scott, and to him alone, without peer or rival. But that such an attempt was the opening of a safety-valve, and that the work would have exploded in some fashion or other, is manifest, from the following statement of the author:—"The fate of James I. In riper life, many years after, I wrote the novel; and my knowledge of the age in which the transactions lie, enabled me to complete the story in such a manner that, merely as an antiquarian essay, it merits consideration.
But it unfortunately happened that the printer was smitten with the same ambition, and not liking the tunes, he substituted two of his own, which were printed in the work. On going down stairs I found it in the library, where we usually breakfasted; and as pleased at the sight as a hen with her egg, of which she cannot keckle enough to the world about, I lifted the volumes, and turned to the tunes. Courteous reader, sympathize! Instead of my fine airs, with an original inflection, that had been much admired by a competent judge, I beheld two that surely had been purchased at the easy charge of a halfpenny a-piece from a street piper!
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I looked aghast, and almost fainted. There was a grand piano in the drawing-room. I rushed, book in hand, upstairs in a whirlwind. A change once more occurred in the life of Galt, in which the active laborious author was to be transformed into the equally active and enterprising man of business. Besides being reckoned only inferior to Sir Walter Scott as a delineator of Scottish character and manners, his reputation stood high as one well acquainted with the principles and practice of commerce; and on this account the inhabitants of Canada commissioned him as their agent to prosecute their claims on the home government for the losses they had sustained during the occupation of the province by the army of the United States.
During the negotiations which occurred in consequence, a proposal to sell Crown lands in Upper Canada for the indemnification of the sufferers was made by Mr. Galt, and adopted by government, and a Canada Company was incorporated in , to purchase land and colonize it. During the previous year he had been employed in valuing the lands that were to be exposed to sale, after which he had returned to England; but in the autumn of he went back to Canada, where he was employed by the company as their superintendent. His able and active management soon secured the confidence of his constituents; new settlements were founded, a village was called by his name, and the township of Guelph was his entire creation.
Such is too often the folly and the fate of those who go forth as the reformers of our colonies; they enter their new sphere of action with their heads filled with Magna Charta and the rights of British citizenship, forgetful all the while of the distance of these colonies from the parent seat of government, and the necessity of a more stringent rule than would be tolerated in London or Edinburgh.
This seems to have been the error of Galt; and in consequence of the complaints that were sent home against him, he was superseded by the directors of the company. For the encouragement of the drama in Quebec he also wrote a farce, entitled "Visitors; or, a Trip to Quebec," which was acted with great success by an amateur company. He intended to write a third for his own town of Guelph, where his dwelling-house was to be converted into a theatre, and the drama introduced into this infant settlement; but his design was suspended by more urgent demands, and the necessity of his speedy return to England.
This event occurred in , after he had been two years and a half in America. The world was now to be commenced anew; but the elasticity of youth and the ardour of hope were exhausted, and Galt, now at the age of fifty, had already done more than most men have achieved at that period. And yet he must continue an author, no longer, however, from choice, but necessity; for of all that he had possessed, nothing but his pen remained. And bravely he girded himself for the task, and published in succession "Lawrie Todd," "Southennan," and the "Life of Lord Byron. While he was occupied with the "Life of Lord Byron," a caustic production, in which his lordship meets with somewhat rough entertainment, Galt accepted the editorship of the "Courier," a newspaper of high Tory principles.
But however well-adapted in many ways for such an office, it is easy to guess that he could not continue long to hold it, and that the same independence of spirit which wrecked him in Canada, would mar him as the Corypheus of any political party whatever in the journalism of London. Accordingly, without manifesting particular solicitude to make myself remarkable, I began by attempting gradually to alleviate the ultra-toryism of the paper, by explanations of more liberality than the sentiments of any party.
In point of emolument it was convenient; but, as I have elsewhere shown, money matters have ever been perhaps too slightly regarded by me, and my resignation, though it partook of that promptitude of enunciation which all my decisions have uniformly manifested, was, however, the result of very solemn reflection. About the same period Galt, while thus busied with literature, attempted to form a new American Land Company, but was unsuccessful; and to aggravate his misfortunes, two attacks of paralysis warned him that his day of enterprise had ended—that he was now chained to the oar.
He retired to his native country, there to await his time, so doubly uncertain; and to close his eyes, when his hour came, amidst the scenery and society which he had loved so well. Yet he still continued to linger on from year to year, although repeated shocks of the malady inflicted at each visitation the "bitterness of death;" and while his memory was impaired and his mind enfeebled, he was still obliged to toil for the support of a life that seemed scarcely worth having.
And yet he could still be happy, for his was that healthful state of feeling that looked habitually upon the bright side of things, and could find itself occupation as long as a single faculty remained in exercise. Galt settled in London in Commissioned by a merchant firm to establish trade agreements, he travelled to the Mediterranean area, where he met the poet Byron, with whom he travelled to Malta and later to Athens. In he published Life of Lord Byron. Other commercial ventures took him to France and the Netherlands and to Canada He opened up a road between Lakes Huron and Erie through the forest country and founded the city of Guelph in Upper Canada now Ontario in His position with the Canada Land Company was undermined by enemies, and he returned home practically a ruined man.
All his life he had been a voluminous writer, and he now devoted himself entirely to literature. The Ayrshire Legatees tells, in the form of letters to their friends in Scotland , the adventures of the Rev. Pringle and his family in London. The Annals of the Parish , told by the Rev. And in the novel Lawrie Todd the hard life of a Canadian settler is depicted with imaginative power. John Galt. Article Media.
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