Scottish author John Galt (1779-1839) wrote extensively during the early 1800s, producing novels as well as works of drama, poetry, art criticism, and biography. He also worked as a lobbyist and founded settlements in Canada. Galt's style of novel writing contributed to the development of the realistic Scottish novel in which characters were depicted in their day-to-day lives in the Scottish countryside, speaking in colorful local idioms.
John Galt was born on May 2, 1779, in the Scottish seaport town of Irvine, in the county of Ayrshire. Born to John Galt, captain of a merchant ship, and Jean Tilloch Galt, he was the oldest of four children. His health was fragile as a child, and he spent much of his time reading and helping his mother garden. Galt's mother was a major influence on him, and her use of metaphorical language and mastery of Scottish dialect would later be reflected in his novels. His family moved to another seaport town, Greenock, a little farther north in western Scotland when he was ten years old. From this port his father expanded his mercantile business, which included trading with Jamaica. Although bookish, and displaying ability in writing couplets from age six, Galt was taught subjects considered useful in business, including math, astronomy, penmanship, English, and French.
At a young age he was apprenticed in business. He worked as a clerk in Greenock between 1795 and 1804, first at the customs house and later in another commercial enterprise. At age 25, in 1804, Galt moved to London to enter the business world. His first partnership with another young man failed after he discovered his partner was bankrupt. His next business venture with his brother, Tom, lasted a short time before his brother left for Honduras. Although several of his business ventures during his first five years in London were unsuccessful, it was at this time Galt began his writing career. In 1804 he published The Battle of Largs: A Gothic Epic, with Several Miscellaneous Pieces and wrote numerous articles on a range of subjects for the Greenock Advertiser and the Scots Magazine. Other early works included publications in the newspaper the Star, and an article entitled, "Statistical Account of Upper Canada," published in October of 1807 in Philosophical Magazine.
In 1809, at about 30 years old, Galt planned to reside in Lincoln's Inn and study for a career in law. After spending the next two years travelling, however, Galt abandoned his plans to become a lawyer. During his time abroad in the Mediterranean and Near East, he met English author George Gordon, Lord Byron, with whom he travelled from Gibraltar to Malta in 1809. Soon Galt became involved in yet another unsuccessful business venture. This plan was designed to thwart Napoleon's decrees blocking British ships from trading with Europe. Galt's scheme had been to move merchandise into Europe via Turkey, after the goods had been stored secretly on a Greek island. Although a business failure, the correspondence he had with a friend, James Park, became the cornerstone for Galt's first book. Voyages and Travels in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811 was published in January of 1812. He also served as editor for Political Review later that same year.
Galt married Elizabeth Tilloch, daughter of Dr. Alexander Tilloch who owned the Philosophical Magazine, on April 20, 1813. By then, Galt had also published a biography about Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1812) which he had researched at Jesus College, Oxford. Additional books about his travels included an autobiography, and Letters from the Levant, which was published in 1813. From 1814 to 1815 he was editor for New British Theatre (a monthly periodical), as well as the author of several published plays. He was also a frequent contributor to the Monthly Magazine during the years 1817-1823.
By 1818 Galt had moved to Glasgow, Scotland. He was well-connected politically, and used his influence as a lobbyist for several causes. Beginning in 1819 he worked for a year for the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal Company, promoting the Glasgow-Edinburgh canal. Later clients he lobbied for included the United Empire Loyalists, a group of Canadian settlers who sought money from the British government for their losses incurred when American soldiers had crossed into Canada during the War of 1812.
Although Galt continued his lobbying activity, beginning in 1820 he started gaining recognition as a novelist. At that time, his association with William Blackwood, the publisher of Blackwood's Magazine benefitted both men. Blackwood found the novelist he had sought for his publication, and Galt found a outlet for his early novels. From mid-1820 to the end of 1822, Blackwood's Magazine published a great deal of Galt's writing, including book reviews and other articles as well as installments of The Ayrshire Legatees and Annals of the Parish, both of which were later released as complete novels.
During the years 1820 to 1825, Galt wrote ten novels about life in West Scotland. He chronicled daily existence during the period of social and economic change brought on by the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some scholars considered four of his novels, Annals of the Parish (1821), The Ayrshire Legatees (1821), The Provost (1822), and The Entail (1822), his best works detailing English and Scottish society during this period. Galt used realistic depictions, including local vernacular, in his novels, and those unfamiliar with the dialect might find a glossary of Scottish idioms and terms useful.
After four years as agent for the United Empire Loyalists, a large group of settlers in Upper Canada (now Ontario) for whom he had lobbied Britain's Colonial Office, he failed to recover their losses from the British government. Instead of giving up, he sought another means of gaining financial remuneration for his clients. Through a complex turn of events, the Canada Company was formed in 1825 with Galt as one of its commissioners. The company planned to develop a million acres of government-owned woodlands located between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario for settlement and then resell at a profit. That same year, Galt made his first voyage to North America. During this trip, he organized the takeover of extensive acreage which would later be sold to settlers. He also visited New York State in the United States to study methods of settling land and plan for new towns, before returning to London in June 1825.
Galt made a second trip to Canada in 1826. His Autobiography (1833) chronicles his travels with William "Tiger" Dunlop throughout Canada, and is considered an excellent resource about the usual weather patterns, system of roads, methods of shipping, and social life of the day. And although Galt stopped writing novels during his time in Canada, in 1826 The Last of the Lairds was published in London while he was in North America.
Initially this venture to develop settlements in Canada looked promising. On Galt's return visit in 1826, he was made superintendent. He was instrumental in founding the towns of Guelph and Goderich in today's Ontario, Canada. He had plans for other colonies, too. Galt even brought his wife and three sons to Canada in 1828, intending to settle there permanently. But by April 1829, he lost his profitable position due to what the company called "mismanagement." Forced to return to England, he landed in Liverpool in May of 1829. Unfortunately he had not left trouble behind in Canada. Galt had left considerable debt behind in England, and upon his return, his creditors sought payment. Unfortunately, Galt had used the money to educate his sons, and he could not repay the amount owed. Because of non-payment of his debts, he was arrested on July 15, 1829, and served in the King's Bench debtors' prison until November 10, 1829. While in prison, his health began to fail.
Although Galt had written little in Canada, during his four months in prison he produced many commercial articles for magazines as well as several books. He wrote the novel, Lawrie Todd; or, The Settlers in the Wood, which was published in 1830, and depicted life in a settlement in the United States. Also published in 1830 was a biography about Lord Byron, and a romantic novel, Southennan, set in the sixteenth century during reign of Mary Queen of Scots. Numerous articles appeared in Fraser's Magazine, including "The Hurons, a Canadian Tale," "Canadian Sketches," "American Traditions," and "Guelph in Upper Canada."
The success of Lawrie Todd eased his financial difficulties. Additionally, after the increase of the Canada Company's stock value, Galt's management skills were looked upon favorably again, and he was hired by the British-American Land Company in 1831 as its secretary. He continued writing about his experiences in Canada, and 1831 the novel, Bogle Corbet; or, The Emigrants, was published. He wrote articles about the country for several publications, including Fraser's, Tait's, and Blackwood's.
In 1832 Galt suffered the first in a series of three strokes. The second occurred in 1834, and last in 1836. By then he had returned to his native Scotland and, due to his extensive efforts at writing, was debt free. In spite of Galt's abrupt departure from Canada, the family remained respectable there, and his son, Thomas, became a judge in the country, while another would become Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, the nation's prime minister. Although Galt wrote with great difficulty during his last years, he continued publishing articles and books, many concerned with the topic of Canada. Some of his last works were dictated to his son, and although considered by many critics to be inconsistent and verbose, they were are also recognized as informative to students of early life in Canada. Among these were The Demon of Destiny; and Other Poems (1839) and The Literary Life and Miscellanies of John Galt (1834). Galt died on April 11, 1839, in Greenock, Scotland.
During his lifetime, Galt produced over 40 volumes of material. He wrote novels, biography, travel, poetry, and art criticism. Ian A. Gordon noted in Novelists and Prose Writers, that a distinction should be made between works written under financial pressure and others. Gordon commented, "Galt's major contribution to the novel was his sensitive and yet ironic portrayal of the rural Scotland of the late eighteenth century, a period when agricultural society was giving way to the new industrial growth." Galt considered The Provost his best effort. The story of a man's personal advancement in a Scottish town, the work had also been praised by his contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his biography, John Galt: The Life of a Writer, Gordon declared Galt "a novelist of considerable power, with an assured niche in literary history."
Daiches, David, A Critical History of English Literature, Volume II, second edition, Ronald Press, 1970.
Gordon, Ian A., John Galt: The Life of a Writer, University of Toronto Press, 1972.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 99: Canadian Writers before 1890, 1990; Volume 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832, 1992; Volume 159: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800-1880, 1996;
Vinson, James, editor, Novelists and Prose Writers, St. Martin's Press, 1979.