Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
John Galt (17791839)
[John Galt was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, in 1779. He abandoned a post in the Custom House to embark upon a literary career in London, but was soon obliged by ill health to travel in the south of Europe and the Levant, where he came into contact with Byron and his friends. In 1826 he received an appointment in Canada, where in a short time he lost all his money, and whence he was obliged to return home. In the course of this unsettled and extremely chequered life, he produced a great mass of literary work of various degrees of merit; nor did his industry slacken until he dieda broken-down and disappointed manin 1839.]
GALT was possessed from youth of that turn for literature which is not hastily to be accounted spurious or unworthy because, unhappily, its earliest and most obvious manifestation is an invincible repugnance to professional or mercantile pursuits. How genuine and how strong this predisposition to letters was in his case needs no laboured demonstration. His youthful performances, indeed, are the merest trifling, while those of his last years are best veiled in a kindly oblivion. But three or four masterpieces of his middle life proclaim their authors genius as distinctly as they indicate the narrow compass within which it was confined. No writer was ever less versatile than Galt. Nothing could be more tedious than his pictures of polite society; while the very hairs breadth by which the Omen falls short of success, supplies the best possible proof of the limitations of his art. He touched many themes; he adorned only one. In that particular department, however,the life and manners of the Scottish lower and lower-middle classes,Galt must be allowed to have achieved an artistic triumph. He had a fund of observation; he was intimately conversant with the daily existence and the modes of thought and speech of the people he portrayed; and he was endowed with an insight into and a comprehension of the national character in certain ranks of life which Sir Walter Scott has not surpassed. To these high qualifications he added a literary gift which enabled him to select, to arrange, and to elicit the type from the individual with unerring instinct. The Ayrshire Legatees, the Steamboat, and the Entail contain a hundred happy touches; they are inferior to the Annals of the Parish, a work distinguished no less by admirable judgment and self-restraint than by an absolute fidelity to nature; and the Annals in turn must yield to the Provost, in which the progress of a merchant in a Scottish provincial town to the highest municipal office, and his conduct therein, are described with a grasp of character and a dry, though essentially sympathetic, humour, which can scarce be overestimated. Let it be reckoned also to Galts credit that he entirely eschewed that cheap and gushing pathos which is peculiarly apt to intrude in tales drawn from humble Scottish life.
Much of his dialogue is necessarily couched in the broad Scottish vernacular, which he employs with great vigour, purity, and freedom; while the scheme of many of his stories renders it no less imperative that the narrative portion should be strongly tinctured with the Scottish idiom. The result is a style so appropriate to the matter, and so racy as to be, upon the whole, eminently pleasing, if at times somewhat quaint and homely. When he attempted to write striking and elaborate English he generally failed; but so much trouble has evidently been spent upon making the vocabulary of the Omen choice and its style impressive, and so nearly, as has been indicated, is the author rewarded by the attainment of his end, that an extract from that work is here appended.