John Galt: Never forgot his birthplace.

The International Companion to John Galt

Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd
This essay appears in: The International Companion to John Galt (Scottish Literature International, £14.94, ISBN: 9781908980274, PP180)
by Andrew O’Hagan

Ayrshire’s Other Bard

June 9, 2017 | by Andrew O’Hagan

Overlooking the graveyard in Greenock where John Galt is buried, there is now a sheltered housing block named after him. Its residents remember the Renfrewshire town as it used to be, but they also feel remembered by the town itself, as if ‘Greenock’ was fully personified, not just a collection of buildings and bus stops and alleyways and drains, but an organism of history with a powerful memory of its own.

Thirty-four miles down the coast, in Ayrshire, the ancient burgh of Irvine has a plaque to Galt at the house where he lived, and, for years, John Galt Primary School stood to remind locals of the town’s most famous literary son. Galt was born in Bank Street in 1779 to a sea captain and a seamstress. He moved away with his family at the age of ten, trying his hand at Greenock, then in London, Canada, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, but for reasons known to capable nostalgists the world over, or to literary archaeologists of selfhood, it was his birthplace that took root in his imagination and grew large in his work.

I used to trace the contours of that plaque with a small finger. It seemed incredible to me as a boy that a writer could be remembered in iron, that his name could go forward through the centuries, and that the faces he captured – so alive, fresh, and ruddy – could rhyme with the faces coming down the road in the Irvine of my own day. Galt was Coleridge’s favourite novelist, the first of his kind to draw on the industrial revolution, inventing the political novel whilst exhibiting a Flemish touch for portraying small-town interiors and common faces. The painter David Wilkie loved Galt, and he shared a similar talent for capturing small-town Scots at their social and political business, ‘characters’ in a way people would still recognize, animated by settled notions of their nature and their economic reality, but lightened by laughter, embodying a simple and powerful notion of truth. In his fiction, our little towns cohered into ‘Gudetown’, ‘Irville’, ‘Garnock’, ‘Dozent’, or ‘Dalmailing’: it is in essence a place fully dimensioned nowhere on earth but in the imagination of the author, a place of ghosts, moreover, whose grief and laughter haunted Galt’s own sense of life. The rustic, pre-industrial West Coast town was on its way out in Scotland as Galt sat down to write; the world of Robert Burns – of holy fairs, kirk supremacy, and excisemen inspecting old ladies’ barrels – was dying as Galt conjured with the spectre of his dirty old town. Yet, in some proto-Modernist manner, he brings the place ceaselessly back as a manifest of his own native psychology: his Dalmailing is the blazing negative of a world he can never have fully known, a place that was lost to him, as innocence is lost and one’s parents are lost in the frugality of time, and yet the world of literature, we see, is forever a sphere of newly arriving sunlight. In this way, Galt’s vision of the town is an auspicious and poetical new dawn for the Scottish novel, a magnification of the psychic relationship that can exist between place and character in modern works, nearly a hundred years before the arrival on the page of Proust’s distant Combray, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Samuel Beckett’s luminous Emptiness.

In a manner later taken up by Thomas Hardy – whose Wessex feels like a more serious enbrownment of John Galt’s western world – we find that the action is wholly mediated through the kenspeckle witnessing of a chorus. In Galt’s tales, indeed, it is as if events emerge from the ‘gossipry of the town’, a phrase to be found in his short story ‘The Mem’ (1834), about a fifty-something schoolmistress, Miss Peerie, whose frugal and sedentary ways appear to cheat her both of lover and love. Galt’s examination has the quality not of an individual dissection but of a common observance. We know as much, not because Galt tells us so, but from the energy of the telling, where a loquacious social discrimination is raised into common sense:

At first her forlorn condition made her constant sadness not remarkable: it seemed, in the opinion of every body, natural and becoming; and though many condoled at the way she lived aloof, none thought that she could be drawn from her retirement. Maybe they were right; but they made no effort, and the poor woman was habituated to neglect long before those that were to blame suspected themselves of committing any wrong towards her. Thus she was far above the thirties before it was thought that the carelessness of her neighbours had been in any degree that cause of her loneliness. She was far advanced in life when it was by-hand noticed, and it had grown in to a second nature with her, that would not be altered.

The reader might delight at the delineation of a type, but we might also perceive the tolling of a local bell in the grey edifice of this voice, for it is the voice of the Reverend Micah Balwhidder, the parish’s chief spiritual guide as well as its fiercest gossip. Balwhidder, an embryo of the great gentleman that had narrated Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), brings the town to life as if he owned it, but also as if possessed by it. ‘In the Sabbath evenings,’ our narrator says, ‘when all nature was sedate’ – presumably thanks to his pluming sermons – when ‘the sounds of the blacksmith’s hammer and the wheels of the wagon and market-cart were at rest, Miss Peerie might be seen walking by herself by the river side, or meditating among the whins on the green. As long as I recollect, this was the case. Every one that saw her spoke in passing by, and her words in answer were few and well chosen; but they gave no encouragement to communion.’ And by similar means we find ourselves in the company of a whole town, a whole town with one woman at the edge, venturing into herself as a person of her sort might. Nothing happens in the story, and yet a whole life happens. Miss Peerie is eventually seen no more by her neighbours. Our douce narrator tells us she remained by her spark of a fire and one day quickly died. Yet, in Galt’s hands, it is the town that is characterized in its reaction to the lonely woman’s death. The mothers of the town took heed and worried at the possible course of life for their own unmarried daughters.

This is the painterly Galt – all stasis yet all vision, wherein a seemingly gossipy portrait of a Scottish schoolteacher can become a manifestation of the town’s anxieties, filtered through the consciousness of its greatest worthy. Galt had that tendency of some novelists to understand the world to some extent backwards, returning to the scene of the original blessing, the birth of his own consciousness and love of language, and seeking to find there the kind of wisdom that nature only makes available, to some, in retrospect. For him, Irvine was a magical location, holding a secret beyond the secrets of Paris or Edinburgh or London, for it came to seem, at least when he wrote, to hold the key to the essentials of human nature as he understood it. And this may be the ruling passion in the house of fiction: how life can appear more vivid when recollected, showing us in the deep realms of metaphor a structure of reality beyond the actual. Each of Galt’s fictions of the Ayrshire town are animated by his unbridgeable absence from it, by a certainty that he can only visit it in his mind, making a world whole again. For Galt, as for many a Scottish writer, this uncanny procedure was chiefly a matter of dialect. He only had to apply a word from his youth – the word ‘eyedency’, for instance, meaning ‘industry’ – and suddenly he could see an Irvine spinster at her spinning wheel, a glint in her eye, ‘a reminiscence of our youth,’ he wrote, ‘in itself at once simple, interesting, and pathetic’. If we take the poet Wallace Stevens at his word, and believe, as Coleridge also did, that reality is nothing without the imagination, then the novelist’s task is one of pure felicity to what is known, inflected by a passion for the invisible. The town becomes a simulacrum for the entire world at the same time as it embodies what is lost to the novelist himself.

By the time Galt came to write ‘The Mem’ – taking readers through the closes of Irvine, by the Low Green and down to the harbour – he had lived away from the town for over forty years. It is a fixation, not a location, and we see it in the best of the fiction he wrote in the golden years of his creativity, 1821 to 1823. Galt was to enjoy several decades as a star writer on literary journals and as an adventurer, but he returned to his old town as if returning to himself, a man in search of first essences. It was in these few brilliant years that he produced his four best novels, The Annals of the Parish, The Ayrshire Legatees, The Provost, and The Entail. ‘Galt’s best books do not contain even the rudiments of a plot,’ wrote the critic S. R. Crockett. ‘One day progresses after another, much like a douce householder’s life in the quiet town of Irvine, punctuated only by the yet greater peace of the recurrent Sabbath-day. There is no plot in the lives of such men, no intrigue save that comical one of couthy self-interest, which Galt treats with a kindliness and an understanding that are unparalleled.’ In the smallest way, the drama is of the political sort, the sort, as Crockett says, ‘that you get into the habit of running to the window to see’, and the essence of these people’s lives can be located in a single person’s voice, that of the ironical narrator who subtly conveys the very meaning of the town, caught so perfectly, so freshly, twenty years before the arrival of the railway. There’s a Wordsworthian gladness in the telling, a Burnsian relish in the ‘birr and smeddum’ of the Scottish tongue, whilst the intricate, local heart is warmed there, contained there, and wrung out. ‘Irvine is the foster-mother of most of what is excellent in the writing,’ Crockett adds. It is a habit of characterization with some writers that their people seem, in some measure, to be made of the same stuff as they walk upon, as if they are in some fundamental way constituent with the earth and the air around them. We taste Galt’s milieu. There is always a better world foretold in his fiction, but the town, for all its corruption, for all its gossip, may seem to the reader to be the only heaven that its inhabitants will ever know.

Micah Balwhidder, the narrating minister in Annals, has a certain delicacy and grace, and comedy proceeds from the sureness of his footing. Those are real cobbles under his feet, and yet the mind that lights on them is as manufactured and beautifully maintained as Uriah Heep’s or Isabel Archer’s, whom Henry James saw as a lucid echo from a store of values, some of them set up for her by society and some by her own imagination. ‘The question comes back,’ James writes in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, ‘to the kind and the degree of the artist’s prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which the subject springs.’ In this respect, our Reverend Balwhidder is a supreme representative of Galt’s home-loving sensibility, the Reverend being local to the point where a person from Glasgow might seem to him a foreigner. His heroism may be comic, and his comedy heroic, but there is something serious in Galt’s regard for him; he is a chief among the men and women of a particular parish, in whom he finds an authentic pulse. The author’s genius was to make the concerns of the south-west of Scotland commensurate, in imaginative terms, not only with the Edinburgh of Walter Scott or the Hampshire of Jane Austen, but with any literary world where the panopticon of human wishes is laid out in a clearly designated field. Annals of the Parish shows us a Hogarthian parade of small-town, couthy neighbours and gossips, errant politicos, smugglers, drunken town drummers, spaewives, nosey lawyers, recruiters, farmers, and their docile sons. They tumble through the pages like the blown furze of time itself, landing year by year in these annals, before blowing out again into a vast and unknowable universe of the dead. Galt for me is a wizard of time, bringing a psychology of loss to our understanding of social pattern. I see a graveyard at the back of his work and a sunlit amphitheatre to the fore, where the reader stands. If it snows in Ayrshire, I think of Galt and the snow faintly falling as it does in ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce, another writer for whom the past was a vital spur to vision. Like the lonely graveyard where Michael Furey lies buried in that famous story, Ayrshire exists, for me, as both the centre of things and a backwater of the mind, irrigating everything.

Irvine, Ayrshire: ‘The rustic, pre-industrial West Coast town was on its way out when Galt sat down to write.’

In his Literary Life and Miscellanies, Galt writes of The Annals of the Parish and The Provost as attempts ‘to exhibit a kind of local theoretical history, by examples, the truth of which would be at once acknowledged’. It would be a hundred years on, with the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or later, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, that the parameters between fiction and non-fiction would be blurred to such effect. He believed the books to be deficient as novels, lacking in plot; The Ayrshire Legatees, he adds, ‘cannot be justly appreciated as a novel’. He felt very keenly the closeness of the real-life model: the idea of contrivance did not come naturally to his way of thinking, and yet the work of the heart, the stock of emotion and blatant connection which give to his ‘Tales of the West’ such vigour and such colour, was very much in evidence for every character and every scene. Yet he persists in the idea that inventions are not the same as ‘things of nature’ – indeed, it was by the careful distillation and bottling of the latter that he wished to be remembered, as if art’s true vintage was always discernible in the isolation of a local truth. He wrote biographies of the town. ‘My wish is to be estimated by the truth of whatever I try to represent,’ he wrote simply, or not so simply. Galt later told the story of how he eventually came face to face with his real-life model for the Provost, sitting, years after the book was published, among the magistrates of the town during a ceremony at Irvine tollbooth, aged but unbound, and unchanged by his famous depiction. ‘His speech partook of his character,’ Galt wrote, ‘and evinced a degree of good sense, of tact, and taste, though delivered in the Scottish dialect, quite extraordinary’. (I don’t know about that ‘though’: Galt knew well enough what could be achieved in the way of good sense in the Scots tongue.) He flatters the town’s reality over his own artistry in a way that commends him. Yet I continue to wonder if the old town isn’t a little deeper and more memorable in his rendering, a little more inflected by the durable vision of the artist. ‘Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,’ Emerson wrote, and the idea of the town in Galt’s novels is more indelible than its stonework.

‘It is important to recognise that Galt was groping towards the modern science of psychology,’ wrote his biographer, Jenny Aberdein. ‘He writes to Blackwood (12 April 1826), “If there is any merit in any of my sketches it is in the truth of the metaphysical anatomy of the characters”.’ But we will usually find, in assessing Galt’s gift as a stylist, that he embedded that curiosity about the growth of the mind in an unmistakeable landscape, the Irvine of his childhood. He knitted all interior drama to the seasonal qualities of the town and its environs, which is what affords his style its tremendous demotic power and gives his prose its elasticity and its precision. As with speech, style is place with some people; it relates to primary conditions. ‘My Autobiography will enable the courteous reader to determine what I owe to Irvine,’ Galt wrote, but in fact it is not his memoir but his fiction that most fully displays the debt. His fictional method bears a Wordsworthian grandeur in its attraction to the lyricism of childhood, to the moral openness of country habits, common speech, and local character. These could, of course, be the hallmarks of a sentimental novel of home truths and beaming hearths, what would become, in the Scottish novel, the kailyarders’ paradise, but Galt is never sentimental. There is feeling, but it is held to account always and everywhere with original humour, and his style was forensic, drawing blood from the customs of the town as opposed to wrapping them in sweet-smelling roses. Decency and diligence live in Galt’s fiction beside delinquency and sloth; his towns are multiplicities, and none of his characters is from a stockpile of familiar types. A novelist does not haunt his old house, he is haunted by it, and Galt’s biographer, furthermore, sees a man inching forward, a brilliant literary snail with a town on its back:

Galt frequently alludes in later years to his possession of what he calls ‘local memory’ (today we should call it visual memory) – a faculty for registering a scene in all its detail, even when its full import is not realised, and for retaining the impression throughout life. Galt’s mature reflective powers – powers of analysis, interpretation, philosophy – had thus rich store of remembered experience on which to work. Pictures as well as actual scenes were thus remembered, and a picture of Niagara, seen at a relative’s house in Kilmarnock, so filled his mind with notions of grandeur as for a time to spirit him away from the actual world.

And the ‘actual world’ can bear it, for what is left, after a novelist had done his bit, but a heftier, more subtle town, a more variegated local soul, one in which a recalled story about Robert Burns or a deathless character of John Galt’s can make the town into something glorious, a place in the national literature and a domain where people can live imaginatively. Let the tourists arrive, and let the bands play, for Irvine is rich on the page, and its son, John Galt, can remind readers in his own words that the humanity of the place is a moveable feast. It can go all over the world. There was no baseless fabric to Galt’s vision, and when I close my eyes in 2016 and think of Irvine and its neighbouring town of Kilwinning, I see not only the places of my own childhood, the place where I went to school and where I paddled in the burn, where I sold ‘tablet’ round the doors and played rounders with now-vanished friends on summer evenings, I also see Galt’s town at the same time, and I recognise no great distance between our human stations. In fact, I see a deep connection between then and now, the same closes and wynds, the same harbour, and the same sky as the nights draw in and people make their way home under the lamps.

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