Thursday, November 5, 2009

I have a notion that the auto-biography of an idiot might not only be interesting... - The Last of the Lairds, Galt's funniest book

In The Last of the Lairds (1826), the novel that closes out John Galt's creative burst that begin in 1820 or so, Galt himself appears as a character, as the narrator, in fact, in what turns out to be another weirdly brilliant postmodern whaddayacallit.  Not unrelated, The Last of the Lairds is, to me, the funniest of his books.

The novel begins with "Galt" visiting his country acquaintance Laird Malachi Mailings, a down-in-the-mouth bachelor landowner.  The servant Jenny Clatterpans is not sure the Laird has time for Galt this morning, because he is so busy:

"Busy, Jenny!"

"Ay, sir, dreadful! - He's putting out a book - Loke, sir, if he's no putting out a book! O that wearyful jaunt to Embro' to see the king! It has skail't the daunert wits o' the master - the like o' you and the minister may put out books, but surely the 'stated gentry has come to a low pass indeed, when they would file their fingers wi' ony sic black art!" (Ch. 1)

And why shouldn't he write?  "Balwhidder o' Dalmailing, got a thousand pounds sterling, doun on Blackwood's counter, in red gold, for his clishmaclavers; and Provost Pawkie's widow has had twice the double o't, for the Provost's life" (Ch 2).  That first book is The Annals of the Parish, the second is The Provost.  Galt actually got about five percent of that, so the Laird seems to be misinformed.

I described the Laird's book itself yesterday, the physical artifact.  "Galt" first mocks the idea, but then warms to it, sort of (see this post's title).  It's his first step towards sympathy with his own characters

The plot begins to tangle up, and the memoir is abandoned.  The Laird's property is threatened by his Nabob neighbor, the sublimely ridiculous Mr. Rupees, whose conversation keeps wandering back to India, and whose house is a hideous Indian palace.  The meddling widow Mrs. Sorrocks knows how to save the Laird - marry him to one of the spinster Minnigraff sisters.  As with the memoir, "Galt" begins by thinking they're all idiots, but as he is dragged into their problems, he actually begins to root for them, even to encourage their nonsense.  The novel climaxes with all of the characters together at an impromptu auction, in a scene that would fit well in a Marx Brothers film.  Everything ends better than it should.

So in The Last of the Lairds, it's the author who has to learn to sympathize with the characters, not the reader.  The author doesn't humanize his characters.  They humanize him.  I suspect the presence of a metaphor about the authorship of fiction.

A textual note: Be sure to read the 1976 Scottish Academic Press edition.  The century old editions were butchered by an editor while Galt was in Canada.  Entire chapters were removed and added.  All the naughty bits were suppressed.  How naughty?  One of the novel's best running gag has the Laird and Miss Minnigraff, newlyweds at novel's end, obsessively worrying about their future children, even though Miss Minnigraff is too old to have children.  Says Mrs. Sorrocks: "ye'll gang into Enbro' and live comfortable, like tua patriarchs, begetting sons and dochters, if ye can" (Ch. 35).  Anything like this was cut.

So not particularly naughty, but just slightly blasphemous.


  1. (Long-time lurker; first-time poster)

    I'm not an Ayn Rand fan, but the "hero" of Atlas Shrugged is named John Galt. Is this a coincidence?

  2. According to Wikipedia (as I discovered a few weeks ago when Amateur Reader was talking about John Galt), it is a coincidence, and Rand originally wanted to name her hero "Iles Galt."

  3. Well, there goes the Ph.D. dissertation in comparative literature!

    Thanks for the info.

  4. Dang weird coincidence. Drives me nuts. Makes Googling for the actual John Galt a pain.

    Also, it has been very difficult to restrain from "Who is John Galt?" jokes, since that is, of course, the actual question I am addressing in the John Galt Clishmaclaver. Here's someone else who couldn't resist.

    Anyway, Deb, welcome! Nicole, thanks.

  5. "Last of the Lairds" is the only Galt novel I've read, but I agree with you, it's a mostly-forgotten comic gem. I learned about it through a book by Scottish true-crime writer William Roughead, of all places. His book "Malice Domestic" has an excellent essay on the novel, and I was intrigued enough to check it out. I'm glad I did.

    The dialect would be murder to the uninitiated, but luckily, I've spent a lot of time doing historical research on Mary Queen of Scots and her times, so I was able to follow along without too much trouble. I suppose a glossary is necessary for the modern editions, but it spoils all the fun!

  6. The fact is that the glossary is not really necessary. It adds savor to a few jokes, but the meaning of almost every dialect word is clear from the context. The uninitiated will be up initiated in no time.

    I didn't know about the Roughead essay. Thanks for the pointer.

  7. Actually, I was thinking about a friend of mine. She's a fellow P.G. Wodehouse fanatic, so I suggested "Lairds" to her, thinking she might like it. (The novel, to me, has a certain Drones Club feel about it.)

    Her first words to me after she tried to read it was "Can I get a translation?"

  8. Ah, well. I have the sad sense that my 2 weeks of John Galt will have mostly similar results. But we have to keep trying, don't we?

    Mostly: see Bibliographing Nicole on The Provost.