Monday, November 9, 2009

John Galt's Ringan Gilhaize - in which the writer is undone by his conceptual ingenuity (but recovers)

Welcome to Week 2 of the John Galt Clishmaclaver.  Have I inspired more than a single person to read John Galt?*  I'll tell you what inspired me.

Writing about Wuthering Heights last year, I mentioned that Brontë novel sure had a lot of strange resemblances to The Entail.  In the comments, The Little Professor claimed that Galt's Ringan Gilhaize or The Covenanters (1823)** was, I quote, "awesome."  Well.  I don't know about what you read, but where I come from, awesome is pretty good.  And since I obviously have to read Ringan Gilhaize, why not take another run through The Entail and The Provost, and then another book turned up, and then another, but my point is, "awesome."

Walter Scott's The Tale of Old Mortality (1816) is a novel about religious fanaticism.  The 17th century Presbyterian Covenanters are simply villains, ridiculous and insane, and menacing.  Galt thought Scott's depiction of the Covenanters was insufficient, unfair.  He thought Scott lacked sympathy.  Ringan Gilhaize is an attempt at sympathy with the fanatic.  He may be wrong about everything, but he's wrong for good reasons.

Ringan himself writes the story.  He traces the history of "the divine right of resistance" (1) in Scotland from his grandfather's youth in the mid-16th century through his own old age in the key year of 1689 - "and thus was my native land delivered from bondage" (322).  As is typical in historical novels, either Ringan or his grandfather is an eyewitness to most of the great events in the period's history.

Much of the first half of the novel reads like a prejudiced chronicle.  Ringan's grandfather, a kind of a secret agent, is a wonderful fellow, lucky and resourceful.  His tribulations are few.  John Knox, the leader of the Presbyterians, is a recurring character.  He's wonderful, too, a saint on Earth, really.  Young Ringan blends his grandfather with Knox (136-7).  It's an odd effect - the vigorous 20 year-old is always "my grandfather," as is the old man telling Ringan about his adventures establishing religious freedom in Scotland.

Perhaps one can see a problem with the conception of the novel.  Galt spends the first 40% of the book with the grandfather, whose story is told at a distance, as history, and who is never seriously threatened.  Then another 10% is required to set up Ringan's own story. The historical interest of the first part of the novel is high, but the literary interest is hard to see.  The grandfather's story is obviously crucially important to Ringan, but the first-time reader cannot possibly know why.

John Galt was a conceptual novelist.  The conceit of Ringan Gilhaize turns out to be brilliant, really ingenious.  Ringan's writerly voice is perfect, and the novel makes sense as the book he would write.  Is it the book John Galt should have written?  Rather than violate the purity of his concept, Galt delays the real interest of his novel all the way past the middle of the book.  That, I have to say, and I'm a patient reader, is too far.  This is a hard book to recommend.

The reason to care about any of this is because once Ringan Gilhaize gets moving in the last half of the novel, after a hundred and fifty pages of pious Scottish church history, it's awesome.  I mean, the dang thing turns into a Mel Gibson movie.  So, tomorrow: the awesome.

Page references to the Scottish Academic Press edition, 1984, ed. Patricia J. WIlson.

*  Bibliographing Nicole on The Ayrshire Legatees, from earlier today.  Excellent. More here.

** Pronounced, perhaps, GILL-eez.


  1. I won't say you've inspired me until I actually crack open one of his novels, but you're definitely, definitely intriguing me about this Galt fellow. From the passages quoted his ability to conjure up a strong and compelling narrative voice is pretty excellent. I think he's on my list!

  2. Awesome, I say (and thanks for the link)!

    Incidentally, one of my favorite bits in The Ayrshire Legatees, which I'm not writing about, is when poor Mrs. Glibbans finds out about the bishops' "hand in the making of the Acts of Parliament," and says, "I think, Mr. Snodgrass, if that be the case, there should be some doubt in Scotland about obeying them."

  3. Emily, good. Galt's a real master of voice. As good as anyone in that regard.

    Nicole, thanks for that bit of Ayrshire. It's actually directly related to Ringan Gilhaize. There's a unity to Galt's best books. One can trace the path of his thought.

    Thanks, too, by the way, for writing about The Ayrshire Legatees now. Makes me look less crazy.