Friday, November 6, 2009

A roundup of short Galt novels

Look at the day slip away. It's those mummy cats, they're ruining my life. Let me try to focus on the task at hand.

Of the seven John Galt novels I have read, there is only one that I really can't recommend.  The Member (1832) is another political novel, the memoirs of a Scottish MP who buys a seat in Parliament because, well, because he wants something to do.  He's another small-time Machiavellian, although bigger-time than Provost Pawkie.  Over time, to his surprise, he becomes interested in the job, the labor of governing, committees and all that.  Over more time, to his greater surprise, he becomes interested in the problems of actual people, which confuses him.  At that point, his borough is abolished by the 1832 reforms.

Put this way, the novel sounds pretty good, and it is.  The voice is typically credible, and the ethical meaning of the novel goes beyond the political details.  Not too far, though, and that's the difference between this novel and The Provost.  No reader of The Provost has to have any real understanding of the details of governance.  Galt and his narrator supply everything necessary, and the issues of the day are always in the background.  The Member is too much about the politics of its time, to tangled in it.  I knew enough to figure it out and to see what the novel was doing, to see how clever it is.  But The Member is a real period piece. For Specialists Only.

I had read four Galt novels several years ago.  The Provost and The Entail were good enough that I re-read them.  Maybe I just wanted an excuse to re-read them.  I'm relying on memory for two others, Galt's first two successes: The Ayrshire Legatees (1820) and Annals of the Parish (1821).  They're also both clever, but I rank them both well below The Entail.

Annals of the Parish seems especially thin.  A minister writes a chronicle-like account of his fifty years in the parish.  He marries and remarries, wars begin and end, mass emigration and industrialization come along.  The narrator is pleasant and witty.  I can easily recommend it to anyone visiting Ayrshire in western Scotland, where it's set.  It's just all so mild.

The Ayrshire Legatees is more like The Last of the Lairds.  I don't know if it amounts to much in the end, but it's genuinely funny, still, and that's something.  A family of Scottish country mice travel to London.  As in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, we read the letters of father, mother, son, and daughter, so we get humorously varied accoutns of every incident in the trip.  Galt adds an innovation, though.  He takes us back to their village in Scotland, where the recipients of the letters share the letters with each other - in fact, with everyone - so the villagers (like the reader) know more about what's happening on the trip than any of the travellers.  Bibliographing Nicole read this one recently, so she can tell me if I'm misremembering or undervaluing the book.

One curious thing - I always think of 19th century English fiction as so London-centered.  But the major writers before Dickens - Austen, Scott, Hogg, Edgeworth (I think), Mary Shelley - have very little to do with London.  This is more than a third of the 19th century.  The Ayrshire Legatees is really unusual for its relatively early tour of London.  It's a nice companion to Burney's London in Evelina (1778), or to a contemporary essayist like Charles Lamb.

Every book I've really written about so far has been a short one - they were all "one volume" novels.  And they have all been, if not plotless, rather weak in the story department.  Next week, the longer ones, the "three volume" novels, one, Ringan Gilhaize, a tricky case, brilliant and deeply flawed, the other, The Entail, Galt's masterpiece, both with killer plots.

Now, back to the Egyptian archives.  Here, kitty, kitty.  I have a nice mummified herring for you.

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