Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The spelling is not for a man in haste - John Galt, master of dialect and voice

The Laird's work consisted of about half-a-dozen small copy books, such as schoolboys are in the practice of using, two or three of them with marble covers; on one I observed a parrot, and on another the ruins of Palmyra.  The penmanship was not very legible; it was narrow, crampt, and dotty, and the orthography made me pause at the first sentence.

"Ye're troubled wi' my hand o' wrote." said he, "and deed I must own it's no schoolmaister's, but wi' a thought o' pains ye'll soon be able to read it."

"I think, Laird, I could make my way with the writing, but the spelling is not for a man in haste." (The Last of the Lairds, 1826, Ch. 3)

John Galt is a master of Scots dialect.  He claimed that Scottish writers had the advantage over English writers because they also had possessed the magnificent Scotch vocabulary.*

The Provost's Provost writes in a mishmash of proper English and Scots dialect:

For many a year, one Robin Boss had been town drummer; he was a relic of some American-war fencibles, and was, to say the God's truth of him, a divor body, with no manner of conduct, saving a very earnest endeavour to fill himself fou as often as he could get the means; the consequence of which was, that his face was as plooky as a curran' bun, and his nose as red as a partan's tae. (Ch. 32)

"Divor" means bankrupt. "Partan's tae" is a crab's claw. Do any of the other words need translation? "Fill himself fou" is vivid enough, right? And a face as plooky as a currant bun - that takes care of itself.  That's great.

 I know that some people just hate dialect writing, no matter how well done, no matter for what purpose. So Galt is not for such a reader, not until he overcomes that prejudice.   Galt's novels now come with glossaries.  The Last of the Lairds comes with two!**  Is the anti-dialectician now happy?  I thought not.

I don't have it quite right when I emphasize Galt's dialect writing.  He's really interested in voice, and uses whatever tools are needed to make his characters convincing.  So The Provost has to mimic the voice of a proud and successful but only lightly educated man who has never written a book before.  The Annals of the Parish (1821), a companion to The Provost, is "written" by a minister, more sophisticated, more educated, so his writing is more Latinate and somewhat less Scotch ("Poor old Mr Kilfuddy of the Braehill got such a clash of glar on the side of his face, that his eye was almost extinguished," Ch. 1).  The parliamentarian of The Member is barely Scottish at all.***   The Ayrshire Legatees (1820) is a Humphrey Clinker-like epistolary novel, requiring distinct voices for four letter-writers, plus a separate set of letter-readers. 

For Galt, the concept is primary.  The character, the realistic voice, trumps plot.  The conceptual purity of the voice of Ringan Gilhaize (1823) almost destroys the book.  That's a complicated case that I'll save for next week, along with The Entail (1822), where voice, dialect, character and plot all come together perfectly. 

*  Reference sadly misplaced.

** One character is an idiotic Nabob who speaks in a bizarre pudding of English mixed with Indian and military words.  "My aubdaar will cool it for you, with a whole seer of saltpetre: for my ice-house has gone wrong, you know, by the mason leading the drain wash-house through it, like a d--d old fool as he was." (Ch 17).

***  The glossary of The Member is a page and a half long, and many of the words are political jargon rather than Scots.  The Last of the Lairds has an amazing six pages.  "begrutten" = tear-stained. "wally-waeing" = lamentation.  And "pawkie," the name of the narrator of The Provost, = sly.

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