I adore John Galt’s early 19th-century Scottish fiction. Back from my holidays, today’s letter in my A-Z of Really Like This Book podcasts is G, so I am delighted to go back 200 years, to return to the work of this Scottish novelist and friend of Lord Byron. His novel Annals of the Parish (1821) is a gentle and quietly funny diary of the changing life and times in a small Scottish village. It’s a fictionalised diary, Scottish history told at a very small scale, in incidents happening to characters so real they may as well be real people. It’s quietly funny because the narrator, the earnest and very innocent Reverend Micah Balwhidder, is terribly old-fashioned, rigid in his views, and a credit to the formidable Presbyterian training from which he rarely deviates.
He is very human. He marries three times, and waits a dutiful year after the death each of his first two wives before snapping up the next one, because without a mistress in the house the servant girls lay everything to waste. His first wife, Betty, was his childhood sweetheart and his cousin, but she died after only a few years. His second wife, Lizzie, was a farmer’s daughter and an engine of industry, perpetually spinning, weaving and sewing, and terrorising the servants in the kitchen with endless butter-churning and cheesemaking. She had two children, but she too died young, and the minister’s third wife was his last, carefully chosen for her middle age, good sense, and refined tastes. Since she was intended to be his carer in the minister’s doddering old age, this was a sensible choice.
The human stories in the clachan hold the diary together as a story. There are grand families and poor families, two village idiots and a poet, a benevolent laird and a crotchety old lady of the manor, a dotty schoolmistress, a fiery American colonist, and a useless doctor. Several of these families have children growing up, supplying the romances and matches that make this diary-novel Jane Austenesque. Galt and Austen were writing at the same time, both writing about human life in small communities. Galt was more interested in the community as a whole, than in individual love stories, but he was just as enthusiastic about satirising the daftness of human behaviour. He is also able to write about tragic events, the sadnesses that engulf a village when it really is a very small community.
When the cotton mill fails, and many hundreds of jobs are lost, the minister is walking past the house of one of the overseers, and notices the two small boys of the family playing outside, with not a sign of life indoors. They tell him that their mother and father are still asleep, and he goes to look and finds them dead by suicide in their beds, having killed themselves in despair at the loss of their jobs. The minister and his wife take the boys in until their uncle comes up from London to collect them. Galt uses the appeal of pathos to harness our sentiments, but I find it more convincing through how he depicts the timeless worry about loss of work, the importance of being aware of what the neighbours might be going through, and the vital importance of someone in a community having the right and responsibility to take charge of children thrown alone onto the world. Galt knew these were issues that never go away, even if the original incident came from his childhood. His instinct for a story that matched human experience was unerring.
He was also keen on moral lessons, or, rather, the Reverend Balwhidder was keen on moral lessons in his ‘Annals’ of his parish. Keeping an eye on who we think the narrative voice is, who is really telling this story, is not always easy when the stories are so engaging. A grand family move away from the parish and rent out their large house to a miserly man and his even more miserly sister. The village are amazed at their skimping ways, and come to treat the sister, Miss Girzy, as a joke. One night the house catches fire, and servants are running in and out saving what they can. But their master is laid down in a bed on the lawn, ill and complaining of the cold, and Miss Girzy is trapped in an upstairs room with her gold watch in one hand and a silver tea-pot in the other. Miss Girzy’s dramatic appearance in front of the flames, as if she were on a stage, is not allowed to be tragic because she is clutching these two articles representing luxury and greed. Of course, she dies in the fire, and her twisted body is found in the ashes with a lump of molten metal in each hand. It’s a horrible story, made worse because of the minister-narrator’s insistence on a moral lesson lurking at the back of it, despite his pity for the poor misguided creatures.
The period of history that the narrative covers is important for Scottish history, which saw developments in society and technology come along a good deal later than in England. In effect, the Scotland of Reverend Balwhidder’s youth was of the Jacobite rebellions and a country barely past the Reformation. The Scotland of his old age was in the full swing of the industrial revolution and fighting Napoleon. The changes that his village sees are fascinating, all within a single lifetime.
A new road is built, the first road that the village has had, because the old one was just a rough track, littered with dungheaps and impassable after rain and throughout the winter. But when the local laird cannot get through the road and is thrown out of his carriage into a dungheap by the violence from the ruts in the road, he pays for a proper paved road. Traffic, and prosperity, begin to arrive in the village, and it starts to grow into a town. Tea-drinking is held to be a great advantage for the ladies of the village, and for their families, because it means they no longer roll home drunk after an afternoon of drinking possets, a highly alcoholic warm drink common at social gatherings for women. I had no idea that Scots ladies were so addicted to their whisky and rum, or that the arrival of tea in the British Isles, never mind Scotland, probably did a lot to prevent nationwide liver failure and alcoholism. The minister is at first suspicious about tea-drinking, not thinking it suitable for a minister at all, it being a luxury. When silver teapots were newly fashionable he was only been persuaded to buy one because his wife insisted that tea tasted better in a silver pot than in a china one. The minister eventually condones tea because a grand lady in the parish whom he secretly rather fancies, sells tea to augment her widow’s portion.
If you’re interested in religious history, this book is a cracker. Sometimes the minister does dwell a little too long on questions of religious observance, but this was conventional for the period in which Galt published the book. The encroachment of other Christian sects into the village, and later the town, horrifies and appals Reverend Balwhidder, because he is so narrow-minded that he cannot conceive that other sects, and other religions, might exist and be flourishing elsewhere in the country. Quakers pass through the village and hold a meeting in a barn (this is a very rare example of Quakers appearing in British fiction, by the way), and the minister is pleasantly surprised and pleased at the good sense of what they say. But all other religious insurgents terrify him, particularly Father O’Grady, the priest who comes to oversee the Irish labourers at the new cotton-mill.
The minister is also agitated about the first appearance of actors in the new town that had grown up by the cotton mill. He enjoys a much earlier visit by a Punch and Judy show, showing that there is nothing wrong with watching a show for enjoyment, rather than moral instruction. But he is suspicious of the actors, and will not attend the performance, though his daughter Janet goes with her friends, and tells him all about it with such enthusiasm that he rather wistfully wonders if it might have been proper for him to go just once. The human emerges here from behind the religious training.