The Provost by John Galt

The Provost, the first political novel, is the autobiography of “a genuine Machiavellian”—a natural born one, at that. The chief pleasure here for me, as I noted over at Wuthering Expectations, is Galt’s technical virtuosity in producing this amazing narrator, Mr. Pawkie, and his exploits.

It’s hard to explain without just giving examples of the unmitigated gall of the man—but that’s not the right word. If you’ve ever wondered whether politicians were liars or merely blinded by a lifetime of self-serving…

“Since syne they have been trying every grip and wile o’ the law to punish me as they threatened; but the laws of England are a great protection to the people against arbitrary power….”

“Had I been a sordid and interested man, this news could never have given me the satisfaction it did, for Miss Lizy was very fond of my bairns, and it was thought that Peter would have been her heir; but so far from being concerned at what I heard, I rejoiced thereat, and resolved in secret thought, whenever a vacancy happened, Dr. Swapkirk being then fast wearing away, to exert the best of my ability to get the kirk for Mr. Pittle, not however unless he was previously married to Miss Lizy; for, to speak out, she was beginning to stand in need of a protector, and both me and Mrs. Pawkie had our fears that she might outlive her income, and in her old age become a cess upon us.”

“At first, I could not divine what interest my old friend, the Dean of Guild, had to be so earnest in the behalf of the offering contractor; in course of time, however, it spunkit out, that he was a sleeping partner in the business; by which he made a power of profit. But, saving two three carts of stones to big a dyke round the new steading which I had bought a short time before at the townend, I had no benefit whatever. Indeed, I may take it upon me to say, that should not say it, few Provosts, in so great a concern, could have acted more on a principle than I did in this; and if Thomas Shovel, of his free-will, did, at the instigation of the Dean of Guild, lay down the stones on my ground as aforesaid, the town was not wronged; for, no doubt, he paid me the compliment at some expense of his own profit.”

It’s almost…unbelievable. Not the way Pawkie acts, I mean, nor the way he justifies himself—those are some of the most believable things in the world. But the perceptiveness required of Galt to write it all this way, and the genius required to come up with so many set pieces to do it in, so many instances of petty corruption and pathetic skimming of any possible advantage from the public trust, I am still amazed at.

Yes, there is really something to these brief chapters that keep coming at you. It reminds one of our own hopelessly sped-up news cycle. For Mr. Pawkie, this is a lifetime’s political trajectory. But the way one issue follows another, somewhat organically and thus somewhat chaotically, but also somewhat prodded by the interests of the politicians, and there is always something the town’s narrative is converging on as important and needing Doing Something About, is perfectly like our whole political discourse.

Mr. Pawkie really is a great character. Even I could not hate him for his sins, he was so amusing. And what Amateur Reader describes as “the voice of a proud and successful but only lightly educated man who has never written a book before” not only revels in his own political wiles but also gives some memorable and colorful descriptions of the more tumultuous moments in the town. For one:

Gill-stoups, porter bottles, and penny pyes flew like balls and bomb-shells in battle. Mrs. Fenton, with her mutch off, and her hair loose, with wide and wild arms, like a witch in a whirlwind, was seen trying to sunder the challengers, and the champions.

You are a bad, bad man, Mr. Pawkie, but I was sorry to stop reading of your adventures when they were over.

The Pringles and the Brambles

Amid all the obvious nods in The Ayrshire Legatees to Humphry Clinker, it’s the differences that stand out most. Mrs. Pringle is almost too much like her counterpart Tabitha Bramble, but the difference between Mr. Pringle and Matt Bramble, and the resultant difference in attitude between Andrew Pringle (“my son”) and Jeremy Melford (Matt’s nephew), is most interesting to me.

We know from Humphry Clinker week that Matthew Bramble is a misanthrope, in fact, “the most risible misanthrope I ever met with.” But for all that Matt is smart, worldly-wise (though he prefers the country, he well knows how to act outside it), friendly and caring, to be made fun of for his quirks but not, at bottom, ridiculous. Mr. Pringle, on the contrary, is ridiculous. He is a real country mouse, who tries to pull medallions off hackneycoaches, is barely able to carry out his affairs with regards to the legacy, and generally looks a fool more often than not—while insisting on acting the most respectable person in the entire country on account of his superiority of religion, of course.

And where Jeremy Melford comes to really love and appreciate his uncle through acquaintance with his eccentricities and ultimate character, Andrew Pringle is genuinely embarrassed, as when he writes to his friend Mr. Snodgrass:

I know not how it is, that the little personal peculiarities, so amusing to strangers, should be painful when we see them in those whom we love and esteem; but I own to you, that there was a something in the demeanour of the old folks on this occasion, that would have been exceedingly diverting to me, had my filial reverence been less sincere for them.

The poor Pringles. They hardly know whom to look to for advice on the fashions, once finding they’ve been led astray. But they try so hard! Try so hard, that is, to be something they really and truly aren’t. Writes Rachel:

The Argents, who are our main instructors in the proprieties of London life, say that it would be very vulgar in me to go to look at her, which I am sorry for, as I wish above all things to see a personage so illustrious by birth, and renowned by misfortune. The Doctor and my mother, who are less scrupulous, and who, in consequence, somehow, by themselves, contrive to see, and get into places that are inaccessible to all gentility, have had a full view of her majesty.

And here, another great difference from the Brambles. These stodgy Calvinists do fall in love with vulgar London, and return to Garnock, amid much celebration, in finery. All the more reason to love Matthew Bramble and his retreat to the country with its tides of nectarious milk and cream. On the other hand, none the less reason to love John Galt.

The Ayrshire Legatees, in which John Galt does my job for me

I took great delight in a new and welcome epistolary style afforded by John Galt’s The Ayrshire Legatees, and shall this week add my own small part to the John Galt Clishmaclaver.

In this novel, we have letters much in the style of The Expedition of Humphry Clinker—four family members head off on a journey together and each writes mostly to a single correspondent. Again, we don’t have the benefit of any of the answering letters, but we have something much more interesting: a narrator who keeps the real action of the novel back in the Scottish village of Garnock, where the recipients of the letters read them aloud to each other and go to all the trouble normally reserved for myself.

That is, they judge whose letters are best—Mrs. Pringle is most informative about London by writing about the price of food and millinery, while Andrew Pringle bores them with describing the general atmosphere and attitudes of the place. They judge the wisdom of the Pringles’ actions in trying to secure their legacy, and often judge the righteousness of their minister, Mr. Pringle, who goes so far as to see a play in the metropolis!

Over and over the company are assembled, either in church, or for tea, or sneakily by inviting themselves over to each other’s houses at what they suspect is an opportune moment, so that the narrator can give us the real dirt:

We should ill perform the part of faithful historians, did we omit to record the sentiments expressed by the company on this occasion. Mrs. Glibbans, whose knowledge of the points of orthodoxy had not their equal in the three adjacent parishes, roundly declared, that Mr. Andrew Pringle’s letter was nothing but a peesemeal of clishmaclavers; that there was no sense in it; and that it was just like the writer, a canary idiot, a touch here and a touch there, without anything in the shape of cordiality or satisfaction.

Miss Isabella Tod answered this objection with that sweetness of manner and virgin diffidence, which so well becomes a youthful member of the establishment, controverting the dogmas of a stoop of the Relief persuasion, by saying, that she thought Mr. Andrew had shown a fine sensibility. ‘What is sensibility without judgment,’ cried her adversary, ‘but a thrashing in the water, and a raising of bells? Couldna the fallow, without a’ his parleyvoos, have said, that such and such was the case, and that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away?—but his clouds, and his spectres, and his visions of Job!”

The listeners get a bit nasty when they feel Miss Rachel’s head has been turned by city finery, and even make fun of the way Mr. Pringle (their minister!) always refers to “Andrew, my son.” It’s wonderful. Instead of me just saying, so-and-so is generally reliable, so-and-so is emotional, putting the documents together and figuring out what is going on, I’ve got a bunch of Scottish villagers to do it for me (that is to say, another document to add to the list, of course).

Here’s a good example of the way the whole thing goes, with quite a fun illustration to boot if I do say so myself, as told by the Rev. Dr. Pringle to Mr. Micklewham, schoolmaster and session-clerk, Garnock. The Pringles, just arrived in London, hire a coach to take them to their lodgings, but being unspecific about which Norfolk Street they want, “now it was that we began to experience the sharpers of London.” Being taken to a disreputable address, they put the driver right.

But when we got to the door, the coachman was so extortionate, that another hobbleshaw arose. Mrs. Pringle had been told that, in such disputes, the best way of getting redress was to take the number of the coach; but, in trying to do so, we found it fastened on, and I thought the hackneyman would have gone by himself with laughter. Andrew, who had not observed what we were doing, when he saw us trying to take off the number, went like one demented, and paid the man….

Trying to take the number of the coach

Trying to take the number of the coach

At the public reading of this letter, “Mr. Snodgrass was seen to smile at the incident of taking the number off the coach, the meaning of which none but himself seemed to understand.” Wise Mr. Snodgrass!

One further note on reading the letters aloud: while some of the letters hold secrets so evident that they are suppressed from the general public (though not from a few choice friends), even more hold bits and pieces that the writer might probably have wished to keep private—at least, not have wished to tell the whole gossip circle. But I suppose Garnock has precious little entertainment of an evening to resist.