The Member and The Radical by John Galt

Canongate Classics, 1996, 263 p, including 2 p glossary, 6 p notes (The Member) and 4 p notes (The Radical) plus 8 p Introduction.

The Member and The Radical cover

Galt was a Scot born in Ayrshire whose novels mainly dealt with the impact of the industrial revolution and has been called the first political novelist in the English language. The Member was the first example of the Parliamentary political novel, The Radical deals with Parliamentary matters only towards its end. These two works of fiction were first published in 1832 (in January and May respectively) and subsequently in one volume as The Reform that November but apparently not republished till 1975 (The Member) and this edition (The Radical.) The two hundred year old idioms do take some getting used to but it is worth persevering.

The Member: An Autobiography.
This is prefaced by a “Dedication” to one William Holmes, wherein Scot Archibald Jobbry laments the imminent passing of the Great Reform Act and the inevitable depredations which it will bring in its train. Many years before Jobbry had returned from India where he had made his fortune and decided to purchase a seat in the House of Commons despite it being technically illegal to do so. He shows himself a sly and acute bargainer. During this process he opines, “a Tory is but a Whig in office, and a Whig but a Tory in opposition.” Some things don’t change. In this regard Jobbry later says MPs have been, “inveterate to retain the distribution of places and pensions – the natural perquisites of Members of Parliament” and, “The democratical think state salaries always exorbitant, and the aristocratical never think wages low enough.”

The shenanigans accompanying elections in those days are amusingly described. On this point Jobbry tells us, “It is by no means plain why paying for an individual vote should be so much more heinous than paying for a whole borough.” These vices are still with us, if in altered form. To my mind selling off state assets is an even higher category of bribe than either of those Jobbry mentions, promising lower taxes only slightly less so.

Galt often uses the utterly obsolete form “quo’ I” for “I said” when Jobbry is relating his own direct speech.

In talking to fellow Parliamentarian Sir John Bulky, Jobbry – despite being a Tory (even if of a restrained sort) – says, “It is not a time to reduce public appointments when there is a national distress; the proper season is when all is green and flourishing.” (Tell that to the present UK coalition!) Sir John replies, “lessening expenditure during a period of general hardship – is paving the way to revolution.” Fat chance.

We also have, “a wild and growing notion prevails that governments … are of less use than had always been supposed; a doctrine (in) which the most civilised and refined communities will be driven to the wall.”


The Radical: An Autobiography
.
The life story of one Nathan Butt (try saying it in a Scottish accent,) an individual poles apart from Alexander Jobbry in outlook and here presented in a much less favourable light than Jobbry was in The Member – though he is much disturbed by his Radical friends indulging in bribery to get him elected. Again there is a dedication, this time to Baron Brougham and Vaux, late Lord High Chancellor. Butt’s enthusiasm for Napoleon turns to a feeling of betrayal by “that very bad man.” The narrator refers to his “friend” John Galt and quotes one of his poems. Metafiction in the 1830s. There is a harsh schoolmaster called Mr Skelper* – no doubt inspired by Mr Thwackum.

Several phrases resonate with the present day. “The age required that men who had large private properties should have resigned what they withdrew from the public purse.” (For this nowadays read Amazon, Google, Starbucks evading tax?) “The newspapers now and then tell us of this gentleman, who on his audit-day remitted so many per cents to his tenantry; but I doubt if the fashion has yet become common.” Quite! “There is something in their” – priests and clerics – “office which leads them to imagine themselves superior to the commonalty of mankind.” One of the characters has “a prophetic vista of the time when the English language, by the American States, and the Oriental colonies, would be universal all over the Earth.”

There is a glossary in the final pages which strangely only goes up to the letter “l” – at least in my copy.

*See skelp in the Dictionary of the Scots Language. Type in “skelp” in the search box and then click “skelp,v”.

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