1977, 175 p.
Well, now that I’ve read a book written by John Galt about Canada, an autobiography by John Galt, and now finally this biography of him, I’ve got to admit that the biography wins hands down. It’s set me off wondering about the relationship between autobiography and biography, especially when considering a literary figure, as John Galt is. I can only think of two other cases where I’ve read a writer’s autobiography followed by a biography penned by another person: Janet Frames Angel at my Table trilogy paired with Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel, and Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass paired with David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life. In terms of feeling that I understood the character, the biography trumped the autobiography each time, no matter how beautifully or incisively the self-penned work was written.
Am I surprised by this? I don’t know. The autobiography of a writer, by its very nature, will be framed by the author’s own self-image and imbued with a literary sensibility and becomes source material itself for the biographer, as well as a work in its own right. The biographer can challenge, contextualize and interrogate the self that is portrayed by the autobiographer, bringing the questions, perspectives and judgments of the outsider in a way that the autobiographer cannot. The autobiography is undertaken at a particular time of a life not yet fully lived- not on the deathbed as a rule!- and the biographer can know things to which the autobiographer is oblivious or blind.
This biography of the author John Galt is written by a Canadian academic who brings with him the nationalist agenda of claiming Galt as part of a significant Canadian family dynasty, even though John Galt (1779-1839) spent only a small proportion of his life in Canada itself, and he set relatively few of his books there. As a result, the author privileges Galt’s experience with Canada as a lobbyist and Canada Company promoter and administrator over his identity as a literary figure. I’m interested in Galt’s Canadian connection, too, so even though Galt in his autobiography sees Canada as just one thread of his life story, I’m glad that H. B. Timothy has teased it out in this way.
One of the things that I have been grappling with in dealing with my own research interest (Justice John Walpole Willis) is cracking through the brittle, rather volatile early-Victorian masculinity that is displayed by both men, cloaked in obsequious language and intellectual self-possession. While living in Upper Canada Willis and Galt became friends, for whatever reason, and they obviously recognized some commonality between themselves. The autobiography, because it emerges from such a brittle, rather volatile man, exemplifies this sensibility but it does not interrogate it. The biography is able to do so somewhat more easily.
Then there is the knowledge of subsequent events and broader context that a latter-day biographer can bring as well: the ‘unknown unknowns’ if we want to get all Donald Rumsfeldian about it. In this case, Timothy suggests that there was an element of set-up at play: that members of the Established Church back in England acted in the interests of Anglican Church interests in Upper Canada in engineering Galt’s financial downfall (is ‘conspired’ too strong a word?). He explores the possibility that Maitland and the Family Compact elite had Galt under surveillance even before he set foot in Canada, and that his links with people active in politics to the embarrassment of the administration rendered him suspect from the start. If so, there’s an element of rather touching, unwitting naivete about the autobiography because of his unawareness of these larger political forces at work. This rather tragic edge enhances the autobiography, rather than working to its detriment.