John Galt (1779–1839) became acquainted with Byron in 1809 during the cruise from Gibraltar to Malta; in 1810 their paths crossed again in Athens and at Smyrna. Galt was then a commercial traveler; the novels that made his reputation were written a decade later. When he next met Byron in London in 1811 he was still attempting to establish himself in business. The acquaintance ripened into friendship: Galt advised Byron to marry, and Byron inscribed verses to Galt in a gift copy of the Bride of Abydos. Though they drifted apart after Galt’s marriage in 1813, Byron read Galt’s novels and in 1823 told the Countess of Blessington that he continued to have a regard for him.
When, long afterwards, Henry Colburn approached Galt with the idea of writing Byron’s life, he seized the opportunity. He tells us in the Introduction to his Life of Lord Byron that he had long contemplated the idea, but "with no small degree of diffidence." Having recently been imprisoned for debt in King’s Bench, Galt was presumably no longer diffident. The Life of Byron was written in the summer of 1830 and was in the shops by the beginning of September. It seems to have been composed in haste with an eye towards ready money.
It was not well received, for much of the biography consists of little more than quotation and paraphrase from earlier memoirs, in particular from Thomas Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830). There is little new information since it was Galt’s intention to offer instead an “outline of his Lordship’s intellectual features.” Rather than court controversy he would avoid the scandals and discuss the relation of Byron’s character to Byron’s poetry. The result was a cut-and-paste life eked out by a running commentary on the poems and a substantial appendix of reprinted anecdotes and documents.
Galt’s Life does not present a flattering picture of the poet. Like Hunt, he had been offended by Byron’s aristocratic airs and takes his revenge by making the poet appear petty, vain, and undignified. Unlike Hunt, Galt proceeds with an air of studied objectivity that could not have ingratiated him with the poet’s admirers and which, given Byron’s friendship for Galt, does not cast the author in a very friendly light. Where a baser or more elevated motive might be assigned to an action, Galt invariably seizes upon the baser: where Moore and others had depicted Byron’s time in Greece as tragic drama, Galt, who had little sympathy for Byron’s politics, presents it as black comedy. In a letter to Milman, John Gibson Lockhart commented that the biography is “rather a murder, and the crime is perpetrated with a coarse weapon.”
A more fundamental problem is that Galt did not know Byron very well and was consequently unfit to write his intellectual biography. His account of Byron’s first journey to the East, stitched together out of Byron’s and Hobhouse’s printed notes and his own published writings, reads more like a travel book than a biography. Here at least Galt was on firm ground. But it does not seem to have occurred to him that the mature Byron was something other than the dandy he knew of old. His scepticism about the poet’s emotional attachments was often misplaced; in speaking of Manfred he ridicules the “odious supposition that ascribes the fearful mystery and remorse of a hero to a foul passion for his sister.”
That Galt would so much as allude to such “calumnies” indicates the limits of the his prudence. While he carefully steered clear of what might have offended Lady Byron and John Murray (who is not so much as mentioned), he entangled himself with Thomas Moore and John Cam Hobhouse. Moore took revenge in verse, hooting at him as one of Colburn’s “penny-a-line men” (“Alarming Intelligence”). Galt had written Hobhouse to confirm a report that Teresa Guiccioli had been left in financial straits, and rather than accept the explanation decided to demonstrate his objectivity by giving “two versions of an affair not regarded by some of that lady’s relations as having been marked by generosity.”
Hobhouse, angry that he was quoted without permission and that his authority was challenged, sent a series of letters berating Galt for presumption, inaccuracy, and mercenary motives. When the biographer’s printed apology proved unsatisfactory Hobhouse replied publicly. Galt, incredulous that his good intentions could be misconstrued and believing that he had caught Hobhouse in a falsehood, then published their correspondence in Fraser’s Magazine for December 1830 as “Pot versus Kettle.” The title at least was appropriate. A more prudent man might have left it alone, for the charges against him were telling.
Perhaps Galt felt that however much his biography was ridiculed by the critics he enjoyed the last laugh, for the Life went into a fifth edition in 1831 (though Colburn’s fourth edition bears the date “1832”) and was translated into German and Italian. Galt’s Life of Byron remains valuable for its portrait of the poet prior to his years of fame; there is some obvious truth in the biographer’s assertion (in opposition to Moore) that Byron’s characters were self-portraits and that the poet wrote best when writing of places he had seen and emotions he had experienced.