John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier 
by Andrew Lownie.
Constable, 365 pp., £20, July 1995, 0 09 472500 4
Show More
Show More

There is a passage in The Wealth of Nations where the author, for a moment, expresses some regret for the world of economic expediency he so devotedly describes and justifies. The division of labour, whose language is money, helps us to prosperity and liberty but at the price of atomising our picture of the world. The labourer, Smith writes, is ‘not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of the country he is altogether incapable of judging.’ Anyone who has dined recently with a Cabinet Minister will know that it is not just the labourer who is thus incapable.

John Buchan, whose grandson I am, was a late and flesh-and-blood representative of that lost epoch before economic expediency: a writer who not so much rejected the division of labour (Baudelaire and the Romantics do that) as overcame it. He fascinated his age and its successors. How was it that a Scotsman, from bankrupt provincial stock, small, sickly, of good but not Leibnizian intelligence, could nevertheless engross all the male professions of a prosperous and stagnant society, as well as most of its games? In a life of 65 years, beginning in Perth in 1875 and ending at Montreal in 1940, John Buchan was a scholar, colonial administrator, lawyer, journalist, fisherman, mountaineer, spy, publicist, businessman, squire, historian, poet, novelist, diplomatist and viceroy. People who don’t care for him always point out that he was merely good, rather than brilliant, at every thing he tried but that is not the point: the point is that he could do the things that Adam Smith said his economic Frankenstein’s monster could not. He could imagine virtue and form clear notions of private and public duty. He could live.

In Scotland, where almost everybody but the Dukes of Argyll feels they must fight their way in the world, John Buchan’s career is still an example and pattern: even though the British Empire, which gave the Scots their world stage, has disintegrated, Scots Toryism been demolished by its English counterpart and the self-consciously Scotch or kailyard school of literature regained the ascendancy. In England, or at least in the metropolis, John Buchan evokes that primordial English resentment that is the reward of all ambitious North Britons. For our family, his life is the source of both elation and despair. I think my father and his siblings had it very hard: for though each of John Buchan’s children might emulate or exceed him in one department of existence, that still left all the others. In my generation, which never, as it were, felt his breath on our heads, the division of labour has asserted itself in the most banal fashion. We plod along as lawyers, journalists, publishers, bankers, writers, public servants. None of us can read this biography without a sense of intellectual degeneracy and that is our inheritance, together with his love of adventure and weakness for tobacco.

What has been lost in the intervening fifty years is not money or social position or Mr Baldwin’s car or ‘success’ or any of the values that the people reviewing Mr Lownie’s book elsewhere hold dear, but the key to all of them: the power to make sense of the world not just by living in it but by transforming it into art (which, in this case, is literature). John Buchan belongs to that group of writers – T.E. Lawrence in this country, St Exupéry and Malraux in France, D’Annunzio in Italy – who created their personalities out of their reading and then acted out these literary personalities. The difference was that he was also a practical man.

John Buchan started as a writer, and even while he was trying to scale the pinnacles of his other careers, continued to write. He pretended to have a low regard for his thrillers, as simply his source of cash, and they may have seemed to him not merely unserious but also unmanly: one can’t imagine Sandy Arbuthnot with a novel in his top drawer. He liked his historical novels better, but if he was to be remembered as a writer, he wanted it to be for his biographies. And all the while, he yearned for high office of state and its honours, which has shocked some other reviewers to the core of their natures.

But history is a good critic and knows better than its practitioners. John Buchan is remembered not for Cromwell or Montrose, or The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income, or even his wartime career as propagandist, but for The Thirty-Nine Steps and Green-mantle. Exactly a century after John Buchan published his first novel, Sir Quixote of the Moors, he is being read for his ‘shockers’. I have no idea if he’ll be read a century from now but I imagine the first hundred years, like the first hundred pounds in a fortune, are the hardest to acquire.

It was touch and go. He died in 1940, just before the British Empire. In 1953, Richard Usborne published a book called Clubland Heroes, which expanded some of the criticisms made of John Buchan in the Thirties: that he was snobbish, blimpish, mildly anti-semitic and a worshipper of worldly success. What infuriated his widow was not so much these priggeries but a sort of master insult: that John Buchan belonged not, as the family piously hoped, in a Scots Valhalla with Scott and Stevenson (even if a long way downtable), but with two English writers of almost unbelievable crudity, ‘Sapper’ and Dornford Yates.

Despite defences of John Buchan by Gertrude Himmelfarb in an essay in Encounter in 1960, and Janet Adam Smith in her biography of 1965, the mud stuck. By the end of the Sixties in England, John Buchan was sinking towards oblivion, the sort of forgotten bestseller (like Phillips Oppenheim) you find in seaside rental bungalows, a footnote in the biographies of T.E. Lawrence, Beaverbrook and Mackenzie King, and the villain in lachrymose ‘decline of Britain’ books and television series. I think by the end of the Seventies only the Hannay books and one or two others were still in print.

The charges against John Buchan were either false (as with anti-semitism) or wildly anachronistic. Mr Lownie deals a little wearily with them, along with the new and even more anachronistic charge of sexism. (The unfortunate next biographer, if there is one, will no doubt have to defend John Buchan against charges of fish-murder and meatism.) They arose in a misunderstanding of John Buchan. Far from being the complacent champion of the Empire, the English nobility and professional classes, he displays a frantic sense of impending ruin either from without (as in The Half-Hearted or Green-mantle) or within, as in the novels of the postwar period, particularly The Three Hostages. His vice was not exclusiveness but a desperate desire that everybody pull together and not rock the boat. A gnawing sense of the worthlessness of worldly success is the starting-point for the adventures.

To the Sixties, all this was incomprehensible. John Buchan was either ‘a very odd fish indeed’, as Simon Raven thought, or at least preposterous (John Gross). The difficulty arises not just in the slack and foolish passages in the books, but where their Victorian foundations have fallen in. By that, I mean not just certain notions that were old-fashioned at the end of John Buchan’s life and ludicrous to the Sixties – the special destiny of the English-speaking peoples, the intellectual value of the open air – but the very ideals of antiquity and the Christian tradition that Matthew Arnold had heard ebbing away from Dover Beach a long time before and that had now entirely dissipated.

But people kept reading him, and not just in Scotland. None of the books is perfect, some aren’t good at all, and all are slapdash to an extent. There is nothing in his novels to match, for example, Rob Roy: Dickson McCunn, the Glasgow merchant of Hunting-tower and Castle Gay, is not in the same class of invention, sympathy or wit as Nicol Jarvie; and none of John Buchan’s heroines is in the same universe as Diana Vernon. As for comparison with Stevenson, one need merely look at the first chapters of Prester John and Treasure Island. But John Buchan’s adventure stories and his historical novels have that peculiar ability to draw you in, and hold you through a clear and breathless narrative, over fell and moor and down city streets, through wind and weather, till you emerge at the end, exhilarated and a little shamefaced, and you’ve forgotten the boggy stretches, the clichés and received ideas and Etonian slang, the Jew in the bath-chair, the girl clean-run like a salmon, the best shot in England after His Majesty.

In 1975, David Daniell published a book of criticism, nicely entitled (from Bunyan) The Interpreter’s House. This work was for John Buchan’s besieged supporters like the scraps of burning straw blown by the wind over the flooded dykes as the Dutch fleet sailed to the relief of Leiden. If Dr Daniell felt he had to suggest that Buchan could have been a great writer – rather than, as is much more likely, squeezing his gift to the last drop – that was a small price to pay for the timely reinforcement. Soon afterwards, a John Buchan Society was founded at Edinburgh. In the early Eighties, my father William Buchan felt emboldened to publish a memoir of his father. Though a little defensive, it drew in the Victorian background and introduced a powerful sense of John Buchan’s strangeness and otherworldliness that had been missing from the picture. Suddenly, the late Victorian era looked less dreary. Kipling, you will remember, was rediscovered at this time as the master of the short story. The second-hand book trade was on fire with John Buchan and as the books passed out of copyright, there was a rush tore-issue them with new introductions of varying interest and value. Slowly the smoke of battle cleared to reveal that monumental head, with its scar and severe glance, intact.

For the family, who had kept the faith during the years of persecution, the arrival of the converts was cause not just for gratitude and relief but also a certain regret for the penal times. I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen the following volumes that deal with John Buchan: short lives of his father and two brothers; two books of memoirs by his sister, Anna, as well as two autobiographical novels by her; his own memoirs, Memory Hold-The-Door; John Buchan by his Wife and Friends as well as three other books of reminiscences by my grandmother; the reminiscences of my father, aunt and one of my uncles; the Lives by Janet Adam Smith and William Buchan; and learned articles on aspects of John Buchan’s life and work by my brother and my sister. What about Anna, I thought. Isn’t a life of her long overdue? Perhaps Mr Kelman could be ...

It was clearly high time that John Buchan was taken from his adoring family and its friends and exposed to disinterested criticism.

Mr Lownie’s Life is straightforward and loyal in the extreme. He quickly establishes a reputation for judgment and accuracy, is cautious, self-effacing and thorough. His severest weakness is punctuation. He provides much information that his predecessors didn’t know or couldn’t be bothered with. There is, for example, a quite stupefying chapter on John Buchan’s career in Parliament, where he was miserably miscast. With his lists of shabby laurels and forgotten worthies, Mr Lownie makes his subject, in comparison, seem indifferent to worldly honour.

But, for all the new details, the picture remains that which John Buchan so carefully drew in Memory Hold-The-Door: a wanderer between two worlds, romantic and puritan, scholar and gypsy, Cromwell and Montrose, contemplative and man of action. And this tension did not, as the Evening Standard seemed to think in its review, send him mad but was, on the contrary, the spring of that cheerful and energetic life we know about from Janet Adam Smith and William Buchan.

What appears more clearly than in the earlier Lives, thanks to the abundance of information, is the extent John Buchan had to struggle with his health, money and his opponents. Mr Lownie shows with great sympathy how John Buchan, far from being the beady Scotch careerist of English demonology, was forever falling prey to scruple and contemplation. That, in turn, makes his apotheosis as Governor-General of Canada in 1936 oddly thrilling. It was not just that he was at last in a position to influence world events, for the world was marching to war and he to his grave. Rather, it’s the sheer fun of the thing. The photograph of him in an Indian head-dress has the same quality as Kennington’s portrait of Lawrence in Arab costume: for, as Janet Adam Smith ended her biography, a little maternally, ‘His boy’s dreams were still bright.’ In 1937, John Buchan travelled to the Canadian Arctic. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White flew up from New York and left this picture of him, working on the index of his life of Augustus, as he steams northwards down the broad Athabasca. It is to me the essence of the whole adventure:

A long narrow table had been contrived for him with a couple of planks, and there he sat with the fluttering little white paper markers of his index all over the place. Our cargo almost swallowed him up. His spare form was all but lost in the midst of the pig crates, the cage of chickens, the tractor, the assortment of agricultural implements which surrounded him. Several times I tiptoed up and photographed his expressive back, but I never interrupted him.

Actually, that’s how I imagine him in heaven.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences