Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan 
by Ursula Buchan.
Bloomsbury, 479 pp., £25, April 2019, 978 1 4088 7081 5
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Betweenthe wars, the journalist Richard Usborne recalled in 1953, there was a feeling that John Buchan was good for you. ‘If not exactly the author set for homework, Buchan was certainly strongly recommended to the schoolboy by parent, uncle, guardian, pastor and master,’ he wrote in Clubland Heroes, a study of the thrillers he had enjoyed as a child. ‘Buchan backed up their directives and doctrines. Buchan wrote good English. Buchan taught you things.’ Usborne’s droll catalogue of his subjects’ reactionary excesses helped writers like Dornford Yates and the repellent ‘Sapper’ along the way to oblivion. Buchan continued to be read, but his reputation was battered: by 1960 or so, even his admirers saw a need to account for his characters’ more colourful views, and he was an irresistible target for parodists. ‘A divorced woman on the throne of the house of Windsor would be a pretty big feather in the cap of that bunch of rootless intellectuals, alien Jews and international pederasts who call themselves the Labour Party,’ Alan Bennett had Richard Hannay, Buchan’s most famous hero, muse in Forty Years On (1968). Another West End send-up of The Thirty-Nine Steps finished a nine-year run in September 2015, a century after the final instalment of Buchan’s best-known novel appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine.

But perhaps there’s more life left in Buchan’s Great War-era dreamscapes than we decadent cosmopolitans like to think. Somewhere in the cultural compost heap that nourishes the conservative imagination in this country, among the Robertson’s jam jars and Mac cartoons and decaying prints of Zulu, his huge body of work might still be releasing nutrients. Appalled as he was by laziness, dishonourable behaviour and any overt acknowledgment of the existence of sex, he would surely have seen Boris Johnson’s career as the sheerest blackguardism. As a Scot, an ardent unionist and – in his own way – an internationalist, addicted to thirty-mile walks in his oldest tweeds, he might have been more at home with Rory Stewart, but there’s possibly a bit of Buchan’s vision in the Black Stone of Brexit, and a bit of Hannay in Johnson’s swagger. It can’t only be down to Hitchcock that The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print, or that most bookshops still stock The Complete Richard Hannay, with only the retro Orange Penguin livery to indicate that the contents are – as my grandmother would have put it – terribly old-fashioned.

One of the most terrible ways in which Buchan is old-fashioned becomes clear four pages into The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hannay, a Scottish-born South African mining engineer, is bored with his life in late Edwardian London. One night his upstairs neighbour, Scudder, reveals himself to be a freelance spy from Kentucky and shares the secret for which he’ll soon be murdered. It seems that there’s a conspiracy ‘to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads’, and that ‘the Jew’ is behind it:

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English … If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog … But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now.’

Hannay is sceptical about the ‘Jew-anarchists’ but notes that his neighbour’s tales of international financiers stirring up chaos for profit ‘explained a lot that had puzzled me’. (His creator reacted similarly in 1934 when another excitable American, Ezra Pound, wrote to enlist his help in lifting the lid on ‘the game that has been going on since 1919’: Buchan declined to involve himself but allowed that ‘there is some very ugly work going on behind the scenes’.) Hannay is right to be sceptical, because it later turns out that Scudder was talking ‘eyewash’: the real conspiracy is a German one to steal the secrets of British naval dispositions. Scudder was a good agent, Sir Walter Bullivant of the Secret Service explains, but ‘he had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance.’

Buchan’s biographers, starting with Janet Adam Smith in 1965, tend to hold up this turnaround as evidence that he wasn’t an antisemite. They point to his handful of Jewish friends, to his Zionism – a cause he learned about from his friend Arthur Balfour, who set him on the path of writing thrillers by introducing him to those of E. Phillips Oppenheim, jokily described by Buchan as ‘the greatest Jewish writer since Isaiah’ – and to the sympathetically depicted Jewish characters who crop up here and there in his fiction. As the Unionist MP for the Combined Scottish Universities, he condemned the persecution of German Jews three months into Hitler’s chancellorship and later earned himself a place in a Nazi handbook on Britain (‘Tweedsmuir, Lord: Pro-Jewish activity’). All the same, Hannay and Buchan’s other characters continue to obsess uneasily about Jewishness. The books’ minor villains and disreputable bit-players are sometimes Jewish, but the subject often comes up in a way that’s almost completely unmotivated, as though Buchan couldn’t get his imagination fired up without some casual antisemitism.

Hannay’s – and Buchan’s – doctrine of fair play, and of trying to see the other fellow’s point of view, is applied to Jews as well as the German enemy. Even Scudder agrees that the Jews have been ‘persecuted’. In Greenmantle (1916) Hannay explains that Jews are ‘at the back of most German enterprises’ because they’re the only Germans who understand the way other people think. This is intended as a compliment: he attributes the same role to Scots in the British Empire. Julius Victor, in The Three Hostages (1924), is an unequivocally noble character, though Buchan spoils the effect by having another heroic character call him ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. A self-referential passage in the same book has someone explaining how to write a mystery novel. You take three images at random – ‘say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard’ – and make up a story to connect them. The reader won’t know that you ‘fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it’. This suggests, among other things, that in the world Buchan wrote in it was generally understood to be helpful to have a religious minority in the picture if you wanted to conjure up an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty.

He was less interested in women and it isn’t until the third book, Mr Standfast (1919), that he introduces his hero to a young woman, Mary, who has the slim grace of ‘a gallant boy’ and whom he promptly marries. In Greenmantle Hannay, in his early forties, admits that he has ‘never been in a motor car with a lady before’. ‘I am glad you think I am better at love-making,’ Buchan wrote in a letter to Gilbert Murray. ‘I hate the stuff. I sit and blush with disgust when I am writing it.’ So flirtation and sexual tension were largely off the table as a means of punching up his dialogue. But Buchan still aimed to give his characters’ language a racy, informal quality. The results can be enjoyably ludicrous: ‘Dick, did you ever hear of a thing called the Superman?’ ‘There was a time when the papers were full of nothing else … I gather it was invented by a sportsman called Nietzsche.’

Buchan seems to see his characters’ more unsettling oubursts as a similar kind of banter: the treacherous habits of, say, the Portuguese make for amusing talk at one’s club, and therefore on the page. That the empire is a good thing and that certain hierarchies are natural is too obvious to need asserting, but can’t help showing itself in assumptions and comic asides. In one of the ugliest, Hannay – undercover among a group of arty pacifists who swoon over a Russian novel called Leprous Souls – hears ‘a great buck nigger’ speak self-evident rot ‘about “Africa for the Africans”. I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.’ Hannay’s highest praise, regularly conferred, is: ‘He was a white man.’ But the vision that Buchan consciously asserts is more expansive: he wants to demonstrate his support for progress. There’s a place for trade unions and even the Labour Party, ‘fatted calves’ though its representatives might be. Shepherds are more admirable than stockbrokers, conscientious objectors can be patriots (‘I’ve been a Fabian since Oxford,’ one of them tells Hannay, ‘but you’re a better socialist than me’) and the ordinary Turk or German is a decent chap at heart. In Mr Standfast, the apocalyptic scenes on the Western Front give all the peoples of the empire a chance to show their mettle. ‘Some of your own South African blacks’, a friend reports to Hannay, were especially heroic.

Buchan wrote a great deal more than the Hannay books, and softened as he aged. In 1900 he was capable of having a character argue – in Usborne’s summary – that ‘on a purely private mission of exploration it might be right for the Englishman to execute a bad native porter to encourage the others.’ In his last novel, Sick Heart River (1941), described by his secretary as ‘so unlike him, so introspective’, the dying Sir Edward Leithen spends his last days saving indigenous Canadians in the name of ‘the brotherhood of all men, white and red and brown’. The Island of Sheep (1936) proposes a similar brotherhood between the angry African tribesmen who save the day in the backstory and the angry Norwegian whale hunters who do the same in the main plot. Buchan’s idiosyncratic Toryism finds its fullest expression in John Macnab (1925), in which a heroine with a face ‘like an eager boy’s’ says that the right of property ‘is no right at all’. An aristocrat who won’t struggle to keep what he has, like unproductive capital in general, is no use to anyone, and it’s only just that such people should go to the wall – though not as a result of ‘some silly government redistributing everybody’s property’.

UrsulaBuchan is a granddaughter of ‘JB’, and her biography doesn’t dwell on the less appealing aspects of his writing. As he would have wished, she puts more of an emphasis on the historical novels – Witch Wood (1927) was his favourite – and his status as a Scottish monument, a descendant of Scott and Stevenson. There’s nothing fanciful about this – Janet Adam Smith reported that Clement Attlee pointed out to her a borrowing from Kidnapped in The Thirty-Nine Steps – and if he had had a slightly different temperament Buchan might have become a more complex kind of writer. Like Joyce, he read Maupassant and Flaubert as a teenager, worshipped Ibsen and Walter Pater as a student, and had a less than simple relationship with the cultural nationalism of the country in which he grew up. He got to know Henry James, read Proust, studied Bergson and took an interest in pre-Christian religious practices, a subject on which his sources were more up to date than T.S. Eliot’s. In the 1890s his stories appeared in the Bodley Head quarterly The Yellow Book and Virginia Woolf later wrote cattily about his wife. A career as a minor modernist was there for the taking, but too close an association with late Victorian Balliol men meant that he had to settle for a life as a colonial administrator, journalist, barrister, publisher, propagandist, MP, peer, governor general of Canada and bestselling novelist.

He was born in Perth in 1875. His father, John, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, was theologically conservative but not dour. ‘Calvinism sat lightly on our shoulders,’ Buchan recalled. The sabbath meant bacon and eggs instead of porridge and, secular reading being forbidden, Pilgrim’s Progress for entertainment. Buchan became a lifelong devotee of ‘its plain narrative, its picture of life as a pilgrimage over hill and dale, where surprising adventures lurked by the wayside, a hard road with now and then long views to cheer the traveller’. There were happy, outdoorsy times in upper Tweeddale, the birthplace of his mother, Helen. A cultured uncle introduced him to French novels and fly fishing, and gave him a 1621 edition of Tacitus. ‘I never went to school in the conventional sense,’ Buchan wrote, ‘for a boarding school was beyond the narrow means of my family.’ But Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow served him well. He went to the University of Glasgow at 17 and between classes edited an edition of Bacon’s essays for a London publisher. ‘Before I left Glasgow I had read and analysed many of the English and Scottish philosophers, most of Kant, and a variety of lesser folk.’

In 1895 Buchan got a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. At first cash was tight, but he published a novel and started writing for magazines. Soon he was joining a gentleman’s club, buying his sister a bicycle and lending his mother money. In the vacations he mixed hard work – one summer he translated 360 pages of Plato in a fortnight – and ‘violent exercise’. He seems to have achieved near total sublimation of the energies later generations of undergraduates would invest in trying to get laid. Girls were exotic creatures, rarely sighted, and in any case, Ursula Buchan concludes, ‘he was not, constitutionally, very susceptible’ to them. Susceptibility to boys would have struck him as utter beastliness. (His heroines’ boyish looks are meant to indicate that they’re plucky.) An admired circle of friends at Balliol centred on Raymond Asquith, eldest son of the future prime minister, encouraged a steely insouciance. You had to be ready to walk to London at a moment’s notice and get a First in Greats without making a fuss about it. Asquith enjoyed teasing Buchan with languid objections to imperialism:

The day of the clever cad is at hand. I always felt it would come to this if we once let ourselves in for an empire. If only Englishmen had known their Aeschylus a little better they wouldn’t have bustled about the world appropriating things. A gentleman may make a large fortune, but only a cad can look after it. It would have been so much pleasanter to live in a small community who knew Greek and played games and washed themselves.

Buchan couldn’t rise to quite this level of effortless superiority. After missing out on a fellowship at All Souls, he sat out the Boer War in London while studying for the Bar, then signed up with the ‘Kindergarten’ of idealistic young imperialists recruited by Alfred Milner to administer South Africa. His first task was to improve conditions in the concentration camps – they were, he wrote, ‘terrible’. Military management had been ‘damnably incompetent’, but he could soon report that ‘things are better, and I think Chamberlain may face Parliament confidently.’ His second task was resettlement, and here he was less successful, coming under fire for wasting public funds. He made interesting friends – among them the future army chief Edmund Ironside, whose exploits as an intelligence officer inspired some of Hannay’s – and fell in love with the South African landscape: he dreamed of building a house there called ‘Buchansdorp’. He was less taken with the local brand of Calvinism, which taught, he said, that ‘God made men of two colours, white and black, the former to rule the latter till the end of time.’ His own position was that equality was achievable, perhaps in a loose assemblage of self-governing dominions, but only after an indefinite period of British supervision.

Returning to London in 1903, he experienced the world-weariness that afflicts his heroes when there isn’t an adventure on the horizon. Being a barrister wasn’t taxing enough, and perhaps he wasn’t very good at it, so he continued to pound out journalism – Spectator pieces on everything from ‘Our Duty to the Fleet’ to ‘The Kinship of the English and American Bars’ – and a great variety of books: novels, a symposium on the empire, a guide to tax on foreign income. As he moved sideways into publishing, he met and married Susan Grosvenor, who was related to the dukes of Westminster and Wellington and, her granddaughter reports, ‘had breakfast in bed all her life’. (Buchan never learned to drive: that was what chauffeurs were for.) Her family was keener on the match than his was – Buchan was ‘something like a genius’, one of her relatives said – and it was through them that he found himself, in 1909, going through Byron’s papers with Henry James in an effort to settle the question of whether or not he had had sex with Augusta Leigh. ‘The thing nearly made me sick,’ Buchan wrote, ‘but my colleague never turned a hair. His only words for some special vileness were “singular” – “most curious” – “nauseating, perhaps, but how quite inexpressibly significant”.’

Buchan, like Hannay, often writes of feeling sick in response to unmentionable or unpatriotic goings-on. From 1912, he also suffered from serious digestive problems. He was eventually diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer and for the rest of his life was laid low by fits of ‘seediness’ which forced him to subsist on poached eggs and warm milk. The Great War broke out while he was recuperating from one such episode in Broadstairs in Kent. He wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps from his sickbed, intending it as a contribution to the war effort. In poor health, and approaching the upper age limit for military service, he soon became director of information in Charles Masterman’s War Propaganda Bureau. ‘Propaganda’ didn’t always carry connotations of state-sponsored disinformation at this point – it was used unironically of puff pieces and commercial advertising – and some in government wished to keep things that way, including Asquith, who thought the bureau’s work ungentlemanly. Buchan wrote Greenmantle and Mr Standfast while fighting administrative and political battles – he usually lost – and while simultaneously producing a 24-volume history of the war to keep his publishing company ticking over. He made regular trips to France to report from the front, where his brother was killed, as were many of his friends, including Raymond Asquith. Genuine emotion can still be felt in Mr Standfast’s demented battlefield finale.

Thepostwar world wasn’t really to Buchan’s liking. Odd ideas had begun to circulate among poets, who now ‘plumed themselves wearily on being hollow men living in a waste land’, as he put it in 1940, and among present or former subjects of the British and Russian empires. He dramatised his feelings about such developments in The Three Hostages, which is concerned with the plague of ‘moral imbeciles’ that ‘the poor old War’ has inadvertently unleashed: Lenin, Gandhi and the architects of Irish independence. In public life, though, he was less inclined to play the arch-reactionary. He supported women’s suffrage and helped establish the National Library of Scotland; Hugh MacDiarmid became a friend. As an MP, from 1927, he looked into education and workers’ rights. His manor house in Elsfield, outside Oxford, was open to guests of all political persuasions: A.L. Rowse, then a socialist; T.E. Lawrence, who looked ‘like a pretty girl’; and his neighbour Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the patriotic ‘Vitai Lampada (They Pass On the Torch of Life)’.

Buchan was close to Stanley Baldwin and later to Ramsay MacDonald, but neither saw him as cabinet material. His parliamentary colleagues found his speeches Rees- Moggianly eccentric: ‘How could you take a man entirely seriously if he talked in Ciceronian periods, yet your children were snatching his latest thriller out of your hand as you came through the door?’ He was shuttled off into ceremonial flummery, first as lord high commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which delighted his mother, and then, in 1935, to Canada. George V, who liked Buchan but saw appointing a commoner as a slippery slope, insisted on elevating him to the peerage. All the flummery meant that the new Lord Tweedsmuir had expensive obligations to fulfil, not always claimable on expenses, and as a representative of the crown he could no longer write journalism or do film deals. Many of his duties were frustratingly boring. He managed a few trips to the frozen north, but his health was giving out, and his efforts to draw Roosevelt into closer alliance with Britain were hampered by the fact that he needed the king’s permission to visit the US. The outbreak of war depressed him. At least the enemy in 1914 ‘had dignity and history’, he wrote in September 1939, five months before his death at the age of 64, while the current regime was ‘a mere oozing of filth from the gutters’.

There isn’t a huge amount of information in Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps that you can’t get from Janet Adam Smith’s biography, which is better on Buchan’s writing, or from Andrew Lownie’s The Presbyterian Cavalier (1995). But Ursula Buchan does a skilful job of bringing her subjects to life, especially Susan, an intelligent, spottily educated woman who suffered intermittently from depression but determinedly launched her own career as a writer. Buchan’s mother could be hard work – she wasn’t happy about her son getting married at all, and even less happy that the ceremony was in an Anglican church – and Susan had to exercise considerable tact and skill to win her round. Buchan himself was too concerned with doing the right thing for his country and for literature to pay attention to the bottom line. He had a businesslike manner, his secretary observed, but he wasn’t a businessman, and when he applied himself to money matters disasters tended to ensue. A few years after his death the house in Elsfield had to go, and the biography ends with Susan in retirement in Burford at the edge of the Cotswolds, wielding ‘an alarming ear trumpet’ but still smoking constantly, as her husband had, and presumably having breakfast in bed. She died in 1977.

It’s hard to finish reading any account of Buchan’s unbelievably energetic life without feeling that there were extenuating circumstances for some of his less palatable moments. His terseness – all that Tacitus – means that his novels are still readable, and the thrillers’ preposterous, throwaway plots are mostly a pretext for vivid set pieces based on strenuous walks through the glens, stalking stags, mountaineering and other rambunctious holiday activities. Buchan wasn’t good with characters but he had a great eye for landscape, and there’s something haunting about his perma-Edwardian world, in which ‘ordinary, game-playing, suburban Englishmen, wearisome, if you like, but sordidly innocent’ can abruptly reveal themselves as ruthless German agents. His writing shares a tweedy but slightly trippy quality with the Rupert Bear cartoons that Alfred Bestall drew in the 1930s. They appeared in the Daily Express, where Buchan had a column, so readers could have enjoyed both. The trick would have been to ignore the editorials.

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Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

Christopher Tayler mentions John Buchan’s sojourn in South Africa (LRB, 20 February). In the early 1980s I went to the South African village of Haenertsburg for the unveiling of a monument to Buchan in the countryside that was the setting for Prester John. It commemorates his words: ‘Two pictures I have always carried to cheer me in dismal places … One is of a baking noon on the high veld … the other is the Wood Bush in the Northern Transvaal … I resolved to go back in my old age, build a dwelling, and leave my bones there.’ Some South Africans proudly cling to the memory of that commitment, though Buchan died in Canada and was buried in England. It rained in the Wood Bush and we had to retreat to the nearby Magoebaskloof Hotel for the ceremony. Buchan’s son, the 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir, was to have been the guest of honour but he was too old to travel. Instead he had recorded a message. We assembled to listen as the tape was played. The plummy Old Etonian voice intoned: ‘My father comma while he was in South Africa comma …’

Elwyn Jenkins
Howick, South Africa

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