John Buchan opens the door to the world one’s being seeks—a world of thickets refreshed by rain showers, of streams tinkling over boulders smoothed by uncountable winter floods, of the sharp cry of an unseen bird in a bush, of peat smoke rising lazily from a cottage chimney in the calm evening air, a world of nature utterly at peace and yet—here is the key Buchan ingredient—tinged with the menace of man the enemy.
Buchan knew the landscapes he describes so evocatively—they are usually Scottish, not English—because he took his greatest pleasure, all his life, in walking the country ways and scrambling in high places. He fished; he watched birds; he learnt the names of the wild plants, and, as he grew older, he read the history and legends of lowland and highland, feeding his vivid imagination on stories of border raids, clan feuds, and Jacobite adventure. The longer the walk, the harder the climb, the more he enjoyed the holiday. He took little with him, fed on oatcakes, sometimes slept in the open under a plaid, swam at daybreak in the waters of a loch, found shelter at night with a friendly crofter. Companions of the road, drovers, shepherds, hill farmers on the way to market, fed his store of dialect tales and folk wisdom. Distance and remoteness entered his being.
Yet Buchan was not really a countryman. His hills, dales, gentle riversides, and tinkling burns were brilliantly created products of his imagination rather than images of daily experience. His childhood was spent in a small town (where his Free Church of Scotland father began his ministry), and his youth in the narrow streets of Glasgow. Even in his early years, the countryside was a place of escape, not a defining environment. It was for that reason that it worked so powerfully on his consciousness. Real countrymen are less romantic about their surroundings. Buchan the author conveys the magic of nature as successfully as he does because nature was for him an experience of time spent away from home, not of home itself.
He took his greatest pleasure, all his life, in walking the country ways.
John Buchan, born on August 26, 1875, was the son of William Buchan, clergyman, and Helen Masterson, a sheep-farmer’s daughter, only just eighteen at the time of the birth of her first child. The family was modestly middle-class, a status Buchan would never deny, even when fame and fortune carried him into the ranks of the rich and great. He began his education at the local Board School. When his father was appointed to a large Free Church parish in the Gorbals, he transferred to Hutcheson’s, a Glasgow grammar school. Later, with sons at Eton, he would say, “I never went to school in the conventional sense”—but the truth was that schools like Hutcheson’s were the normal destination of boys of the Scottish middle class. Hutcheson’s, moreover, did him well. He won a scholarship that paid his fees of four guineas a year and in 1892, aged sixteen, a bursary to Glasgow University.
Scottish universities, in Buchan’s youth, were to Oxford and Cambridge as Hutcheson’s was to an English public school—hardscrabble places of study, not seminaries for young gentlemen. Glasgow University in the 1890s, however, had several professors who came from Oxford or Cambridge or were going on to chairs there. As Buchan’s university years extended, and he took the measure of his talents, the idea grew of trying for Oxford himself. The expense, which might have been an insuperable obstacle, he was equipped to meet because he had already begun to write for money. With remarkable self-confidence, he tried stories and essays on Scottish and English magazines and won acceptances; he went to see editors and so impressed them that he was taken on to read the manuscripts of other would-be writers. When, in 1895, he went up to Oxford, he was earning £70 a year by writing and the further expenses of his first year were just covered by a scholarship he won. Four years later his annual income was over £400, £130 from his scholarship, the rest from publishers. He was much better off than most middle-class undergraduates and no charge on his father.
Oxford did more than start Buchan on his literary career. It also launched him into English life. Buchan never ceased to be a Scot, then or later, but he did not insist on his Scottishness as many fellow countrymen abroad did. Within a year of leaving Glasgow, his Scottish accent had almost disappeared and, by the time he left Oxford, his close friends were almost all English—many, such as Raymond Asquith, from leading English families. He moved, moreover, in English society without any unease or self-consciousness. His transition from teenage Glasgow graduate to young man-about-town in London was achieved with apparently effortless smoothness.
Propulsion rather than escalation was the secret. Buchan stood out, even as an undergraduate, but did not obtrude or impose. He was liked by his contemporaries and admired. They foresaw for him a great future, in politics, the law, or public life. Not without reason. He had appeared in Who’s Who at the age of twenty-three, been published in The Yellow Book, been elected President of the Union, and, in his last term, achieved a First in Greats. His friends not only expected him to succeed but also wished and helped him to do so.
His early career bore out his early promise. Deciding to go to the bar, he quickly found chambers and was called as a barrister, after one failed attempt at the examination, in 1901. It was not his first exam failure; he had also—twice—failed the examination for an All Souls Fellowship. He did not harbor long regrets, recognizing that he was not a natural academic and that life in the great world would suit him better than that of the quadrangle and library. At the bar he continued to write, beginning to turn out journalism for the national papers at a rapid pace and embarking on a full-length novel, through themes developed in his early stories of Scottish adventure and historical romance.
His start in journalism and the law was soon interrupted, however, by a call from afar. In 1901 the Boer War was drawing to a close, but the “bitter enders” among the Boers were refusing to give up. Formal operations were at an end but guerrilla warfare continued in the Transvaal, and sporadically in the Orange Free State, and even in the British Cape Province. Its effect on the life of the territories was disastrous. The Afrikaners who had surrendered were prisoners; those who had not were fugitives on the veld; farms everywhere were derelict; the Boer women and children were left without proper livelihood. The British solution was to confine them in what were unfortunately called Concentration Camps, where they could be fed but also prevented from supporting their menfolk. The intention was benevolent as well as strategic, but the result was deplorable. Epidemics broke out in the camps, causing death rates as high as 30 percent.
There was public outrage and the demand for action. The British government, which had resumed control of the Free State and Transvaal as colonies, had already recognized the need for a program of reconstruction. Alfred Milner, a leading public servant, High Commissioner for South Africa since 1897, was charged with that duty. His response was to recruit personal secretaries who could carry out the mission. This “Kindergarten” was to contain some of the most promising young men of their generation, including a future editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, and John Buchan.
He liked the Boer farmers, who reminded him of the Border farmers of his childhood.
Buchan was given two responsibilities: first, to make the camps healthy; second, to begin reviving agriculture. He did not solve the camp problem; that was done by bringing doctors and nurses experienced in quelling epidemics from Britain and India. His agricultural work was more constructive and, to him, more fulfilling. He liked the Boer farmers, who reminded him of the Border farmers of his childhood. He was at home with their Calvinism, so similar to his own Presbyterianism. Above all, he loved the South African landscape, the far horizons of the high veld, the green slopes of the Magaliesberg range, the tiny woods and valleys of the Drakensberg. He got to know it well, riding long distances across country, discovering places of secret beauty and forming the intention of returning one day to build a house in the wilderness.
He also got to know people he would not have met in his respectable life at the English bar: soldiers, adventurers, and men out to make their fortunes in the world. The gold and diamonds of South Africa had attracted fortune-hunters from all over the world who made Johannesburg a cosmopolitan and vibrant city. Many of the adventurers were reasonably law-abiding. Some were not. Buchan found the crooks as interesting as his own sort of high-minded empire builder and was to populate his future novels with characters drawn from his Johannesburg experience.
When he left South Africa at the beginning of 1903, his career as a writer, however, still lay ahead of him. He had published four slight novels and several collections of short stories, but he had decided against setting up as a full-time man of letters. Literature was to be “my hobby, not my profession”; so he summed up his intentions at that time. On returning to London, he resumed his journalism, his legal work, though in chambers, not in court, and sought election to Parliament, as a moderate Conservative. He was busy, well-known in London society, and financially comfortable. After the glitter of his Oxford years, however, and of his first appearance on the literary scene, his career had fallen into eclipse. His early promise had faded; he had ascended no higher up the slopes of achievement he seemed destined to conquer. The most notable event of these Edwardian years was his marriage in July 1907 to Susan Grosvenor. She was everything his doting mother least sought in a bride for her adored eldest son. She was English, Anglican, and, by Mrs. Buchan’s homely standards, a sight too grand, the granddaughter of a peer and a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. She was nevertheless to prove a partner in a happy marriage, though to it she brought no money. John and Susan’s growing family would have to be supported by his efforts alone.
The basis of his livelihood as a married man was supplied by his appointment as a partner in the old Edinburgh firm of Thomas Nelson, who had published Walter Scott, Buchan’s literary hero. Tommy Nelson, the current head of the firm, was an Oxford contemporary; he and Buchan agreed on a salary of £1500 a year, a very generous income in that period. More income was welcome, however, for Buchan contributed to the expenses of his parents and sister, Anna, then setting out herself on the career of a novelist.
So Buchan persisted with his writing. The pattern was, much as before, collections of short stories, a novel (Prester John) which drew both on Scottish scenes and his African experience, and a biography of the Covenanter Chief, Montrose. None sold more than 2000 copies and he earned good reviews but little cash.
Then his luck turned. Buchan was prone to exhaustion, as highly-strung men who work too hard often are. Moreover, he “relaxed” by taking up a new writing task. In 1913 he had spent his time on a cruise to the Azores composing a “shocker,” which would appear in 1916 as The Power House. In the later summer of 1914, as war engulfed Europe, he fell ill again and was taken by Susan to Broadstairs for a holiday. Also holidaying in Broadstairs was a cousin of Susan’s who was renting a clifftop house with steps down to a private beach. As he recuperated, Buchan began his second “shocker.” He was to call it The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was an immediate success when first published in 1916; by 1960, his biographer Janet Adam Smith calculated its sales had reached 355,000 copies. By now the figure is far higher.
The Thirty-Nine Steps reworks in literary form much of Buchan’s life thus far.
It is wrong for an introduction to spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the book that follows by revealing anything of its plot. Without doing so, it is possible to say that The Thirty-Nine Steps reworks in literary form much of Buchan’s life thus far (he was thirty-nine in August 1914). The beginning of the action is set in Scotland, at first in Galloway, which he knew well from a long Oxford holiday, then in Tweeddale. He peoples the action with Scottish types met during childhood stays in Tweeddale or on his student tramps around the Lowlands. The prologue, however, is staged in London, the London of clubs and West End streets in which he settled after arriving in the capital, and the atmosphere of a rich, complacent imperial city is perfectly caught in his description of how a returned colonial, his hero Richard Hannay, swiftly tires of the allurements of metropolitan life.
After Hannay’s adventure in Scotland, the action shifts to the Thames Valley, a countryside of sleepy villages and peaceful trout streams, explored during Buchan’s years at Oxford, and then quite unspoiled by the extension of London’s tentacles into its water meadows and chalk downland. The Thames valley remained as rural as it had been when Gray was writing the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and the only outsiders were grandees rich enough to build weekend retreats. Buchan captures the type and the atmosphere to perfection in his depiction of Sir Walter Bullivant, the government insider and man of secrets.
The culmination of the plot carries Richard Hannay, after a second London episode, to the Channel coast. As he wrote the final chapter, Buchan was drawing directly on the scenes that lay about him during his recuperation in Broadstairs. His evocation of monied leisure at the early twentieth-century seaside could not be bettered. The description of beach donkeys and pierrots padding homeward in the warm twilight past the garden gates of comfortable villas, where maids wait to serve supper and the hall tables are covered with tennis rackets and folded waterproofs, perfectly conveys the sense of a privileged class enjoying its release from city labor among locals with real breadwinning to do. Buchan was by then one of the privileged, but he was not far enough away from the Gorbals to disguise his knowledge of the realities of the breadwinning world of his childhood.
Most realistic of all is his characterization of his hero, Richard Hannay. Hannay, perhaps inevitably, is a Scot, and a Scot who has made his way in the world. Buchan knew about self-made Scots, but Hannay is also a colonial, a type he knew only from the outside. One of the triumphs of The Thirty-Nine Steps is Buchan’s realization of an exile who has made a pile in a harsh world and returned to the Motherland to enjoy what he has won. The frustrated energy, the impatience with convention, but also the fundamental deference towards Imperial Britain’s great and good ring absolutely true. So too does Hannay’s personal integrity. He may look up to grandees, whom his adventure brings him to meet with surprising frequency. At his center, however, Hannay believes in himself, as a successful professional—his pile was made as a mining engineer—and in his own simple but unswerving code of right and wrong. Moral certainty, which Buchan possessed in abundance, was one of his strengths as a writer. It gave him the power to achieve something particularly elusive: moral atmosphere.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is, however its author described it, not merely a “shocker.” It is a story of good and evil. Given Buchan’s optimistic and forgiving nature, he could not make the evil very severe. His villains are not beyond redemption, and what they plot is less than diabolical. The good, by contrast, is very good indeed. That is what makes his world and his heroes so attractive. They are upright and chivalrous, as well as unthinkingly brave, and they enjoy the sublime assurance that, when things look their blackest, chance will cast them in the path of someone ready to help who is just like themselves. The Buchan firmament is peopled by characters who are instinctively patriotic, romantically unselfish, and ready at a moment’s notice to abandon everyday duty to do service to the cause.
Buchan’s “cause” was by no means as simple as King and Country, deeply loyal though he was to both. It also partook of Scottishness, the Scotland of burn and bracken but also of the One True Kirk, and anomalously of England as well, an idealized England of high-minded gentlemen and idyllic landscape. There were other elements, including a strong populism—Buchan’s humbler folk exude sturdy virtue—a pervasive respect for institutions, and a whiff of Empire. Suffusing everything is something distinctively Buchanesque, a hint of presences just beyond the boundary of consciousness. Buchan’s world and the values for which his characters are ready to risk their lives are utterly matter-of-fact, but at its fringe hover unseen, undefined powers whose intervention can never be discounted.
Buchan is a master of pace.
It is the dimension of the mysterious that makes Buchan’s writing so unfailingly compelling. It is the other ingredients—strong characters (often, if minor participants, drawn with brilliant comedy), exact and evocative scene-setting, highly authentic dialogue (particularly when rendered in dialect), sudden surprises and, above all, rapid change of location—that make him so readable. Buchan is a master of pace. Raymond Chandler, one of his admirers, laid down the principle that the mystery writer, if in doubt as to how to proceed, should have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. Buchan never seems in any doubt as to how to proceed, but he sustains interest by the relentless speed with which he shifts scenes. Hannay’s rush from London to Galloway to the Tweeddale to the Thames Valley to London again and finally to the Channel coast, by express train, high-powered motor car, and on his own fleet feet, leaves the reader breathless, but also panting to know what lies beyond the next twist in the plot.
It does not disappoint. Better than that, the narrative is deeply satisfying. Buchan had a happy and wonderful life, culminating in his appointment, as Lord Tweedsmuir, to be Governor General of Canada. His personal saga was already launched when he began The Thirty-Nine Steps. Its consistently optimistic mood and its simple theme of the triumph of a good man over his country’s enemies reflect the story of his own life thus far and anticipate its development. If Hannay’s succession of chance encounters with humble helplessness and powerful supporters, wholly unlikely though it may be, rings true, it is because he was drawing on his own lucky experiences.
John Buchan was blessed by fortune, which brought a Scottish boy of obscure family to fame, wealth, and lifelong friendship with the greatest in the land. He deserved every particle of his success, for he was a writer touched by genius. The outline of his enormous talent is discernible in each page of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 38
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