Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, By Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury, 410 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1408870815
President of the Oxford Union, high-profile journalist, Spectator editor, Tory MP, biographer, self-proclaimed optimist and enthusiastic propagandist for Britain’s historical mission – sound familiar? Well, maybe, but when you add to the list Calvinist, Scotsman and faithful spouse, not to mention publisher, barrister, mountain climber, governor-general of Canada and – what he’s remembered for – author of more than a hundred books including The Thirty-Nine Steps, it becomes clear that we are not after all talking about the comparatively low-energy Boris Johnson but his temperamental as well as alphabetical opposite, John Buchan, or JB, as he is referred to, perhaps too cosily, throughout this new biography by his granddaughter Ursula Buchan.
The son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, Buchan began his adventurous and prodigiously hard-working life as something of an outsider, though his rapid trajectory from his earliest days was towards the heart of the establishment, which he was to serve with unwavering loyalty from South Africa to the Western Front to North America and Westminster. In an era of confidently brutal imperial domination, not even the cataclysm of the Great War, which so comprehensively disillusioned most of his literary contemporaries, diluted his patriotic zeal.
But despite Buchan being out of step with the verdict of history, his best-known novel, an espionage-and-escape “shocker” considered groundbreaking in its time for its slick, pacy prose, has retained its status with readers. Written in a few weeks in 1915 while Buchan was recuperating from illness in Broadstairs, The Thirty-Nine Steps was an instant success, finding favour with the troops in the trenches, one of whom wrote to him that “it is just the kind of fiction for here . . . The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells.”
Since then, in peace or war, it has never been out of print. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a classic, and daringly racier, film version, which the reputedly prudish Buchan deemed, with characteristic generosity, to be “first rate, much better than my way”. And as recently as 2003 an Observer list of the world’s all-time greatest novels put it in forty-fourth place, just ahead of Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway, something Virginia Woolf would probably not have anticipated when she described in a letter, with haughty disparagement, a visit she paid to Buchan’s wife, Susie, at the family’s Oxfordshire home, Elsfield Manor, in the 1930s. “Happily John was in London being given a dinner, or seeing the King, and it wasn’t so bad,” Woolf wrote. “They’re rather out of elbows, and have holes in the carpet and only one family WC.”
There was certainly plenty going on for Buchan Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, as his biographer has titled her book, though apparently nothing scandalous or previously unrevealed. His life, despite constant ill-health (mostly ulcers and bad digestion), was so intensely busy that, even at four hundred pages plus, the biography barely has room for more than the most streamlined account of its events. Novels, histories, articles, poems, philosophical and religious treatises, as well as biographies of Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, among others, seem to have been knocked off without fuss in the few quieter moments of a public life which started in South Africa after the Boer War and ended in Canada a few months before Hitler’s troops invaded France.
The sunny temperament of this up-and-doing dynamo during the high summer of the empire was formed during a Calvinist upbringing in the Scottish Borders that was more carefree than might have been expected from such a background. Devout and socially committed but kind and even fun-loving, Buchan’s father had a reputation as a powerful preacher whose key text, apart from the Bible, was The Pilgrim’s Progress, the theme of which – a hero setting out on a quest in a desolate environment – is one that recurs, as the biography points out, in all the younger Buchan’s spy fiction.
Buchan saw himself as a patriotic Scot as well as a Briton and unionist. Though his work often reveals an unpalatable attitude of assumed racial superiority, he was able, as someone from the political periphery, to respect cultural difference and aspirations to independence. In his colonial work, he felt his background helped him to better understand the concerns of the isolated Boer farmers and rural Canadians he had dealings with.
His ability to get on with people, and impress without inspiring rancour, was evident from the start, though the photos of the watchful, wiry, austere-looking individual that illustrate the biography might have suggested otherwise. When he went to Glasgow University, a fellow student wrote: “Everything he put his hand to prospered and people accepted him on every hand.”
From Glasgow, he went on to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he quickly started making money out of journalism, prizes and scholarships. (He also apparently altered his voice and began to shed his Scottish accent, something for which he was mocked when he went home in the holidays.) While still an undergraduate, he was commissioned to write an official history of his college, and this was soon followed by his first novel, John Burnet of Barns. The London Times was unkind about the novel, while acknowledging that “Mr Buchan is understood to be a miracle of precocity”.
His college essays reveal the fully formed conservatism of his creed. Dismissing the “decadents” of the 1890s, he wrote: “The moral law has been accepted by saint and sinner for many hundred years, and has been the basis of all sound work, artistic or social, which has ever been done. And yet here we have so many presumptuous folk declaring that it is out of date . . .”
After Oxford, he worked at the Spectator while training to be a lawyer, and not long after being called to the Bar, in 1901, accepted an invitation from the high commissioner of South Africa to go and work there in the aftermath of the Boer War. The two-year adventure that followed was one of the least successful episodes in Buchan’s career, and he was attacked in the press for arrogance and naivety. He was given an unlikely weight of responsibility for someone still in his 20s, organising land resettlement and being charged with improving the scandalously overcrowded “concentration camps” – South Africa was where the term originated – in which displaced Boer women and children were accommodated following Britain’s scorched-earth treatment of their farmland. But despite his perceived failures (and regular bouts of dysentery), Buchan retained good memories of South Africa, describing it as “a place of inexhaustible beauty . . . in very truth the garment of God”. His 1910 novel Prester John was to extol this beauty, just as The Thirty-Nine Steps was a paean to the glories of lowland Scotland.
Back in England, Buchan married the aristocratic Susan Grosvenor and began working for Nelson’s publishing firm, whose coffers he later boosted by authoring the multi-volume Nelson’s History of the War, which sold 700,000 copies while the 1914-18 carnage was still going on. The astonishing success of this uncritical patriotic account is credited with helping to shift US public opinion in favour of joining the war. No wonder then that, in 1917, Buchan was placed “in charge of the nation’s propaganda efforts”.
Ursula Buchan does not engage in much analysis of her grandfather’s attitude to the war, or the florid, romanticised language he often used to describe it, but uses as a partial excuse the generally unquestioning outlook of the British public at the time. Though the loss of his brother Alastair seems not to have shaken Buchan’s patriotic conviction, he later wrote These For Remembrance, a memorial tribute to friends who had died in the trenches.
The Buchans and their children moved into Elsfield in 1919, and during the 1920s Buchan wrote a book every spring for his readers to take on their summer holidays, starting with the typical Huntingtower, about an exiled Russian princess chased by ruthless Bolsheviks to a castle in Scotland. In 1927, he was elected as a Tory MP for the Scottish Universities, though he was not partisan or combative enough to achieve high office at Westminster. He made friends on all sides of the House and, remarkably, became a close confidant of both the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin and the (initially) Labour one Ramsay MacDonald. Baldwin, despite their regular walks together around St James’s Park, did not find it expedient to give Buchan a ministerial job, and seems not to have been resented for this by his friend.
As for MacDonald, Buchan’s bond with the leader of the National Government was forged partly in their shared Scottishness. “The whole man was a romance, almost an anachronism,” Buchan wrote. “To understand him one had to understand the Scottish Celt, with his love of pageantry and poetry, his sentiment about the past, his contradictory loyalties.” It was MacDonald who ultimately entrusted Buchan “with some very confidential things to say to the president of the USA”, thus initiating another of Buchan’s close ‑ and one of his most important ‑ political connections, with Franklin Roosevelt.
When, in 1935, Buchan was appointed governor-general of Canada, his final job, he became in the process Lord Tweedsmuir, thus finally acquiring the title he had long pursued. (His biographer puts this hankering down to the vanity of the self-made man.) In Ottawa, Buchan fielded the strong reaction of Canadians to the abdication crisis in 1936 and subsequently hosted George VI’s visit to Canada and Washington.
In February 1940, not long after finishing a “book of reminiscences”, Memory Hold-the-Door, Buchan suffered a stroke and a fall at Government House, and died three days later, aged sixty-four. A period of national mourning was announced in Canada, and 15,000 people filed past his body as it lay in state. In London, the editor of the Times was reported as saying that the paper had never received so many tributes to a public figure.
It is not easy to read this respectful account of Buchan’s varied, engaged and eventful life without wondering from time to time what artistic or political relevance he or his work could possibly still have today. Yet just as the hero of his most famous book, the stoical Richard Hannay, survived to become a fictional archetype, so too do figures such as Buchan, with his optimistic patriotism and unbending “moral law”, have the capacity, in the current backward-looking era, to be claimed as something more, or other, than they were. He would be ripe for casting in the exceptionalist island-story school of history promoted by the likes of Michael Gove as education secretary or Jacob Rees-Mogg in authorial guise in his recent, critically savaged volume The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (which, according to Rees-Mogg, took around three hundred hours in all to write).
Although there is in Buchan’s work, bubbling away just under the surface, a strong fear of disorder, a belief that civilisation is only a thin veneer over savagery, along with an obvious anxiety about foreign forces and intriguers, it is difficult to see him lining up with the Brexiteers mentioned above – he was too conciliatory and cosmopolitan for that. A more plausible comparison might be with the one-nation Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart, and it would be easy to imagine Buchan, like Stewart, ultimately tiring of the Brexit chaos and throwing in the political towel. Or, who knows, maybe it would have been enough to drive him out of the no-longer-so-unionist Conservative Party altogether and into the embrace of the SNP.
Buchan died in the early days of the Second World War, just before the moment of mythic national isolation that is now invoked by the Churchill impersonator Boris Johnson. He was thus part of a different world where the empire was still just about intact and a deferential public discourse could still effectively elide its excesses and consequences. While it seems likely that the romantic patriot Buchan would have objected to the coarse, unvarnished language of the current crop of cliff-edge leaders, and to their vision of Britain as a deregulated capitalist playground, would he perhaps have been able to acknowledge their historical connection to his own enthusiasms? Would he have seen a grain of truth, one wonders, in the blunt verdict on Britain’s imperial legacy issued by his malign fellow Scot, the Murdoch-like media oligarch Logan Roy, in the brilliant dynastic TV series Succession?
Surveying the faded grandeur of the Scottish castle where his daughter’s wedding reception is taking place, Roy remarks: “I mean, look at this fucking place: slaves, cotton, sugar . . . This country is nothing but offshore laundering for turning evil into hard currency . . . And now it just lies here, living off its capital and sucking in immigrants to turn it and stop it getting bed sores.”
Giles Newington is a freelance journalist.