Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps
By Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury, 492pp, £25/$28
John Buchan (1875-1940) has proved more enduring than most of his contemporaries. His books, especially The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, are literary heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. He has been lucky in his biographers, as he was in most things with the exception of his health.
After two excellent biographies by Janet Adam Smith and Andrew Lownie, published respectively in 1965 and 1994, and several memoirs, Buchanites can now welcome Ursula Buchan’s life of the grandfather who died before she was born.
Thanks to family papers including newly discovered letters and memories, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps provides a new and more personal view of the writer, known as JB to his family. Born in modest circumstances in Scotland, he became, with surprising ease, not only a leading author but also a public figure, a proconsul and the first Lord Tweedsmuir.
The son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, the young Buchan won an Oxford scholarship after a grammar school education. At Oxford, he published several well-received books, appeared in Who’s Who, was president of the Oxford Union and formed lasting friendships with many of the more brilliant of his contemporaries, including Aubrey Herbert (on whom Greenmantle’s Sandy Arbuthnot was based), Herbert’s cousin Auberon, and Raymond Asquith (son of HH Asquith), whom Buchan worshipped.
Ursula Buchan writes succinctly about the friendship between Buchan and Asquith, the latter killed in battle in 1916. She points out that among Buchan’s set at Oxford only the Herberts were aristocratic in the strict sense of the word, but all came from more privileged backgrounds than Buchan’s. They were light-hearted and, unlike Buchan, could afford to disdain ambition.
Oxford gave Buchan a worldly light touch and softened his Calvinism. His success is reminiscent of Richard Hannay’s. Hannay, the most popular of Buchan’s heroes, first appears as a Scot who has spent his life in the colonies and is bored and out of place in England. In a few years of hair-raising adventures, he is a general in the Army, a clubman and, at war’s end, a country squire married to a daughter of one of the great families of the land. Buchan’s trajectory was not entirely dissimilar, though in a slightly less swashbuckling way. To his credit, he, the least envious of men, was always ready to open doors for others.
Down from Oxford, Buchan joined Lord Milner’s “Kindergarten”, the only one of them neither born rich nor from an aristocratic family. Though his time in South Africa was brief, it was there he wrote Prester John, his first notable success, even if Ursula Buchan considers it now “unacceptable reading” because of its descriptions of “the natives”.
She convincingly dismisses, as other commentators have, attempts to brand Buchan an anti-Semite on the grounds of some remarks made by characters in his thrillers and ignorance of Buchan’s sympathy for Jewish aspirations. His love of South Africa and its people shines through in his Richard Hannay series, Hannay having been a mining engineer in South Africa. Buchan’s Calvinism, though of a gentler brand than the Boers’, did allow him to understand them in a way that the average Englishman did not.
Buchan never wavered in his lifelong belief in the British Empire and the English-speaking people – a conviction, unfashionable now, that was to serve him well at the end of his life as Governor-General of Canada, working closely with the United States, a country he much admired.
Engaged to the well-born Susan “Susie” Grosvenor, Buchan was welcomed from the start by his future mother-in-law and his intended’s circle. What difficulty there was came from Buchan’s mother, possessed of a dislike of the Church of England and the aristocracy. Ursula Buchan tells us how Susie won her in-laws’ hearts with her generosity and kindness. The author knew her grandmother in the older woman’s later years and gives the most vivid picture of her yet available.
As for Buchan himself, family anecdotes underline his well-known reputation for kindness. After the First World War, the Buchans moved into a manor house in the Cotswolds. Buchan often told guests he had taken a house by the roadside so that he could entertain wayfarers just as Axylus had in the Iliad.
In contrast to Andrew Lownie, who discussed Buchan the writer in detail, Ursula Buchan concentrates more on family and public life. Surprisingly, in an author so obviously romantic in temperament, he tended in politics to endorse the likes of Stanley Baldwin rather than the swashbuckling Winston Churchill, whom Buchan mistrusted. As with any writer of merit , one must always go back to his work. As the author urges, the best thing to do is go “beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps” and explore not just Buchan’s spellbinding thrillers but also his historical fiction, notably Witch Wood, his biographies and his excellent memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door.