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||John Buchan (1875-1940) - First Baron Tweedsmuir of Enfield|
Scottish diplomat, barrister, journalist, historian, poet, and novelist, whose most famous thriller was The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), his 27th book, which has been filmed several times. Alfred Hitchcock's film version of the story from 1935 is ranked as one of the director's best achievemets. In addition to his large body of nonfiction, John Buchan published nearly 30 novels and seven collections of short stories.
"Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honorable adventure."
John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, the eldest son of Rev. John Buchan and Helen (née Masterton) Buchan. In 1876 the family moved to Pathhead, Fife, a small mining town, and then to Glasgow. After attending Hutcheson's Grammar School, Buchan studied at the University of Glasgow and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he had an outstanding career, winning the Stanhope Essay Prize in 1897 and the Newdigate Prize in the following year. In 1901 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner. Prester John (1910), set in the years after the Anglo-Boer War and written for an adolescent male audience, was partly based on his South African experiences. The title of the book refers to the fifteenth-century legend of purpoted Christian priest and king of the Ethiopians.
Returning to London in 1903, Buchan specialized in tax law and
continued to write prolifically, both fiction and nonfiction. He joined
in 1906 the publisher Thomas Nelson and Sons, revitalized publication
of pocket editions of great literature, and virtually edited The
In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and
After the outbreak of WWI, Buchan tried to enlist but was
refused because of an ulcer. Before being able to join the army, he
worked as a special correspondent for The Times
on the Western
Front. The official War Propaganda Bureau commissioned him to write
accounts of major battles and various propaganda booklets. Buchan
became the master of propaganda in journalism, fiction and history.
All his best-selling thrillers from this period dealt with episodes in the war, its outbreak, the Russian capture of the Turkish citadel of Erzurum, and the final German offencives. In 1916-17 Buchan served on the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France as temporary Lieutenant Colonel. When Lloyd George was appointed Prime Minister, Buchan was made director of the Department of Information in February 1917, charged with coordinating all British propagada. Buchan's unpaid part-time adviser was Roderick Jones, the chief executive of Reuters news agency; Buchan wanted true stories and encouraged the film-makers towards authenticity.
For a short time Buchan served as the Director of Intelligence, a brief interlude in his career of which he did not much talk. After the war Buchan became a director of the news agency Reuters. He was a strong supporter of the League of Nations, he stressed the importance of close Anglo-American relations, and he was concerned by the Bolshevik regime in Russia. His first visit to America he made in 1924.
From 1927 to 1935 Buchan was a Conservative member of parliament for the Scottish universities. He held a number of important government posts, serving among others as Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-34). In 1935 he was created the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and appointed Governor General of Canada. As European war approached, he served as a trusted advisor to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was Buchan's duty to sign Canada's declaration of war against Germany. "This is the third war I have been in," he said to an old friend, "and no-one could hate the horrible thing more than I do." To Baron Macmillan, who was the first Minister of Information, he gave the advice that no direct propaganda to America and the news should follow the Reuter plan and be as objective as possible." Buchan died in office in Montreal, Canada, on February 11, 1940, after suffering a stroke.
Buchan began his literary career in the 1890s. His first novel, Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895), came out while he was still a student at Brasenose College, Oxford. It was followed by such works as Scholar-Gipsies (1896) and History of Brasenose (1898). At Oxford Buchan wrote five books, and before he was twenty-five he had published eight books. However, he did not devote himself entirely to writing. After a sojourn in South Africa, Buchan became a dedicated supporter of Britain's imperialism, and viewed some of his earlier literary endeavours rather uncomfortable. Grey Weather (1899), his first collection of tales and sketches, and The Watcher by the Treshold (1902), included some tacitly pagan stories.
While ill in bed in 1914, during the first months of the war,
Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps,
which introduced the spy-catcher Richard Hannay, who was modelled after
a young Army officer named Edmund Ironside, later Field-Marshal Lord
Ironside of Archangel. Hannay had all the qualities of a hero, who
could defend the English way of life against foreign thread – he is
resourceful, courageous, "solid and respectable citizen" devoted to his
own country – but he
was not an calculating agent, more of an innocent abroad. And he had no
taste for violence and he was not interested in sex like James Bond.
In the story Hannay, a 37-year-old wealthy Scot, meets an American journalist, named Scudder, who tells of an international assassination plan. Scudder is murdered, and Hannay realizes that he is the prime suspect. He flees to Scotland, and hides there from the police and the foreign conspirators and other anarchists. Hannay guesses that Scudders's cryptic note ("Thirty-nine steps – I counted them – High tide 10:17 p.m.) refers to the location of the anarchists' beach house. The conspirators are arrested.
A consistent theme in Buchan's thrillers was that nothing is as it seems – behind a respectable facade, there is a hidden agenda and deeply buries secrets, threatening the order of modern society. Or as he wrote in The Power House (1916): "You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from Barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. ..." Buchan had supported Zionist movement, but anti-Jewish clichés occur in his books frequently. By the end of WWI, Buchan had acquired a bitter taste of war, although war and adventure are still the different sides of the same coin in The Thirty-Nine Steps. His brother Alastair and best friend Tommy Nelson were killed in 1917. These for Remembrance (1919) commemorated six close friends killed in the war.
Richard Hannay was portrayed again in Greenmantle (1916), Buchan's tenth
novel, where the hero plays a spy and stops the Germans from using an
Islamic prophet for their own ends. This time Hannay's adventures take
him through Germany and the Balkans to Constantinople and finally to
the Near East front of World War I.
Another series character, Sandy Arbuthnot, partly modelled
after T.E. Lawrence and the Honourable Aubrey Herbert, second son of
the Earl of Carnarvon, tackle with Hannay and Sir Archibald Roylance a
gang of international criminals in The
(1924). Sandy was
the second of Lord Clanroyden; he was a "blood-brother to every kind of
Albanian bandit," and "he used to take hand in Turkish politics, and
got a huge reputation . . ." Herbert also travelled widely, he had
learned fluent Turkish in Constantinople, and he had an Albanian
bodyguard called Kiazim. Herbert's comment on Sandy Arbuthnot was "He
brings in my nerves all right, doesn't he?" Aubrey Herbert remained the
only real-life model that Buchan acknowledged for Sandy. Lawrence's
circle of literary acquaintances included Buchan, who helped him to
serve under a pseudonym in the Royal Air Force, Ezra Pound, Robert
Graves, who became a close friend, George Bernard Shaw, and his wife
Charlotte. Buchan claimed in a 1936 speech to have first met Lawrence,
"a shabby little second-lieutenant in a badly fitting uniform", in
1915, but in his autobiography Memory
Hold-the-Door (1940) he dated the meeting in the 1920s.
Although Hannay appeared in Buchan's later novels, too, his career as an adventurer ends in this story – he has married Mary Lamington from Mr Standfast (1919), has a son, is happy with his life as lord of Fosse Manor, and he is first reluctant to assist his former colleagues. "It was jolly to see the world coming to life againg," Hannay thinks in the beginning of the story, "and to remember that this patch of England was my own, and all these wild things, so to speak, members of my little household." With his thrillers, Buchan established a certain type of hero, who did not have as hard-boiled mentality as the American adventurer detectives, and certain plot patterns, that were adopted by such writers as H.C. McNeile, Edgar Wallace, and Geoffrey Household.
The lawyer and politician Edward Leithen, perhaps the most
autobiographical of Buchan's heroes, was the central character in three
novels, starting from The Power House,
and continuing in The Dancing Floor
(1926), which returned again in the theme of paganism, The Gap in the Curtain (1932), and Sick Heart River (1941). The Gap
in the Curtain
was a supernatural story, in which the guests at a country house party
are enabled by an unconventional scientist to catch a glimpse of an
issue of the Times dated a year ahead. Sir Edward finds
in the middle of an old struggle between faith and doubt. Dickson
McGunn, a respectable Glaskow grocer, was featured in Huntingtower (1922), Castle Gay (1930), and The House of the Four Winds (1935).
(1927), a historical novel set in 17th-century Scotland, told about
stern Scottish Protestants and devil worship.
All his spare time Buchan devoted to writing. His chief recretional outlets were riding, climbing, and walking. On of Buchan's most loved books is John Macnab (1925), which tells of three bored gentlemen of the establishment, a lawyer, banker, and Tory Cabinet Minister, who form a poaching trinity under their invented "a nom de guerre", John Macnab. Buchan's other works include the 24-volume Nelson's History of the War (1915-19), biographies of Montrose (1913, 1928), Walter Scott (1932), Oliver Cromwell (1934), and Augustus (1937). Buchan's autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door was published in North America under the title Pilgrim's Way.
Buchan was one of the favorite writers of Alfred Hitchcock, who had toyed with the idea of filming Greenmantle. Often in Hitchcock's films an innocent man is chased by the police and the villains. In one scene Hannay says: "I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel." The basic outline of the story was thoroughly worked over in the screen version. At the end Hitchcock parallels handcuffs with a suggestion of marriage. The sequence in which Hannay was first protected and then betrayed by a jealous Highland crofter, have no counterpart in the book at all. The 39 Steps was crucial for Hitchcock's career – it became an international success and brought him to the attention of the American producer David O. Selznick, with whom he would cooperate in Rebecca (1940) and other productions.
Anna Masterton Buchan (1877-1948), Buchan's sister, took the pseudonym O. Douglas for her first book, Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib (1913), saying: "I did not want to use my name as (in my opinion) John had given lustre to the name of Buchan which any literary efforts of mine would not be likely to add to, so I called myself 'O. Douglas'." George O'Brien wrote in Mystery & Suspense Writers (1998): "Victor Maskell, the protagonist modeled on Sir Anthony Blunt in John Banville's the Untouchable (1997), may regard Buchan as ridiculously old-fashioned. But the kind of material which his thrillers were first to bring into focus – the conspiratorial shadow cast by contemporary history, the challenge to integrity and cohesion, the bleak vicissitudes of international power play – continue their complex existence in the genre, as shown in not only Kumari (1955) and Helen All Alone (1961) by Buchan's son, William, but also in Heart's Journey in Winter (1995) and High Latitudes: A Romance (1996), by James Buchan, John Buchan's grandson." (Mystery & Suspense Writers, vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks, 1998)