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by Bamber Gascoigne

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 Buchan became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner. Buchan had no experience of colonial administration, but he saw the post as a true opportunity. 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; among others Marco Polo mentions him in his Travels and Francois Rabelais in Pantagruel and Gangantua.

Newspaper reviewers compared Prester John with the work of Rider Haggard, but in general his bestsellers never won the favour of literary critics. Throughout the story, Buchan's uses the word "kaffir" and there is also the "N" world, due to which a published refused to re-issue the novel. "Prester John was  one of Buchan's earliest and  least  mature  books, or  possibly the fact that  it was intended  as a boy's book was responsible  for the shrillness of its message. Elsewhere the racism  was more a  matter of instinct and sentiment than of ideology or doctrine." ('Men and Ideas: John Buchan' by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Encounter, September 1960, p. 4)

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 Spectator. In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and one daughter.

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), and chairman of Parliamentary Pro-Palestine Committee. In 1935 he was created the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and appointed Governor General of Canada.

As European war approached, Buchan acted 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." (A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars
by Nicholas Rankin, 2009, p. 217
) 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 condemned the persecution of German Jews. For his "Pro-Jewish activity," he was on a Nazi handbook of Britain. John Buchan died in office in Montreal, Canada, on February 11, 1940, after suffering a stroke. His name is inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund of Israel.

His literary career Buchan began in the 1890s. Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895), Buchan's first novel, 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. He 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. The essential tension of the story is that Hannay is both being chased and chasing the villains.

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 buried secrets, threatening the order of established 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. ..."

By the end of WWI, Buchan had acquired a bitter taste of war. 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.

"A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle, and sad-faced marionettes moved to it. There was no gaietymor devil in that dancing, only a kind of bored perfection." (The Three Hostages, Wordsworth Classics, 1995, p. 93

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 Three Hostages (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.

Hannay appeared in Buchan's later novels, too, but 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. Some of his plot patterns were adopted by such writers as H.C. McNeile, Edgar Wallace, and Geoffrey Household (especially his hunted man thrillers). Although Buchan supported Zionist movement, anti-Jewish clichés occur in his books frequently. A notorious example is the novel The Three Hostages

The lawyer and politician Edward Leithen, perhaps the most autobiographical of Buchan's heroes, was the central character in three books, 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 himself 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). Witch Wood  (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. In contrast to his adventure-filled novels, Buchan lead a life of little action. 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 gave all his profits and royalties from Nelson's History of the War to war charities.

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. Due to Hitchcock's obsession with handcuffs, they are give a larger role in the film than in the novel. One of the killer lines goes like this (Richard Hannay): "There are twenty million women in this island and I get to be chained to you!" 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, Volume 1, edited by Robin W. Winks, 1998, p. 110)

For further reading: Unforgettable, Unforgotten by Anna Buchan (1945); John Buchan by His Wife and Friends by Lady Susan Tweedsmuir (1947); Mr. Buchan, Writer by Arthur C. Turner (1949); Clubland Heroes by Richard Usborne (1953); John Buchan: A Biography by Janet Adam Smith (1965); The Interpreter's House by David Daniell (1975); John Buchan and His World by Janet Adam Smith (1979); John Buchan: A Memoir by William Buchan (1982); John Buchan (1875-1940) and the Idea of Empire by Juanita Kruse (1989); A Buchan Companion by Paul Webb (1994); St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998, see entry by Brian Stableford); John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier by Andrew Lownie (2003); John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Kate Macdonald (2009); Modern John Buchan: A Critical Introduction by Nathan Waddell (2009); John Buchan and the Idea of Modernity, edited by Kate Macdonald and Nathan Waddell (2013); The Journalistic Writings of John Buchan; Selected Essays, Reviews, and Opinion Pieces by Roger Clarke (2018); Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan (2019); Ruritania: A Cultural History, from The Prisoner of Zenda to The Princess Diaries by Nicholas Daly (2020); Beyond Gold and Diamonds: Genre, the Authorial Informant, and the British South African Novel by Melissa Free (2021)

Selected works:

  • Essays and Apothegms of Francis Lord Bacon, 1894 (ed.)
  • Sir Quixote of the Moors, 1895
  • Scholar-Gipsies, 1896
  • Musa Piscatrix, 1896 (ed.)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh, 1897
  • History of Brasenose, 1898
  • The Pilgrim Fathers, 1898
  • John Burnet of Barns, 1898
  • Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People, 1899
  • A Lost Lady of Old Years, 1899
  • The Half-Hearted, 1900
  • The Compleat Angler / Izak Walton, 1901 (ed.)
  • The Watcher by the Threshold and Other Tales, 1902
  • The African Colony, 1903
  • The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income, 1905
  • A Lodge in the Wilderness, 1906
  • Some Eighteenth Century Byways and Other Essays, 1908
  • Prester John, 1910 (US title: The Great Diamond Pipe, 1911)
    - Afrikan viimeinen kuningas (Jyväskylä: Gummerus, 1926) / Sinisen antiloopin lähde (suom. Marja Laakkonen, 1962); Suuren käärmeen luola: jatkoa kirjaan Sinisen antiloopin lähde (suom. Marja Laakkonen, 1962)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh, 1911 (juvenile)
  • What the Home Rule Bill Means, 1912 (speech)
  • The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies, 1912
  • The Marquis of Montrose, 1913
  • Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall, 1913
  • Britain's War by Land, 1915
  • The Achievement of France, 1915
  • Nelson's History Of The War, 1915-19 (25 vols.; as A History of the Great War, 4 vols., 1921-22)
  • Salute to Adventurers, 1915
  • Ordeal by Marriage: An Eclogue, 1915
  •  The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915
    - 39 askelta (suom. Anssi Hynynen, 2011)
    - Films: The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1935, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Charles Bennett, starring Robert Donat (as Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll and Lucie Mannheim. "The 39 Steps was Peggy Ashcroft's second feature film, but she would emerge as one of the most respected British actresses of her generation. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1956 and in 1984 she starred in David Lean's film adaptation of EM Forster's A Passage to India for which she won an Oscar. The same year she appeared in the Granada Television drama The Jewel in the Crown." (from The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, 1999) / The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1959, dir. Ralph Thomas, adapted by Frank Havey, starring Keneth More (as Richard Hannay) and Taina Elg / The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1978, dir. Don Sharp, adapted by Michael Robson, starring Robert Powell (as Richard Hannay), David Warner and Eric Porter / The 39 Steps, 2008 (TV film), dir. James Hawes, starring Rupert Penry-Jones (as Richard Hannay), Lydia Leonard and David Haig / The 39 Steps, an announced film to be directed by Robert Towne
  • The Power House, 1916
  • The Future of the War, 1916 (speech)
  • The Purpose of War, 1916 (speech)
  • The Battle of Jutland, 1916
  • Greenmantle, 1916
  • Poems, Scots and English, 1917 (rev. ed., 1936)
  • Mr Standfast, 1919
  • These for Remembrance , 1919
  • The Battle Honours of Scotland 1914–1918, 1919
  • The History of the South African Forces in France, 1920
  • Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir, 1920
  • The Long Road to Victory, 1920 (ed.)
  • Great Hours in Sport, 1921 (ed.)
  • Miscellanies, Literary and Historical / Archibald Primrose, Earl  of Rosebery, 1921 (ed.)
  • The Path of the King, 1921
  • Huntingtower, 1922
    - Films: 1928, prod. Welsh-Pearson, screenplay Charles E. Whittaker, dir. George Pearson, starring Harry Lauder, Vera Voronina and Patrick Aherne / TV series 1957, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Shaun Sutton, starring Terry Cooke, Roger Delgado and Colin Douglas / TV series 1978, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Paul Curran, Peter Settelen and Iain Andrew
  •  A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys, 1922
  • The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Explortion, 1923
  • The Memoir of Sir Walter Scott, 1923 (speech)
  • Days to Remember, 1923
  • Midwinter: Certain Travellers in Old England, 1923
  • A History of English Literature, 1923 (ed.)
  • The Nation of Today: A New History of the World, 1923-24 (ed.)
  • Some Notes on Sir Walter Scott, 1924 (speech)
  • Lord Minto: A Memoir, 1924
  • The Northern Muse: An Anthology of Scots Vernacular Poetry, 1924 (ed.)
  • The Three Hostages, 1924
    - Films: TV series 1952, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Patrick Barr (as Sir Richard Hannay), Peter Rendall and Jill Melford / TV movie in 1977, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teleplay John Prebble, dir. Clive Donner, starring Barry Foster (as Sir Richard Hannay), Diana Quick and John Castle
  • The History of Royal Scots Fusiliers (1678-1918), 1925
  • John Macnab, 1925
    - TV movie, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teleplay John Prebble, dir. Donald McWhinnie, starring James Maxwell, Bernard Horsfall, Derek Godfrey
  • The Man and the Book: Sir Walter Scott, 1925
  • Two Ordeals of Democracy, 1925 (lecture)
  • The Dancing Floor, 1926
  • Homilies and Recreations, 1926
  • Modern Short Stories, 1926 (ed.)
  • Essays and Studies 12, 1926 (ed.)
  • The Fifteenth-Scottish-Division 1914-1919, 1926 (with John Stewart)
  • Witch Wood, 1927
    - Film: TV movie 1964, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teleplay Donald Wilson, dir. Michael Leeston-Smith, with Donald Douglas, Fulton MacKay
  • To the Electors of the Scottish Universities, 1927 (speech)
  • The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, 1927 (screenplay with Harry Engholm and Merritt Crawford)
  • The Runagates Club, 1928 (contains 'The Green Wildebeest')
    - 'Vihreä villieläin' (suom. Matti Rosvall, teoksessa Wendigo ja muita yliluonnollisia kauhukertomuksia, toim. Markku Sadelehto, 2015)
  • South Africa, 1928 (ed.)
  • The Teaching of History, 1928-30 (ed., 11 vols.)
  • The Courts of the Morning, 1929
  • Castle Gay, 1929
  • The Causal and the Causal in History, 1929 (lecture)
  • What the Union of the Churches Means to Scotland, 1929
  • Montrose and Leadership, 1930 (lecture)
  • The Revision of Dogmas, 1930 (lecture)
  • Lord Rosebery 1847-1930, 1930
  • The Novel and the Fairy Tale, 1930
  • The Poetry of Neil Munro, 1931 (ed.)
  • The Blanket of the Dark, 1931
  • The Gap in the Curtain, 1932
  • Sir Walter Scott, 1932
  • The Magic Walking Stick, 1932
  • Julius Caesar, 1932
  • The Massacre of Glencoe, 1933
  • Andrew Lang and the Borders, 1933 (lecture)
  • A Prince of the Captivity, 1933
  • The Margins of Life, 1933 (speech)
  • The Free Fishers, 1934
  • The Principles of Social Service, 1934?
  • The Scottish Church and the Empire, 1934 (speech)
  • Gordon at Khartoum, 1934
  • Oliver Cromwell, 1934
  • Men and Deeds, 1935
  • The King's Grace 1910-1935, 1935 (as The People's King, 1935)
  • An Address, 1935 [Western Mind]
  • The House of the Four Winds, 1935
  • Address, 1936
  • The Island of Sheep, 1936 (US title: The Man from the Norlands, 1936)
  • Augustus, 1937
  • The Interpreter's House, 1938 (speech)
  • Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1938
  • Memory Hold-the-Door, 1940 (as Pilgrim's War, 1940)
  • Comments and Characters, 1940
  • Canadian Occasions, 1940 (lectures)
  • Sick Heart River, 1941 (US title: Mountain Meadow, 1941)
  • The Long Traverse, 1941
  • The Clearing House: A Survey of One Man's Mind, 1946 (ed. Lady Tweedsmuir)
  • Life's Adventures: Extracts from the Works of John Buchan, 1947 (ed. Lady Tweedsmuir)
  • The Best Short Stories of John Buchan, 1980-82 (2 vols, ed. David Daniell)
  • The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy, 1984
  • The Best Supernatural Stories of John Buchan, 1991 (ed. Peter Haining)
  • John Buchan's Collected Poems, 1996 (ed. Andrew Lownie and William Milne)
  • The Complete Short Stories, 1996-97 (3 vols., ed. Andrew Lownie)
  • The 39 Steps, 2011 (reprint of the 1915 novel; with an introduction by Toby Buchan)
  • The Blanket of the Dark: Authorised Edition, 2018 (introduction by Robert Hutchinson )
  • Prester John: Authorised Edition, 2018 (introduction by Trevor Royle)
  • Mr. Standfast: Authorised Edition, 2018 (introduction by Hew Strachan)
  • Greenmantle: Authorised Edition, 2018 (introduction by Allan Massie)
  • Witch Wood: Authorised Edition, 2018 (introduction by Allan Massie)
  • Richard Hannay Trilogy: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, 2020
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps: Authorised Edition, 2021 (introduction by Stuart Kelly)

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