'Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, A Life of John Buchan' by Ursula Buchan,
I find on one of my bookshelves a little book with the following flyleaf inscription in a very neat hand: 'Bought by Andrew Hook, On the 10th day of November 1944'. It is a Nelson Classics edition of Prester John
by John Buchan. A few months later, in April 1945, I see I was buying in the same series two of the works of the writer who Ursula Buchan, in this hugely impressive biography, regards as a major influence on her grandfather and his decision to became a writer of adventure stories: Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae
and Travels with a Donkey in the
. At the age of 12 then, I had already become a fan of two of
Scotland's most popular writers.
was published in August, 1910, but by then John Buchan
had already published three novels – the first in 1895 when he was 20
years old and still a student at Brasenose College, Oxford. These largely forgotten novels made no impact. Prester John
, on the other hand, set in South Africa where Buchan had spent two years in 1901-03 working for the Lord High Commissioner of the colony, was at least a minor success. It was his next novel that changed everything.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
was published in October 1915, in the middle of the first world war, and in Ursula Buchan's view was 'an obvious piece of British war propaganda'. Soldiers on the Western Front were certainly among its early readers but this fast-moving 'shocker', as Buchan called it, quickly became a best-seller. By the end of 1915, it had sold 25,000 copies. Buchan immediately became known as 'the famous novelist and war correspondent', and never lost his reputation as the writer of unputdownable thrillers.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
itself received still greater popularity after the appearance of Alfred Hitchcock's hugely successful film version in 1935. (Characteristically, Buchan having viewed the film said it was better than the book.) The book has never been out of print since its 1915 publication. By 1960 it had sold 355,000 hardback copies, and after appearing in Penguin and Pan paperback versions in the 1950s, double that number were sold. In 1965 it was calculated that total sales amounted to 1.5 million in English – while there were translations in a range of languages including Arabic and Persian. Buchan's work is now out of copyright so it is impossible to keep track of the sales of The Thirty-Nine Steps
and his many other best-sellers such as Greenmantle
, Mr Standfast
, The Three Hostages
, and Huntingtower
John Buchan died in 1940 at the age of 65. His last novel – Sick Heart River
– appeared posthumously in 1941. Ursula Buchan insists that her book is not a study of her grandfather's fiction – though she does provide illuminating evidence of how often aspects of his own life fed into his fiction. Commenting on Sick Heart River
she sounds ready to agree with those readers who see this, his 27th novel, as his best. (My own favourite is the 1927 Witch Wood
– about Calvinist Scotland in the 17th century.)
But novels were far from being Buchan's only writing genre. He also wrote six substantial biographies, including those of Cromwell, Montrose, and Scott. He wrote an immensely long history of the first world war while it was going on – which eventually appeared in 1921 as a four-volume History of the Great War
. He published dozens of poems and short stories, books about political thought and the law, and wrote around 1,000 articles for periodicals and newspapers. In all, he published over 100 books.
On the face of it, this is an astonishing writerly output. It becomes even more so if several other factors are taken into account. Throughout his life, Buchan's health was always a problem. When he was four or five, he suffered a serious accident while travelling in a coach. Left with a broken skull, he spent almost a year in bed before making a full recovery. As an adult he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a duodenal ulcer. This resulted in several operations, and his digestion remained a permanent problem. Frequently he was bedridden for months at a time, though fortunately that did not prevent him from continuing to write.
Buchan loved the outdoors – walking, riding, climbing, fishing, shooting – but his health remained an issue. Still more important in relation to his career as a professional writer is the fact that throughout his life – as this magisterial biography makes abundantly clear – John Buchan engaged in a range of activities that he pursued so effectively they amounted to alternative careers.
In a recent issue of the SR
, John Lloyd
compared Rory Stewart to John Buchan: 'though Buchan was born in a Glasgow Free Kirk manse and made himself into what Stewart was born to'. The Free Kirk manse in question was actually in Perth, but there is considerable truth in this observation. Buchan did grow up in such a manse in Glasgow, was educated at Hutcheson's Grammar School, and attended Glasgow University. However, in his third year he sat an entrance examination for Brasenose College, Oxford, was successful, and left Glasgow without completing his degree.
His four happy years at Oxford determined the rest of Buchan's life. His rather modest background was very different from that of his fellow-students, but he seems to have settled into their way of life with little difficulty (in his final year he was elected president of the Oxford union), and membership of the Oxford world would remain his for the rest of his life. Marriage to Susan Grosvenor in 1907 consolidated his status, as the Grosvenors were very much an upper-class English family with aristocratic connections.
Post-Oxford, Buchan decided that a future as a barrister was his best bet, and in due course he was called to the bar. Soon afterwards however he accepted the high commissioner of South Africa, Lord Milner's offer to become a colonial administrator in that country. On his return to the UK, he was uncertain of what to do next. The law was not proving profitable, so in January 1906 he left the bar in order to accept the position of assistant editor of The Spectator
on a salary of £800 a year. Soon afterwards he accepted another position at the publisher Thomas Nelson's and Sons, and continued to work there for over 20 years. (In 1919 he would also become a paid director at the Reuter's agency.)
However, in 1910, now reasonably secure financially, he began to think of yet another career – as a member of parliament. Accordingly, in February 1911, Buchan was able to have himself adopted as the Conservative and Unionist candidate for the Peebles and Selkirk constituency – then held by the Liberal party. In the following year or two, he spent a considerable amount of time in the constituency – an area he had known well since his boyhood holidays spent there – giving speeches, holding meetings, trying to make his candidature well known. The outbreak of the first world war in 1914 changed everything.
Forty-two years old, and suffering from his duodenal ulcer condition, there was no question of Buchan's fighting in the war. (His youngest brother Alastair would be killed in 1917). Nevertheless, in a variety of ways he played an extremely important part: first as a newspaper reporter sending back reports from positions dangerously close up to the Western Front line, then as an historian writing a two million word account of the war as it went on, and finally working for the national government – including the Foreign Office – becoming director of the Department of Information, a kind of high-powered public relations position controlling how the outside world learned of the progress of the war.
Post-war, he did finally enter parliament as the occupant of one of the Scottish universities seats in 1927. He never achieved cabinet rank but did become a highly respected and influential member, on extremely close terms with both the former Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and the long-serving Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Other public appointments followed. In both 1933 and 1934, he fulfilled the role of lord high commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In 1938, he won the election to be the chancellor of Edinburgh University. By then, however, ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir, he had become the governor-general of Canada – where he would spend the last five years of his life.
The point of this account is to emphasise how extraordinary it is that such an amazingly prolific writer could also achieve so much in so many other ways. The highly ceremonial years in Canada are perhaps something of a disappointment. But, as always, Buchan played his role superbly. Always addressing French Canadians in French, he and his wife were greeted enthusiastically in every region of Canada.
More important perhaps, at a time when the threat of another war with Germany was growing, was the effort Buchan put in to strengthening the special relationship between the UK and the US. Visiting Washington, receiving honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, and becoming the first Briton to address the US Congress, Buchan established close and enduring relations with the US president Franklin D Roosevelt and the secretary of state Cordell Hull. Just as his views were sought by three British prime ministers, so they were sought by the most powerful opinion-formers in the US.
Two closing footnotes. In this monumental tome I found one mistake. At the bottom of p176, the naval base at Scapa Flow is located in Shetland rather than Orkney! Much more intriguing is to learn that, in 1907, Buchan took control of Nelson's weekly journal The Scottish Review
. His aim was to make it a Scottish version of The Spectator
, and he became a major contributor. After two years, however, Buchan's aim had not been achieved, and publication ceased. What would he make of the present version? I,m inclined to believe he would approve.