John Buchan was a novelist, historian, poet, biographer and journalist (assistant editor of The Spectator indeed); a barrister and publisher; one of Lord Milner’s ‘young men’, charged with the reconstruction of South Africa after the second Boer war; director of propaganda 1917–18, a Member of Parliament; lord high commissioner (i.e. the king’s representative) to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland; governor-general of Canada. Yet the title of this excellent biography by his granddaughter is to the point. He is best known today as the author of a thriller he wrote in a few weeks in 1914 which, more than 20 years later, was made into a film by Hitchcock.
The book is still read; the film, which Buchan thought better than the book, still watched. As a girl, Ursula Buchan was surprised to find it had given rise to a Bingo call: ‘39, all the steps.’ In 2003, she tells us, ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps came 44th in the Observer’s list of the greatest novels of all time, one above Ulysses.’ Remarkable.
We know a great deal about Buchan. There have been previous biographies. The first, excellent like this one, was Janet Adam Smith’s in 1965. There are no secrets in his life. Yet there are mysteries. First, how did this son of a Free Kirk manse, speaking for choice as a child the broad Scots of the borders, become so easily a member of the British establishment? Oxford helped, of course. So did marriage to Susan Grosvenor — but he was in his mid-thirties by the time they met, and an already an accepted figure.
Second, why did this intrepid mountaineer, a man of so many and such varied talents, never quite scale the topmost heights except — arguably — as a writer of the kind of novels he himself dismissed as ‘shockers’. These certainly survive. They are read as the novels of writers more admired in their time — Wells and Bennett, for example — no longer are.
Buchan thought better of his historical novels (just as Conan Doyle preferred Sir Nigel and The White Company to Sherlock Holmes). I think highly of them, too, especially of Witch Wood; but even it is not quite as good as the best of his beloved Scott or Stevenson. His biographies of Scott, Montrose and Augustus are admirable, but biographies are usually superseded. His history of the Great War, published in monthly installments by Nelson’s, was a remarkable achievement, but inevitably long outdated. Yet almost everything he wrote remains readable, partly because he has an unmistakable personal voice. This makes him easy to parody, but few books survive without such individuality.
His political career was disappointing. He was over 50 when he entered parliament, as MP for the Scottish universities. Too late: Gladstone said that a man might as well start training for the ballet as for the cabinet at the age of 40. In any case, though a Tory, Buchan was a poor party man. Too decent perhaps: Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin were the politicians he admired and was close to, while he, quite reasonably, distrusted Lloyd George and Churchill. (He died in February 1940, before Churchill’s annus mirabilis.)
He was a success as governor-general of Canada, but the post was less than he had looked for — he would have preferred South Africa or the Washington embassy. Canada did give him the material for his last novel, Sick Heart River, which many think his best; his secretary said he was writing a very odd book, ‘so unlike him, so introspective’. Ursula calls it his ‘spiritual testimony’, while making the necessary point that ‘JB was not dying in 1939’ and so didn’t know this would be his final book.
He has been accused of worshipping success. The charge doesn’t stand up. He admired men and women who made the most of their gifts, but only if they did so usefully. Certainly he was happy to have risen in the world — Janet Adam Smith wrote with amusement of JB calling all the Scottish dukes by wrong Christian names. But he was by nature a democrat, and his values remained those of the Free Kirk manse and his close-knit family.
An earlier biographer, Andrew Lownie, pointed up the duality of Buchan’s nature and intellect when he called him a Presbyterian Cavalier. As for the charge of anti-Semitism, still sometimes leveled, Ursula Buchan demonstrates that it is ridiculous. A novelist, as she says, should not be saddled with opinions expressed by his characters. In any case, Presbyterian Scots since the 17th century had identified themselves as a Covenanted nation like the Israelites, and Buchan was a Zionist.
Ursula never knew her grandfather, but she was close to his widow, Susie. Her book is not hagiography, but if it isn’t ‘warts and all’, that is because there were, in truth, very few warts, only small, scarcely discernible ones. She gives us a strong sense of both the man and his milieu. In short, she has written a good book about a good and extraordinary man who touched life at so many different points and adorned most of what he touched.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.