Book review: Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps - A Life Of John Buchan, by By Ursula Buchan

Biography is a peculiarly flexible form. On the one hand we have, say, Michael Holroyd’s magisterial work on George Bernard Shaw, at a staggering 1,452 pages. On the other, we have incisive little sketches, such as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, cramming four lives into 332 pages. One form almost fetishises detail, the other proclaims iconoclasm.
Ursula BuchanUrsula Buchan
Ursula Buchan

This book sits between the two. There are things that I learned and things that I had no concern in learning. Do I really need to know that John Buchan’s Borders drawl meant that his secretary confused “Countess of Ayr” with “County Surveyor,” or that Lord Ebury and Dr Walford Davies attended Buchan’s wedding, where the Allegro in C from a serenade composed by the bride’s father was played? Or that the bride herself wore a “white stiff satin gown, with a fichu bodice and kimono sleeves of embroidered chiffon, made for her by the voguish dressmaker, Madame Kate Reilly of Dover Street”?

There have been biographies of Buchan, notably those by Janet Adam Smith and Andrew Lownie. This one has a slight advantage in that the author is also called Buchan, and indeed claims to have “exercised one of the few privileges that belong to consanguinity” in referring to her subject as “JB” throughout. One might have thought this bloodline would allow a few piquant anecdotes, but not so, except for a rather touching account of her grandmother in old age. Indeed, being born 13 years after Buchan’s death, the author would have nothing but hearsay and family tradition to go by. I was surprised that the fleeting references to Buchan’s wife’s depression were not expanded upon.

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Scotland’s literati have long had a problem with Buchan. Firstly, he was successful, and secondly, he was a public figure as much as the penman behind very popular books. He is the archetypal chameleon Scot: not just “JB”, but often using pseudonyms for his works, and later Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield (which unites his Scottish roots and his love of Oxfordshire), then the “G-G”, Governor General of Canada, where he became known as Otataowkewimow, “The Teller of Tales”, by the First Nations peoples. All biographies, in some ways, reveal how plural their subject is.

The great strength of this book is to make Buchan not just the writer of “shockers”, but a man whose influence helped change government policy. Although the title seems to indicate a deeper reading of the other works by Buchan, the real interest here is in his work in the world. As a very young man he was demonstrably able and conscientious in South Africa, and part of the Masterman Group during the First World War, who created propaganda so effective that even Hitler was impressed. As an MP, he was cautious and quiet and pulled the strings by being cautious and quiet. When he went to Canada, he applied his formidable capacity to speak to prime ministers and to local poachers, and envisioned what we might now call multiculturalism. He did not want the dominions to ape Britain, and did not want them to lose their own cultural integrities.

Perhaps my favourite part of this book is a throwaway moment when Buchan relates: “At Regina on Saturday afternoon I visited the community halls of the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Ukrainians White and Red, and the Jews, and spoke in each. The Police didn’t want me to go to the Red Ukrainians on the ground that they were dangerous Communists, so of course I insisted on going, and was received deliriously in a hall smothered in Union Jacks, and they nearly lifted the roof off singing the National Anthem.”

Buchan saw Empire as something that would transform into a federation of countries, and was always alert to the demagogue and the rabble-rouser. Despite being frequently ill, and bound up in other duties, he still produced works that have rarely been out of print. The word duty seems most apposite for Buchan, as does the word polite. He made a rational case for Scottish Nationalism, and included the irascible Hugh MacDiarmid in one of his poetry anthologies – two men could not have been more different – but Buchan remained a “unionist nationalist”. He was, as this book shows, complex. Nobody who reads Midwinter or Sick Heart River or Witch Wood or The Gap In The Curtain can doubt there is much more beyond the steps that Hitchcock and others made famous.

Although Ursula Buchan has done an admirable piece of work here, part of me grieved that one of John’s books went unmentioned (although he did pen a heck of a lot). She rightly puts his faith at the centre of the book, but a small mention of The Kirk In Scotland would have been welcome. Nonetheless, this lays a line towards a reimagination of Buchan.

Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life Of John Buchan, by By Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury, £25