“I have done the state some service.” Othello’s words could easily have been claimed by Buchan, although he would have been too modest to add Othello’s assertive conclusion, “and they know it.” Buchan was a director of intelligence in World War I, subsequently a member of Parliament and, ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General of Canada for the last five years of his life. The characters who figure in his most significant novels are, like their creator, public servants—even if they also happen to be adventurers.
Buchan began early (his first book was published when he was nineteen) and throughout a distinguished public life he also sustained a remarkably prolific and professional career in literature, producing well over a hundred works of fiction, poetry, BIOGRAPHY, history, and essays. T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia, a real-life Buchan hero—characterized Buchan’s books as “clean-limbed, speedy, breathless,” and this largely accounts for their success as well as pointing to some of the reasons for Buchan’s uneasy relationship with the literary establishment. He was an author of great range and set most store by his works of historical fiction and biography, but it is the thrillers for which he is remembered and still read. Critically, Buchan has been taken to task for traits that are, in fact, the standard reflexes of most early-20th-c. writers of “shockers” (Buchan’s own disparaging term): proimperialism, paternalism, a mild anti-Semitism.
In literary terms, Buchan bridges the gap between the Edwardian world of comparative certainty, embodied in writers such as H. Rider HAGGARD and Arthur Conan DOYLE, and the morally ambiguous sphere inhabited by Eric AMBLER and, more recently, John Le CARRE. Buchan’s first significant fiction, the African romance Prester John (1910; repub. as The Great Diamond Pipe, 1910), is firmly in the tradition of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Doyle’s The Lost World, imperial quests for which the rewards are treasure and renown. But in his most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), completed as World War I was beginning, there is a fusion of the dominant “thriller” modes of the 19th and 20th cs., respectively—the adventure story and the spy/conspiracy story. Richard Hannay, the central figure of The Thirty-Nine Steps, reappears in several other works, notably Greenmantle (1916) and Mr. Standfast (1919). With the end of the war, Buchan experienced the difficulty common to thriller writers of fixing on an easily identifiable enemy. Indeed, by the time of the fourth Hannay story, the relatively cerebral The Three Hostages (1924), the enemy is an apparently exemplary gentleman—”very English and yet not quite English”—a hunter, a politician, even a poet, hardly to be distinguished (except in his rampant egotism) from the hero. In this postwar period, the adventure may be depoliticized altogether, as in the mystic Greek romance The Dancing Floor (1926), or turn into psychological exploration, as in The Gap in the Curtain (1932), which reflects an interwar fascination with prevision and time shifts.
The majority of Buchan’s post-World War I novels were firmly grounded in the world of country-house weekends and high-level table talk, the world in which their creator was himself a player. Here are gathered the soldier-adventurers, magnates, and government ministers, together with a smattering of scholars—and, of course, the odd bad apple. It is not an exclusively male world, but the women who are admitted to this Homeric aristocracy are expected to endorse its values. When it comes to action, they sometimes show more stamina—and greater resolution—than the male characters.
Buchan probably came closest to a self-portrait in the character of Sir Edward Leithen, a lawyer and member of Parliament. Leithen, who appears in five novels, is a more versatile figure than Hannay and so better suited to the more complex conditions of the 1920s and 1930s. It is appropriate that he is the protagonist of Buchan’s final novel, Sick Heart River (1941; repub. as Mountain Meadow, 1941), completed only a fortnight before the author’s death and published posthumously. The theme of self-sacrifice, always significant in Buchan, reaches its apotheosis in this last work when Leithen forgoes the chance of recovering from tuberculosis so as to give heart to a physically and spiritually sick native tribe in a remote Canadian settlement. This novel, written as another “great war” was breaking across the world, provides an interesting contrast to The Thirty-Nine Steps in which disguise and intrigue are the required components. The later work more subtly suggests the values of stoicism, reflectiveness, and a kind of Christian acquiescence. Buchan had moved far beyond the boundaries of the “shocker.” Buchan’s strengths as a narrative writer are in his creation of place and atmosphere, and his unfailing attraction to the romantic. In his fiction the mysterious sometimes teeters on the edge of the mystic, but is always mediated through a lucid, classically influenced style. Above all, Buchan offers that intangible something that American writer Raymond Chandler once said that he aimed at: the feeling of “the country behind the hill.”
Bibliography Green, M., Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (1980); Goldsworthy, V., Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (1998); Lownie, J., J. B. (1995)
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