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. Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the story, made in 1935, is ranked as one of the director’s best works. 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 honourable adventure.”
John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, as the eldest son of Rev. John Buchan and Helen (née Masterton) Buchan. He 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 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner (1901-03). Prester Johnn (1910) was based on his South African experiences.
After returning to London Buchan specialized in tax law and continued to write. In 1906 Buchan started to work for the publisher Thomas Nelson and Sons. He 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.
During World War I Buchan was a war correspondent before joining the army. While ill in bed in 1914 during the first months of the war, he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps. He served on the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France as temporary Lieutenant Colonel (1916-17). When Lloyd George was appointed
Prime Minister, Buchan was made Director of Information (1917-18) and then for a short time Director of Intelligence, a brief interlude in Buchan’s career of which he did not much talk. After the war Buchan became a director of the news agency Reuters.
From 1927-35 Buchan was Conservative MP for the Scottish universities. He had then a number of important government posts, serving among others as Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-34). In 1935, after moving to Canada, he was created the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, and served until his death on February 11, 1940, as Governor General of Canada.
As a writer Buchan started his career in the late 1890s. Buchan published his first novel, SIR QUIXOTE OF THE MOORS in 1895, while 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.
The Thirty-Nine Steps presented spy-catcher Richard Hannay, who was modelled after a young Army officer named Edmund Ironside, later Field-Marshal Lord Ironside of Archangel. Buchan met him during WW I. In the story Hannay had all the qualities of a hero, who could defend the English way of life against foreign thread. The book was adapted into screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan was one of the director’s favourite writers, and he had earlier toyed with the idea of filming Buchan’s GREENMANTLE (1916).
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 film. 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 films.
Richard Hannay appeared again in Greenmantle, 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. Another series character, Sandy Arbuthnot, tackle with Hannay a gang of international criminals in THE THREE HOSTAGES (1924). The books end Hannay’s adventures. He is now married, has a son, and is happy with his life as lord of Fosse Manor. When the evil plans of Dominic Medina threaten post-war peace, Hannay returns to his old life of action. Lawyer Edward Leithen was the central character in three novels, starting from THE POWER-HOUSE (1916), 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). Dickson McGunn, a respectable Glasgow grocer, appeared in HUNTINGTOWER (1922), CASTLE GAY (1930), AND THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS (1935).
In WITCH WOOD (1927), a historical novel, Buchan told about stern Scottish Protestants and devil worship. 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.
Among Buchan’s other works were 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 1940.”Victor Maskell, the protagonist modelled 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.