John Buchan

by Andrew Lownie
ISBN: 1552784096

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A Review of: John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier
by Greg Gatenby

John Buchan is a frustrating literary figure. On purely aesthetic terms, he was never in the premier division. Yet there are hints that both he and his contemporaries believed he might someday enter those ranks, and his inability to reach the highest artistic stratum carried with it the smell of failure, the murmuring that he was perhaps just a tad lethargic, that he had, somehow, tried not quite hard enough. Certainly the academic critics stayed away from him after his death; compared to other authors of his time and fame, he is nearly invisible among the scholarly crowd.
Such tribulations did not-and do not-seem to bother his many readers. According to Public Lending Right figures from the last decade in the UK, John Buchan was as popular with library lenders as Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Somerset Maugham. His bestselling titles have sold over a million copies. Writers in our own time continue to rate him highly-not least among these, Grahame Greene. John le Carr peppers various homages to Buchan throughout his novels. And in The Atlantic Monthly as recently as a couple of months ago Christopher Hitchens sang Buchan's praises in a lengthy appraisal.
This dichotomy between critical respectability and ongoing popularity is perversely appropriate because Buchan was always a man of stark contrasts. Although he lived into the era of World War II, he espoused through his protagonists the values of the Victorian English gentleman. This in itself was part of the paradox, for Buchan was assuredly a Scot: predominantly dour and strict, a devout follower of the kirk, capable of occasional outbursts of passion-but always a passion for country or gentrified ideals, and rarely women. Indeed, Buchan's principal fictional hero shares many similarities with Sherlock Holmes, the creation of his contemporary and fellow Scot, Arthur Conan Doyle: Richard Hannay and Sherlock Holmes, both Englishmen, answer the call of duty without question, no matter what the cost or where it takes them; both seem to prefer the company of men; and both are wary of females and frequently encounter the opposite sex as purveyors of evil. In addition, Buchan was fixated on his mother, and even in mid-adulthood he rarely made a career move without wondering how far it would take him from mama. The Freudian implications of all this invite some examination, but there is none in Andrew Lownie's otherwise wide-ranging biography, first published to rave reviews in Britain nearly a decade ago and now in its own Canadian edition.
Buchan is best known in this country as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and as our Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir. He did not initially want this post. Rather, near the end of his life, he pined to be the Governor General of South Africa, so that he could return to the country where his career in politics and diplomacy had begun. There he had shown himself an able if not brilliant administrator. His tour completed, he had returned to London where he moved comfortably between the practice of law and his duties as a Member of Parliament. Mysteriously, he found time to write, for in addition to his prodigious legal and even more time-consuming political work he published over one hundred books. His first novel appeared shortly after his twentieth birthday, and the fiction, commentaries, biographies, memoirs, essays, poems, children's books, and introductions continued with awesome flow for the rest of his days.
Buchan had an unattractive craving for official pats on the head (such as a knighthood), a desire he disingenuously (and not very convincingly) disavowed to the very same friends whose aid he sought in getting such baubles. And if he could not get a K, he asked those same friends to lobby for one of those post-nominals such as an O.B.E. Neither doodad was forthcoming from his government patrons, so with mild resignation he accepted the Canadian posting in lieu of something better. But then, as Janet Adam Smith first noted, and Lownie confirms, Canada seemed to change Buchan, and he warmed to the job because he warmed to the country. He was the first GG to travel widely throughout northern Canada, and it was his Arctic travel which inspired what many feel is finest novel, Sick Heart River.
Thanks to material previously unavailable, in addition to original research really quite daunting in its magnitude and depth, Lownie's biography uncovers thousands of facts absent from earlier accounts of Buchan's life. This is particularly evident to the Canadian reader: Lownie's account of Buchan's connections to Canada is marvelously nuanced, informed, and extensive, revealing much about Buchan's role in fostering good relations between the USA and Canada, and the Governor-General's own complicated relationship with Mackenzie King. Unlike so many British historians, Lownie does not assume that the British point of view trumps the Canadian, and Lownie is not afraid to point out when Buchan was wrong about this country or exercised his power incorrectly. Indeed, the only shortcoming in the Canadian portion of the book is the slight reference to Buchan's involvement with the creation of the Governor-General's Awards for literature. Buchan had to have his arm twisted by Toronto literati simply to allow his title to be associated with the Prize. And such was his breath-taking stinginess, he refused to contribute a nickel towards the establishment-or the endowment-of the awards.
Lownie is no Richard Ellman or Michael Holroyd. As a biographer he conveys the facts with clarity but the writing is straightforward rather than literary. Perhaps because Lownie is a high member of the John Buchan Society, he has a tendency, especially in the first third of the book, to apotheosis. Everyone in Buchan's youth, it seems, is charming, happy, bright and, apart from the occasional death, there is little sadness in the world. Buchan is already an adult before we read on page 78: "Many of his male friends were now married, and so too were a number of women he had been in love with such as Lady Evelyn Giffard." Alas, Lownie has given us no previous hints of a love-life for his subject, and who Lady Giffard was, or what this relationship meant to Buchan, are never explored.
Once over this rocky beginning, the narration of the life becomes more pleasurable to read. Buchan had a life-long interest in Canada, and though he was often wrong in his judgments, once he got to know the country well, his became more perspicacious. For anyone interested in Canadian cultural history, then, this book will make for diverting and informative reading. And for those intrigued by the astounding range of the Scottish diaspora and its influence on nations such as ours, this book is compulsory.

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