John Buchan

Last Updated: Thursday, December 31, 2009 - 00:40

John Buchan (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940), a British novelist, started his career in law, then immediately moved on to politics and later became Governor General Of Canada. A spy thriller, ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’ written just before the outbreak of World War I, was considered his best novel. Some of his horror fictions, ‘Witch Wood’, and the stories ‘Skule Skerry’, ‘The Wind in the Portico’ and ‘The Green Wildebeest’ were also adopted into Hollywood movies.

Biography

John Buchan was born on August 26, 1875 in Perth Scotland. His father, also named as John Buchan, was a Free Church of Scotland minister and his mother was Helen Jane. He was eldest among five of his siblings. He spent most of his childhood in Fife and spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in Broughton in the Borders. His childhood experiences of walking with his grandparents along the Borders watching scenery and wildlife got mentioned in his later written novels.

His study at Hutchesons` Grammar School, won Buchan a scholarship to the University of Glasgow where he studied Classics and wrote poetry and became a published author. He then studied Literae Human ores at Brasenose College, Oxford, and won his first literary prize ‘The Newdigate prize for poetry’.

Apart from his natural bent for writing, he started his career in law in 1901 but, almost immediately, moved to politics becoming private secretary to British colonial administrator Alfred Milner, who was High Commissioner for South Africa, Governor of Cape Colony and colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. After his return to London, he started a partnership in a publishing company while continuing to write books.

Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor on July 15,1907. She was a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. They had four children.
In 1910, he wrote ‘Prester John’, the first of his adventure novels, set in South Africa. He also tried his hands in politics running as a Tory candidate for a Border constituency. During this time, Buchan supported Free Trade, woman`s suffrage, national insurance and curtailing the power of the House of Lords. However, he opposed the Liberal reforms of 1905-1915 and what he considered the "class hatred" fostered by demagogic Liberals like David Lloyd George.

During World War I, he wrote for the War Propaganda Bureau and was a correspondent for The Times in France. In 1915, he published his most famous book ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’. The following year, he published a sequel ‘Greenmantle’. In 1916, he joined the British Army Intelligence Corps, where, as a 2nd Lieutenant, he wrote speeches and communiques for Sir Douglas Haig.

In 1917, he returned to Britain, where he became the Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook. After the war, he began to write on historical subjects as well as thrillers and historical novels. The most famous of his books were spy thrillers and it is probably for these that he is now best remembered.

Buchan became president of the Scottish Historical Society. He was twice elected as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and, in a 1927 by-election, was elected a Scottish Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities. Politically, he was of the Unionist-Nationalist Tradition that believed in Scotland`s promotion as a nation within the British Empire.

Buchan`s branch of the Free Church of Scotland joined the Church of Scotland in 1929. He was an active elder of St Columba`s Church, London, and of the Oxford Presbyterian parish. In 1933–34 he was Lord High Commissioner to the church`s general assembly.

Buchan continued to write after his appointment in 1935 as Governor General of Canada and was elected Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford.
His later books include novels and histories and his political views on Canada. He also wrote an autobiography, ‘Memory Hold-the-Door’, while holding the post of Governor General. His wife was also a writer, and she wrote many books and plays as Susan Buchan. While pursuing his own writing career, he also promoted the development of a distinctly Canadian culture. In 1936, encouraged by Lady Tweedsmuir, he founded the Governor General`s Awards, still considered as one of Canada`s premier literary awards.

While in Canada his wife, Lady Tweedsmuir was active in promoting literacy in Canada. She used Rideau Hall as a distribution centre for 40,000 books, which were sent out to readers in remote areas of the west. Together, Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir established the first proper library at Rideau Hall. In Canada, he extensively toured Canada and made all efforts to talk to Canadians and encourage them to build their own identity. He was also a supporter of National Unity sans religious and linguistic barrier. His experience of World War I convinced Tweedsmuir of the horrors of armed conflict and he worked with both United States President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King in trying to avert the ever-growing threat of another World War.

While shaving, Tweedsmuir suffered a massive stroke and injured his head badly in the fall. Though, he received the best possible treatment and got operated by one of the famous doctors of his time, Dr Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute – he finally succumbed to his injuries and died on February 11.

Popular Books/Creations

Fiction

John Burnet of Barns (1898)
Grey Weather (stories and poems) (1899)
A Lost Lady of Old Years (1899)
The Half-Hearted (1900)
The Watcher by the Threshold (stories) (1902)
A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906)
Prester John (1910)
The Moon Endureth (stories and poems) (1912)
Salute to Adventurers (1915)
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
The Power House (1916)
Greenmantle (Nelson, 1916)
Mr Standfast (1919)
The Path of the King (1921)
Huntingtower (1922)
Midwinter (1923)
The Three Hostages (1924)
John Macnab (Hodder & Stoughton, 1925)
The Dancing Floor (1926)
Witch Wood (1927)
The Runagates Club (stories 1913-28) (1928)
The Courts of the Morning (1929)
Castle Gay (1930)
The Blanket of the Dark (1931)
The Gap in the Curtain (1932)
The Magic Walking Stick (for children) (1932)
A Prince of the Captivity (1933)
The Free Fishers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1934)
The House of the Four Winds (1935)
The Island of Sheep (Hodder & Stoughton, 1936)
Sick Heart River (also published as Mountain Meadow) (1941)
The Long Traverse (also published as Lake of Gold) (1941)
The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy (stories, 1984)

Other Books/Creations

Non-fiction
Scholar-Gipsies (essays) (1896).
The African Colony (1903).
The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income (1905).
Some Eighteenth Century Byways (essays and articles) (1908).
Sir Walter Raleigh (1911).
What the Home Rule Bill Means (1912).
The Marquis of Montrose (1913).
Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall (1913).
Britain`s War by Land (1915).
The Achievement of France (1915).
Ordeal by Marriage (1915).
The Future of the War (1916).
The Battle of the Somme, First Phase (1916).
The Purpose of War (1916).
The Battle of Jutland (1916).
Poems, Scots and English (1917).
The Battle of the Somme, Second Phase (1917).
These for Remembrance (1919).
The Battle Honours of Scotland 1914-1918 (1919).
The History of the South African Forces in France (1920).
Francis and Riversdale Grenfell (1920).
The Long Road to Victory (1920).
A History of the Great War (1921-22).
A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys (1922).
The Last Secrets (essays and articles) (1923).
A History of English Literature (1923).
Days to Remember (1923).
Some Notes on Sir Walter Scott (1924).
The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1678-1918 (1925).
The Man and the Book: Sir Walter Scott (1925).
Two Ordeals of Democracy (1925).
Homilies and Recreations (essays and addresses) (1926).
The Kirk in Scotland (with George Adam Smith) (1930).
Montrose and Leadership (1930).
Lord Rosebery, 1847-1929 (1930).
The Novel and the Fairy Tale (1931).
Julius Caesar (1932).
Andrew Lang and the Borders (1932).
The Massacre of Glencoe (1933).
The Margins of Life (1933).
Gordon at Khartoum (1934).
Oliver Cromwell (1934).
The King`s Grace (1935).
Augustus (1937).
The Interpreter`s House (1938).
Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1938).
Memory Hold-the-Door (published as Pilgrim`s Way in the United States) (1940).
Comments and Characters (1940).
Canadian Occasions (1940).

Awards & Prizes

Yale University, Doctor of Laws in 1937 Harvard University, Doctor of Laws in 1937. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his biography of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose.

Criticism

The anti-Semitism and racism in some passages of his novels, such as the opening chapter of Greenmantle, have tarnished Buchan’s reputation. "A collection of Jews and gipsies...have got control of a proud race [the Turks]," says a distinguished man at the Foreign Office in its opening chapter, and the hero later observes, "In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises." In later life, however, Buchan was active on behalf of the Jews, aligning himself with the zionist Palestine Parliamentary Group in 1930. For this reason, his name appeared on Adolf Hitler`s Sonderfahndungsliste "hit list".



First Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009 - 00:40
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