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Buchan, John

August 26, 1875
February 11, 1940

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was a Scottish author, politician, lawyer, historian, editor and diplomat. At his death he served as Governor General of Canada. Some of his works are still in print, and he is considered one of the pioneers of espionage fiction. His best-known work is the classic spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which has been adapted for the screen numerous times including in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock.

Buchan was born in Perth. His father was a Free Church of Scotland minister, and Buchan was the oldest child. The family moved to Pathhead, now part of Kirkaldy, Fife, in 1876. Buchan’s father had a great interest in nature and history, and John followed in his footsteps. He attended local schools, and because he was a diligent student he was able to get a good education even though his family was not wealthy.

In 1888, his father was transferred to Glasgow, and John Buchan enrolled at Hutchesons’ Grammar School after which he studied the classics at the University of Glasgow. He never graduated, but continued to study the classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating in 1899. He later read for the bar, graduating in 1901. At Oxford he was a friend of Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert, and he was a well-known figure in academic circles. In his first year at Oxford he wrote a novel entitled Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895) and he won several awards for his essays and poetry.

Buchan moved to London in 1900. He was called to the bar and practiced briefly before entering into a career in diplomacy. In 1901–1903, he was the secretary of Alfred Milner, High Commissioner of Southern Africa and governor of a number of British colonies there. When he returned to London he became editor of The Spectator and entered into a partnership with Thomas ”Tommie” Nelson of the Thomas Nelson & Son publishing house. He married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, cousin of the Duke of Westminster, in 1907. The couple had four children.

John Buchan published his first major adventure novel, Prester John, in 1910. He ran for parliament for the Conservative Unionist party in 1911 at the same time as he began to suffer from duodenal ulcers, a condition that would plague him for the rest of his life. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he went to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau and as a war correspondent for The Times in France and he was associated with Reuters news agency for twenty years, partly as Director, until 1935. He then joined the British Army where he was awarded the rank of second lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. In 1917, he was made Director of Information for the Government and he began to contribute to a monthly magazine on the history of the war, which was later published in 24 volumes as Nelson’s History of the War. In 1927, he was elected Unionist Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities.

In 1919, he moved with his family to Elsfield Manor near Oxford.

In 1935, John Buchan was knighted and appointed Governor General of Canada. He subsequently founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remains Canada’s most distinguished literary award. Naturally, the family went to live in Canada, but they kept Elsfield.

While suffering a stroke in Ottawa in 1940, John Buchan fell and suffered severe head injuries. He was brought to a Montreal hospital where he died a few days later. He was given a state funeral in Ottawa, his remains were brought back to Britain on the HMS Orion and he was buried at Elsfield. At the time of his death he had just completed his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door (1940). A few previously unpublished stories came out in 1941.

John Buchan was an avid reader from an early age, and his poems, essays and stories were printed in school magazines while he was still attending Hutchesons’ Grammar School. He continued to write prolifically throughout his life: fiction, essays, journalism and non-fiction, mostly on politics, the history of World War I and Scotland. He also wrote a number of acclaimed biographies on, for example, his favourite author Sir Walter Scott. Buchan was well-read and he had a way with words, but many of his works, not least the ones that dealt with the war, are clearly jingoistic, and he made no secret of the fact that he served in military intelligence during the First World War. Historians have pointed out that there are obvious mistakes in his work and certain facts have been suppressed.

Some of Buchan’s novels, A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906), for example, are characterised by being more like political essays written in the form of conversations or monologues. Many of the protagonists in his novels are of noble birth or mix with aristocrats. This did not prevent Buchan from voicing some liberal views, although he was a staunch critic of the Labour Party.

Today, he is best known for a handful of novels, primarily the five Richard Hannay novels. Hannay was first introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps and then returned in Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936), a title he used more than once since he also wrote a volume of political essays together with his wife with the same title published under the pseudonym Cadmus and Harmonia in 1919.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is set just before World War I. It is an early ”on-the-run” thriller in which Hannay is chased by police on suspicion of a murder he did not commit as well as traitors and German spies. At the outbreak of war he enlists in the army and he continues to chase spies in Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. These three novels are important precursors of later espionage novels and the development of the genre with the addition of action scenes and logical deductions. The two final books are both detective novels set after the war.

Hannay is surrounded by a set of friends that turn up as secondary characters in some of Buchan’s other books, notably Lord Ludovic ”Sandy” Arbuthnot and Peter Pienaar. Another friend is the Scottish barrister and Conservative Member of Parliament Edward Leithen, who is the protagonist of five novels beginning with The Power-House (1916). Leithen shares many similarities with Buchan, and they include some autobiographical details. Dickson McCunn is a hero with a difference, a retired grocer who becomes involved in a Communist conspiracy in Huntingtower (1922), but he gets away with it because he appears to be so ”ordinary” and timid. He returns in Castle Gay (1930) and the sequel The House of the Four Winds (1935).

Buchan edited several anthologies and non-fiction books, but apart from the Hannay books, his work, although very popular at the time, is now largely forgotten, although one book, Witch Wood (1927), is worth mentioning. It is the book the author was most satisfied with.

John Buchan was not the only published member of his family. His wife wrote a number of biographies, children’s books and novels as Susan Buchan or Susan Tweedsmuir. Buchan’s sister, Anna Masterton Buchan, was a novelist who published her books as O. Douglas and the autobiographical Unforgettable, Unforgotten (1945) about her childhood. Buchan’s second son, William Buchan, 3rd Baron of Tweedsmuir, wrote several novels and non-fiction books, including one about his father, John Buchan : A Memoir (1982). Two of John Buchan’s grandchildren, James and Perdita Buchan, are also authors.

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