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  • Reformulating the Empire’s Hero: Rhodesian Gold, Boer Veld-Craft, and the Displaced Scotsman in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps1
  • Adrian Wisnicki

By many accounts, in publishing The Thirty-Nine Steps (1914), John Buchan invented the modern spy thriller. Although there had been “invasion scare” and espionage narratives before—most notably works by William LeQueux, Phillips Oppenheim, and Erskine Childers—and although Buchan himself had previously written another thriller, The Power-House (1913), critics generally agree that The Thirty-Nine Steps offers the first definitive expression of a previously embryonic popular genre. The plot moves at a fast, engaging pace—a real “shocker,” as Buchan called it (qtd. in Harvie, Introduction xiii). Buchan’s writing and characterization are top-notch; the narrative captures “the smells, sounds and sights of the wild Scottish moors”; and the text is replete “with historical, literary and biblical allusions” as well as “strong mythical undertones” (Lownie 121–22). Further, the novel takes up themes that resonated with Buchan’s audience. Through a combination of ingenuity, resilience, and sheer luck, Richard Hannay, the amateur gentleman hero, single-handedly unravels a complex German conspiracy and saves England from a looming foreign threat. Because of the plot, writes Andrew Lownie, The Thirty-Nine Steps “struck a chord in a nation obsessed with German spy fever” (120).

But the most distinguishing feature of The Thirty-Nine Steps, some argue, lies not in its innovative narrative elements, but in the novel’s allegiance to traditional Victorian values. John Buchan, writes Robin Winks, “was the last of the Victorians. […] He believed deeply in the British empire, in Scotland (and England), in the precepts of his Presbyterian upbringing, and in the energizing power of the democratic intellect” (v). The novel, therefore, develops and celebrates Buchan’s beliefs. Richard Hannay, the hero of the narrative, is a gentleman of the old sort. He demonstrates how the ideal British citizen should think and act, and he voices an array of widely-held beliefs and fears regarding class, race, and empire. Inadvertently—Hannay is after all an “amateur” secret agent, drawn into his adventures more by chance than design—he also offers a formidable model for the aspiring government agent. He is unpredictable, exciting, humorous, intelligent, and clever. He embodies a reassuring and vigorous symbol of the self—a signal that the British spirit remains indomitable however much the empire may be crumbling around it. Hannay, wrote Richard Usborne in his influential study of 1953, is the paradigmatic “clubland hero”—with a style derived from his wealth and tendency to frequent London’s posh West End clubs, yet, in the final analysis, unquestionably devoted to country, king, and maintaining the social hierarchy (Usborne passim).

But given that fifty years have passed since Usborne made his famous characterization (a characterization, incidentally, which has become one of the standard ways to describe Hannay in Buchan criticism), does the label of “clubland hero” remain viable and productive? To answer, we might begin with the first page of The Thirty-Nine Steps:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.”

It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years in Bulawayo. I had got my pile—not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of...

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