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  • John Buchan Reassessed
  • Stanley Weintraub
Kate Macdonald, ed. Reassessing John Buchan: Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. x + 291 pp. $99.00

Despite John Buchan's plethora of publications over half a century, he will remain tethered, as long as books are read, to The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and the four subsequent novels featuring his precursor of Ian Fleming's James Bond—Richard Hannay. Kate Macdonald's extravagantly overpriced collection of essays in reassessment vainly attempts to shift the focus from Buchan's robust quest-thrillers to his other accomplishments, which were many, yet forgettable.

A young Scottish lawyer turned colonial civil servant, Buchan had an itch to write, and even continued to publish when, as Lord Tweedsmuir, he closed his career (1935–1940) as Governor-General of Canada, dying in office. As this review reaches print, all of Buchan's oeuvre goes out of copyright in Britain, and a surge of republication may ensue. It is unlikely to alter his reputation any more than the new reassessments, which examine Buchan through such lenses as his Scottish Calvinism, his use of the classics, his South African experience, his immersion in World War I as propagandist and journalist, his imperial loyalties, his acquaintance with Islam and the East, his exploitation of the cults of manliness and sport, or in "Aphrodite Rejected" Buchan's period contrast to Fleming's latter-day womanizing dimension.

Of the eighteen contributors the Great War historian Hew Strachan has the most visible eminence as a scholar. His essay, however, "John Buchan and the First World War: Fact into Fiction," is a condensed version of a more extended paper in the journal War in History (16.3, 2009). In France, Buchan, by the end of the war in 1918 a colonel who never fired a shot at the Germans, managed news for his old school friend, General—later Field Marshal—Douglas Haig. No one needed the spin more than Haig, considered a butcher by many historians, although with passage of time and revisionist apologetics his image has softened somewhat.

Other reassessments, Kate Macdonald writes, fill gaps in the Buchan literature, but the index reveals that there is no gap in allusions to The Thirty-Nine Steps and its successors in print and in film. Early on, Buchan had found a fictional formula, whether or not he exploited it literally, in Walter Scott's The Talisman, or more sweepingly from the late-Victorian adventure-suspense novels of Rider Haggard and Anthony Hope. Buchan, so a number of commentators note, also made use of contemporary and near-contemporary events. In the second Richard [End Page 372] Hannay novel, Greennantle (1916), Ahmed K. al-Rawi observes, Hannay's orientalist collaborator, Sandy Arbuthnot, like Hannay a master of disguises, is closely patterned after T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), and would turn up again in later novels. That Lawrence could be fictionalized so soon after his emergence in the newspapers suggests a paradox—how soon a quickly written novel could appear as a published book in the days before letterpress was superseded by curiously slower computer-driven production.

Buchan's utilitarian use of events and his reading puts him before the bar of authorial justice in Douglas Kerr's persuasive "'A Fraud Called John Buchan': Buchan, Joseph Conrad and Literary Theft." Conrad's late novel Victory (1915) is allegedly paralleled by the last of the Hannay novels, Buchan's The Island of Sheep (1936)—too close in plot to be drawn "from a common box of stage properties." Still, while Kerr sees mitigating story differences, he charges that Buchan had done it before. The fictional world of Conrad's South American novel Nostromo (1904) is echoed strikingly in Buchan's The Courts of the Morning (1929)—the politically unstable imaginary republic, the prosperous silver mine and "startlingly reminiscent" events. Kerr excuses it as "activating a memory of reading"—and of course Shakespeare and more than a few others did it too, and are still doing it.

The reassessments close, inevitably, with "Tracing the Thirty-Nine Steps," the novel remaining memorable for being an evergreen sample of the popular fictional (and film) genre of a "wrong man" unjustifiably thrust into...


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