In 1912, a profile appeared in the Bookman of a Scottish author who, it was said, ‘has breathed a new life into the moribund art of the novel; he has made the short story what a cameo might be when it is cut by the hand of a master, and he has even contrived to make the light essay and occasional article an entertaining and scholarly production?’ It concluded: ‘Mr John Buchan has now attained his literary majority; we still wait for the great work; the more ambitious flight of his matured imagination.’
More than one hundred years on, we know now that Buchan never quite lived up to those high expectations. In part, this was because he was temperamentally disinclined to innovate. He was not, for example, stylistically driven, as were his near contemporaries, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Buchan, it seems, was content to be a spinner of yarns of the kind which were allowed to unfold at leisure over port and cigars after a dinner of comfort food in the secure surroundings of a gentleman’s club or a Highland shooting lodge.
When the Bookman’s article appeared Buchan was 37. Born in Perth, the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, he was educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow and thereafter at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. His parents’ families had homes in the Borders, at Peebles and Broughton, and he often spent summer holidays visiting grandparents and roaming the surrounding hills. Like Scott and Stevenson, he was immersed in the Border Ballads and the violent and rapacious history of that part of the country.
He began writing when at university; his first book was a critical introduction to the works of Francis Bacon. In all, he wrote thirty novels, seven collections of short stories, sixty-six non-fiction books, including a number of biographies, umpteen pamphlets, and countless articles, introductions and reviews. He is best known, however, for his short novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which he described as a ‘shocker’ and which was published in 1915, since when it has never been out of print.
In this issue of the Scottish Review of Books, Brian Morton comes neither to praise nor knock Buchan. ‘Underneath the rattling good yarns (and they really do rattle),’ he writes, ‘one hears a profoundly able mind meditating on ultimate things.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps was written before the outbreak of World War I when Buchan was ill with an intestinal complaint, which was to plague him for the rest of the life. In the early months of 1914 the dogs of war were beginning to yap. Towards the end of June Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo. The following month Buchan told a friend that his new novel was finished but he did not send it to his publisher, Blackwood, until December, by when Britain and Germany were at war. Its provisional title was The Black Stone. ‘It has amused me to write,’ he said, ‘but whether it will amuse you to read is another matter.’
As Andrew Lownie, Buchan’s biographer, has noted, it did indeed amuse and thrill the publisher, who quickly serialised it in Blackwood’s Magazine before issuing it in hard covers. Interestingly, it was first published under the pseudonym ‘H de V’, why no one has yet discovered. ‘Review coverage was limited,’ reports Lownie, though The Athenaeum, considering it in tandem with DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, an unlikely pairing, thought it had ‘a literary flavour, and a distant echo of Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights’. Sales, however, were brisk; within three months they had topped 25,000.
All novels should be read in context. That of The Thirty-Nine Steps was one in which Britain was a nation engulfed by German spy fever and jingoism was at its most fervent. Richard Hannay, its hero, is a patriotic adventurer who is relieved from boredom by an encounter with an American spy. Scudder tells him he has found out about a conspiracy ‘to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads’ and a plot to murder the Greek prime minister when he is in London in a few weeks. Hannay, he hopes, will help him thwart the evil doers but before any plans can be put in place Scudder is murdered. By way of a bequest, he has left Hannay his notebook in which mention is made of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’.
Thus is set in motion a chain of events which tests readers’ credulity to the limit and in which coincidence is raised to a risible level. If one is inclined to criticise Buchan there is plenty to go on. What is less easy to explain is why The Thirty-Nine Steps has retained its freshness and popularity. Much, surely, is due to the obvious warmth with which Buchan writes about the Scottish countryside and the characters Hannay encounters. Nor should the appeal of nostalgia be underestimated. As Hannay seeks to elude the Black Stone’, the German spy ring, he heads for sweet-smelling, bosomy-hilled Galloway, where in those halcyon days trains stopped in every out-of-the way place and there was not a wind turbine in sight.