The trouble with John Buchan (1875-1940) is that one so wants him to be Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919) and The Three Hostages (1924). For the first 100 pages of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, Ursula Buchan’s biography of her grandfather, always known to the family as “JB”, the life from kirk boyhood to the Boer War is pure Hannay: page-turning, buccaneering stuff... The reader finishes this biography full of admiration for the pains that he took, for the bitter drudgery that reads like effortless dash, and bidding him “good-bye, old chap”, turns again to The Thirty-Nine Steps. And there is Richard Hannay, lately back from Bulawayo, a dead man in his smoking room, a coded notebook in his pocket and a nameless, ceaseless enemy closing in over the heather.
The popular Scots sensibility, which Buchan had represented as possessing dignified deference, unshakeable loyalty and innate wisdom, is now more often encouraged by the dominant nationalists to be automatically suspicious of English-dominated politics and scornful of an empire which Scots had once dominated. Buchan’s brand of nationalism was akin to that of his hero and biographical subject, Sir Walter Scott, if with less regret for the passing of the auld sang of Scots self-government. It was already fading in the two decades before his death, and is rarer still in our times. It is still visible, though, in one like the Development Secretary Rory Stewart – raised in a Scots mansion, Etonian, soldier, senior official in Iraq, Conservative, with a father who was nearly head of MI6. He might be prime minister one day: another Scotsman making his way.
Ursula Buchan, granddaughter of John, acknowledges the appeal of Bennett’s witty phrase ‘Snobbery with Violence’, but believes that in the case of the man she refers to as ‘JB’ it is misleading. Her pious ambition is to restore our awareness of JB as a far more complex and sympathetic character than received opinion has it. She does so wonderfully well. Her biography is thoroughly researched and elegantly written, and it proves beyond reasonable doubt that John Buchan was, if not one of the greatest, then certainly one of the most remarkable writers and public men of the early 20th century.
Ursula Buchan, his granddaughter, has made efforts to animate this new biography of “JB”, as he was known, has read the work with impeccable care (more than 100 books) and traipsed in his far-flung steps around the colonies (South Africa, Canada) where he pursued an administrative career. She has paid him a due that would make her illustrious forebear proud – a labour of love. Sadly, that equation works out mostly to the reader’s disadvantage: her love, our labour... The strange thing about Ursula Buchan’s eulogising is that I believed most of it – he probably was as delightful as she claims. But praise heaped as unsparingly as this blots out nuance and chokes off interest. Great men may be a privilege to know, but without redeeming vices they are very dull to read about.
There have been biographies of Buchan, notably those by Janet Adam Smith and Andrew Lownie. This one has a slight advantage in that the author is also called Buchan, and indeed claims to have “exercised one of the few privileges that belong to consanguinity” in referring to her subject as “JB” throughout. One might have thought this bloodline would allow a few piquant anecdotes, but not so, except for a rather touching account of her grandmother in old age. Indeed, being born 13 years after Buchan’s death, the author would have nothing but hearsay and family tradition to go by. I was surprised that the fleeting references to Buchan’s wife’s depression were not expanded upon... The great strength of this book is to make Buchan not just the writer of “shockers”, but a man whose influence helped change government policy. Although the title seems to indicate a deeper reading of the other works by Buchan, the real interest here is in his work in the world.
Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps is a salutary tale. J B (as his family called him) wrote more than 100 books, and about 1,000 articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as becoming a barrister, literary critic, war correspondent, MP and proconsul. Ms Buchan, herself an author of 18 books, details all this fully. But although the reader gasps at the sheer amount of energy and drive, let alone ambition, it must have involved, the story of relentless hard work does not necessarily an enthralling book make.
Ursula never knew her grandfather, but she was close to his widow, Susie. Her book is not hagiography, but if it isn’t ‘warts and all’, that is because there were, in truth, very few warts, only small, scarcely discernible ones. She gives us a strong sense of both the man and his milieu. In short, she has written a good book about a good and extraordinary man who touched life at so many different points and adorned most of what he touched.
Apart from Buchan’s relentless work ethic, what shines forth from these pages is his generosity of spirit, to colleagues, students, fellow writers and political adversaries alike. His capacity for friendship was prodigious. The young socialist AL Rowse admired his “extraordinary catholicism of sympathy”. Buchan, he wrote, “gave himself away, right and left, with no thought for his own strength.” Unblinking or otherwise, Ursula Buchan shows a similar generosity of spirit in this wonderfully fluent biography. Her grandfather, founder of a line of literary Buchans scribbling to this day, would have been thrilled.
Ursula Buchan is [John Buchan's] granddaughter, and her book draws on a wealth of family papers and memories. Though factual, it reads like a big, rambling Victorian novel, and takes you, as novels do, into other people’s lives. She compounds the feeling of intimacy by referring to her grandfather as “JB”, which is what his family called him, and to his wife, Lady Susan Grosvenor, as “Susie”, which is what he called her. Though she admits he had a few faults (a self-made man’s vanity about honours and titles being one), he emerges from her account glowing with sincerity and goodness... His granddaughter thinks he could have written a great novel had he lived longer. But that seems doubtful, because he did not care enough for that kind of success. He was not an artistic type.