John Buchan

John Buchan (1875-1940) was a Scottish writer and politician. He had a diplomatic career, was active in the colonies and Dominions, specifically South Africa, participated in the war effort during World War One, became a Member of Parliament, and was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935. But it is for his writing career he will be mainly remembered, and especially for the novel which made him famous in the English-speaking world, and led to three movies already, The Thirty-nine steps.

Brief biography

Born in Perth of John Buchan, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and Helen Buchan, he spent his summers in the Scottish borders, which probably provided the inspiration for many of the wild life and natural scenery of large parts of The Thirty-nine steps. He studied classics and poetry at the University of Glasgow, and started writing. He soon was published and even won a prize at the age of twenty-two. He graduated from Oxford, qualified as a barrister but never practised law, became the private secretary to the High Commissioner to South Africa in the immediate aftermath of the Boer war, then came back to Britain, carried on writing, became an editor of The Spectator, a literary advisor for the Thomas Nelson publishing firm, then married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor in 1907 and had four children. It is before the war John Buchan started getting involved in politics as a Unionist candidate, holding a mix of reformist and conservative opinions, for example, supporting women’s suffrage or national insurance, but opposing most welfare reforms.

His first piece of adventure writing was “Prester John”, set in South Africa, and probably announcing the “Richard Hannay” character which will appear five years later. With the outbreak of World War One John Buchan wrote for British war propaganda and worked as The Times correspondent in France. Then, in 1915, he published The Thirty-nine steps, and in 1916, came its sequel, Greenmantle. Buchan wrote “Nelson’s history of the war” in 14 volumes…, enrolled in the British Army, worked for the Intelligence Corps, became Director of Intelligence under the Ministry of Information. After the war, he became a Director of Reuters. He also became a Scottish MP. He was a staunch Scottish nationalist, believing in Scotland’s just place within the British Empire. Concerned with the effect the economic crisis had on Scottish emigration, he even said, thus innovating with the Greek comparisons which would become typical of British politicians (see Macmillan): “We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”

Buchan held pro-zionist views. He chaired the Pro-Palestine committee in Parliament. In 1934, he was amongst the first European politicians to speak against Hitler’s treatment of Jews, providing a nice answer to those critics who accuse him of anti-Semitic comments in The Thirty-Nine steps. Buchan’s name is inscribed in the Golden book of the Jewish National Fund of Israel. Buchan was a very sociable person, probably owing a lot of his career to very powerful and influential friends in publishing, political, and diplomatic circles. He was even a friend of the famous character T.E. Lawrence. In 1935, Buchan’s most famous work, The Thirty-nine steps was turned into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. The same year he was ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, necessary step prior to his appointment by George V as Governor General of Canada. During his five year tenure, interrupted by his death in 1940, he was a very active Governor General, promoting education, supporting a strong Canadian nation and identity. At the dawn of war, he tried to coordinate with American President Franklin Roosevelt to avert war with Germany, and eventually signed the declaration of war of Canada in 1939. He died in February 1940 and received a state funeral.

His legacy

Buchan had an interesting life: writer, historian, poet, diplomat, editor, journalist, war correspondent, propagandist, secret intelligence officer, politician, MP, ennobled Lord, and Governor General of Canada. Even if he is mostly known for The Thirsty-nine steps, he has written over 100 works, including thirty novels.

The initiator of a long British tradition of spies turned spy-novelists?

It is quite astonishing to think of the number of British spy-writers who either have had experience in the Foreign office, or been an intelligence officer, or who had some form of inside knowledge of the world of espionage. Amongst the most famous of them, one could name Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John Le Carré. They all drew from their own experiences to create escapist worlds which still had a lot to do with the fierce reality of the war years, World War one (Buchan, Maugham), World War Two (Fleming), Cold war (Le Carré).

© 2013- Les Éditions de Londres


Thomas Arthur Nelson

(Lothian and Border Horse)

My Dear Tommy,

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the “dime novel”, and which we know as the “shocker” — the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.