Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan

Christopher Tayler writes:

B etween​ the wars, the journalist Richard Usborne recalled in 1953, there was a feeling that John Buchan was good for you. ‘If not exactly the author set for homework, Buchan was certainly strongly recommended to the schoolboy by parent, uncle, guardian, pastor and master,’ he wrote in Clubland Heroes, a study of the thrillers he had enjoyed as a child. ‘Buchan backed up their directives and doctrines. Buchan wrote good English. Buchan taught you things.’ Usborne’s droll catalogue of his subjects’ reactionary excesses helped writers like Dornford Yates and the repellent ‘Sapper’ along the way to oblivion. Buchan continued to be read, but his reputation was battered: by 1960 or so, even his admirers saw a need to account for his characters’ more colourful views, and he was an irresistible target for parodists. ‘A divorced woman on the throne of the house of Windsor would be a pretty big feather in the cap of that bunch of rootless intellectuals, alien Jews and international pederasts who call themselves the Labour Party,’ Alan Bennett had Richard Hannay, Buchan’s most famous hero, muse in Forty Years On (1968). Another West End send-up of The Thirty-Nine Steps finished a nine-year run in September 2015, a century after the final instalment of Buchan’s best-known novel appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine.

(LRB 09 Feb 2020)

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