JOHN BUCHAN, who comes to us as Governor-General next fall, has a creditable and almost unique pilgrimage behind him in his journey from a modest Free Kirk manse in Scotland to Rideau Hall. He is a Scot pur sang, and intensely proud of his blood. On his father’s side, a much beloved minister of the Free Church of Scotland, whose name he bears, he must have an Aberdonian background, as all Buchans come originally from the district of that name in Aberdeenshire; but in him there dominates the livelier strain of Border blood derived from his mother, formerly Helen Masterton, bom at Broughton in Peebleshire, where Mr. Secretary Murray, who has gone down to history as the infamous betrayer of his Jacobite comrades after the “Forty-Five.” had his home two centuries ago. If you want to learn about John Buchan’s upbringing and family life in his early years, read The Setons, a novel written by his sister, in which there is a splendid portrait of his father.
He was the eldest son of a family of six, of whom three survive. One brother. William, was a brilliant Indian civil servant who was brought home in his prime to die of some fell tropical disease; another, Alastair, the youngest, died of wounds received at the battle of Arras in 1917, while serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; and the eldest sister died many years ago. Of the other survivors. Anna is the very successful novelist who writes under the pen name of “0. Douglas,” and Walter is a prosperous solicitor in the towm of Peebles.
John Buchan was born in the ancient City of Perth in 1875, but left it young for Kirkcaldy in Fifeshire, where as a boy he walked the same streets that Adam Smith and Thomas Carlyle had trodden in their time. Later, when his father got a church in Glasgow, he moved there, and was sent to Hutcheson's Grammar School, an excellent institution, where he antedated by a few years R. G. Reid, the present Premier of Alberta. A clever and industrious pupil he won a bursary at Glasgow University, where he had a brilliant career and took his degree with first-class honors. Then, by winning another scholarship at Brasenose College, of which he wrote a history later, he was able to spend four happy and profitable years at Oxford, where he added to his academic honors by winning not only a First in “greats,” but the Newdigate prize for poetry and the Stanhope historical prize. He also proved his mettle in the debating lists of the Oxford Union, and had the distinction of following a long line of famous men in the office of president.
His first idea of a career was the English Bar, but soon after he had been called to the Middle Temple in 1901 he got a chance to join the staff of Lord Milner, then High Commissioner in South Africa, as his secretary; and in this capacity he saw at close hand the later phases of the Boer War.
After its close he came home, in 1903, with his mind made up that his real métier was neither the Civil Service nor the Bar but literature in some form or other. In his Oxford days he had tried his prentice hand at writing a novel, John Burnet of Barns, which ran in serial form in Chambers's Journal and which some people think is the best novel he ever wrote; and he had also to his credit a book called The Scholar Gypsies. But his first real opening for a literary career came through journalism, and for some years he worked as assistant editor of The Spectator, which, under the guidance of the late St. Loe Strachey, was in those days the most influential weekly review in Britain.
After a few years, however, he got an offer of a partnership in the well-known Edinburgh publishing firm of Nelson, to whose management, T. A. Nelson, a friend of his Oxford days and a famous athlete, had succeeded, and he accepted it. So he became one of the guiding spirits of the house of T. Nelson & Sons, and had as another partner in it G. M.
Brown, a son of George Brown of The Globe. Toronto, whose wile was a Nelson. The young publisher was a glutton for work and infused an expansionist vigor in the Nelson business; but he also found time to give free play to his creative literary spirit, and during the decade before the Great War there came from his pen a variegated list of books, of which the best known are The Watcher on the Threshold. Prester John. A Lodge in the Wilderness, The Moon Endureth, and a life of Sir Walter Raleigh.
A Popular Novelist
WHEN THE WAR came in 1914 he immediately offered his services and, joining the Intelligence Department of the British Army, did useful service at G.H.Q. in France. He rose to the rank of colonel, and in the later stages of the war was one of the chief coadjutors of our own Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Information. What time he could spare from official duties was not spent in idleness, for he wrote a lucid and succinct history of the war which, if it does not entitle him to rank with Macaulay or Napier as a historian, gives a very readable impressionist survey of the great struggle. He also evolved in Greenmantle and the correlated tales, a romantic hero in Richard Hannay, who caught the popular fancy. His fondness for military history emerged later in a narrative of the exploits of the South African contingent in France and a fine regimental history of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
After the war he returned to his office at Nelson’s, and he also formed a connection with the newspaper world by becoming a director of Reuter’s, the famous newsgathering agency. However, he soon found that his real heart was in writing and that he could make by it a large enough income to dispense with other sources, so he resigned from the Nelson firm and began to amaze the British literary world with the amount of his annual output. For some years he concentrated his energies upon popular novels. They sought to please rather than to instruct; there was always a vein of high romance in them, and a flavor of Scotland either in the scene or some of the characters, and year after year they proved best sellers.
In the opinion of unbiased critics, John Buchan as a
novelist has never fulfilled the promise of his youth, when he was hailed as a second Robert Louis Stevenson. He has preferred the path of lucrative popularity, and his novels will never rank as literary masterpieces. But as a biographer, he has in the last few years made himself an assured place in the literary Valhalla of Britain. He had made a beginning in this field with a life of the fourth Earl of Minto, who was his predecessor at Rideau Hall, but his first real success in this line was his life of the great Marquis of Montrose, who is obviously one of his favorite heroes. He followed this up with lives of Julius Caesar. Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, and the volume on Scott can fairly be counted the crown of his literary career. It does not pretend to vie with the meticulous narrative of Lockhart, Scott s son-inlaw, who was his official biographer, but it limns in vivid colors “The Wizard of the North,” faults and all, and there is general agreement that it is a biography of the highest quality. It must have been a labor of love, for few people are so steeped in Scott’s novels and know Scott’s country as well as John Buchan.
What is not generally known about him is that he is a poet of considerable merit. It is true that poetry has been in the nature of a sideline in his literary activities, but a little volume entitled Poems, Scots and English contains some lovely verses. Some of them, like “The Kirk Bell’ and “Home Thoughts from Abroad.’’ are in the Doric of Lowland Scotland and will only appeal to such as have knowledge of that vernacular. But others are in English, and all reveal a fine vein of poetic fancy and deep sentiment.
He will be the first poet who has ever been an occupant of Rideau Hall. As biographer, poet and novelist, the quality of his work has been uniformly high, and he has firmly established his reputation as one of the notable literary figures of his day in Britain.
DESPITE HIS preoccupations with literature, war and business, he has managed to play an active and useful part in British politics. He elected at Oxford to give the Conservative party his allegiance, but he has always
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belonged to its progressive wing. He has persistently manifested deep sympathy with some of the policies of the Labor party and is a warm friend of James Maxton. the “reddest” Socialist in the House of Commons. He often spoke on Conservative platforms, but he did not feel free to enter political life until 1927, when a vacancy in the representation of the Scottish Universities provided him with a safe and very congenial seat. In Parliament, despite the handicap of an unattractive voice, he has always had the ear of the House, and his speeches on educational and social questions have commanded respectful attention. But education is the cause dearest to his heart, and. being a convinced advocate of raising the age for leaving school from fourteen to sixteen, he lias boldly differed with his leaders on this issue and served as chairman of a committee formed to promote this reform. He believes in democracy as a system of government, but he equally believes that it will only work satisfactorily on the basis that a reasonable standard of education and intelligence prevails among the voters, and that a generous expenditure on education is a sound investment for any nation which wants to preserve democratic institutions. He has never been an Imperialist of the jingo brand, but he has always been a per fervid believer in the British Commonwealth of Nations as a beneficent political institution, and a resolute supporter of all sane schemes of Imperial co-operation. In international affairs he has been a staunch backer of the League of Nations and an advocate of close Anglo-American co-operation. Some inkling of his political and economic faiths can be gleaned from The Lodge in the Wilderness, which is the vehicle for an interesting symposium upon the problems of the British Commonwealth.
Nearing his sixtieth year, he is of moderate stature, clean shaven with reddish hair greying at the temples, an intellectual face, and the pleasant, easy manners of a man of the world. In private life he is a charming and most companionable man who has hosts of friends in every walk of life. He is, moreover, an excellent talker, with a rich fund of Scots stories which he can tell in the broadest Doric. In the preface to one of his books he writes: “Scots has never been to me a book tongue. I could always speak it more easily than I could write it.” So he will find himself completely at home at the gatherings of St. Andrew’s Societies or Burns Clubs. He can be relied upon to deliver interesting speeches on almost any topic, and their high vein of intellectual seriousness will be generously flecked with humor.
The Buchan Family
HE WILL also bring to Rideau Hall an ideal helpmate in his wife, who before her marriage was Miss Susan Grosvenor. She is a member of the ducal family of Westminster, and is also descended from a sister of the great Duke of Wellington. She, too, is the possessor of no mean literary talents and has to her credit an interesting book called The Sword of Stale, which deals with Wellington's political career. Together they have made their delightful home, Elsfield Manor near Oxford, a famous centre of hospitality, and this particular tradition of Rideau Hall will be safe in their hands. They have four children, three sons and a daughter. The eldest son is in the Colonial Civil Service in Kenya, the second is just finishing his educational career at Oxford, and the third is still at Eton; while the only daughter, Alice, who has distinct gifts as an actress and playwright, is married to Captain Fairfax-Lucy of the Cameron Highlanders.
John Buchan, as his record reveals, has touched life at many points and has through its course led laborious days. But he is no intellectual recluse and has always mixed freely in varied kinds of society. He is one
of those who, like James I of Scotland, would rather hear the lark sing than the mouse squeak, and he has found his chief relaxations in mountaineering, fishing and deerstalking. He is never happier than with a rod in his hand on some mountain stream on the Borders or the Scottish Highlands, and when he takes a holiday his steps turn not to Deauville or the Lido but northward to his native land. He knows almost every parish in it between John o’ Groat’s and the Mull of Galloway, and its story and romantic traditions are an open book to him.
The fact that he is a commoner is in keeping with the times and will not be unwelcome in Canada. None of his predecessors have brought to their duties such a fine intellectual equipment, and if he does not become bored with the inhibitions of his office he may prove a very valuable asset to Canada as a stimulator of education and intellectual curiosity. He has a belief in the value of ceremonial as a useful embellishment of the democratic system, and for two years he filled with great dignity and general acceptance the ancient office of Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland. Moreover, the author of a life of the Earl of Min to should not be unfamiliar with the nature of the tasks which lie before a Governor-General, although the status of the office has greatly changed since Minto’s day.
He will not come friendless into our midst, as he has known Mackenzie King intimately for many years, and in addition to nis ample host of Canadian readers he made many Canadian friends during the war years. He has also been a frequent visitor to the United States, and one of his chief friends there is Edward Harkness, who made him one of the trustees for the administration of his munificent benefaction to Great Britain known as the Pilgrim Trust. So he should experience no difficulty in fitting into our Canadian milieu, and he will be assured of a warm welcome in a country which contains so many people hewn from the same Scottish rock as himself.
At present he is plain Mr. John Buchan with no other honor or decoration than the Companionate of Honor, which, however, ranks next to the much prized Order of Merit in Britain; but it will be a surprise if he is not ennobled before he reaches Rideau Hall.