John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC (August 26, 1875 – February 11, 1940), was a Scottish novelist, best known for his novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada. Buchan was an officer in the intelligence Corps during World War I. In 1927, he was elected as MP for the Scottish Universities. He was created a Peer and appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1935. He died while still in office. Although some of his views are no longer considered politically correct, such as his antisemitism, his books retain an appeal to lovers of adventure and intrigue. He lived what he wrote, or so it seems, combining work in espionage with politics, diplomacy, and literary endeavors. He also held office within his Church and after World War I was an active campaigner for peace and for the resolution of disputes by non-violent means. On many issues, such as women's suffrage, trades-union rights, and curtailing the power of the non-elected House of Lords, he was a progressive politician.
Buchan was the eldest child in the family of four sons and one surviving daughter (the novelist Anna Buchan) born to a Free Church of Scotland minister, John Buchan (1847–1911), and his wife, Helen Jane (1857–1937), daughter of John Masterton, farmer, of Broughton Green, near Peebles. Born in Perth and growing up in Fife, he spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in the Borders, developing a love of walking and the Border scenery and its wildlife that is often featured in his novels. One example is Sir Edward Leithen, the hero of a number of Buchan's books, whose name is borrowed from the Leithen Water, a tributary of the River Tweed.
After attending Hutchesons' Grammar School, Buchan won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow where he studied classics and wrote poetry and first became a published author. He then studied Literae Humaniores at Brasenose College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate prize for poetry. He had a genius for friendship which he retained all his life. His friends at Oxford included Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith, and Aubrey Herbert.
Buchan at first entered into a career in law in 1901, but almost immediately moved into politics, becoming private secretary to British colonial administrator Alfred Milner, who was high commissioner for South Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State—Buchan gained an acquaintance with the country that was to feature prominently in his writing. On his return to London, he became a partner in a publishing company while he continued to write books. Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor (1882-1977), cousin of the Duke of Westminster, on July 15, 1907. Together they had four children, two of whom would spend most of their lives in Canada.
In 1910, he wrote Prester John, the first of his adventure novels, set in South Africa. In 1911, he first suffered from duodenal ulcers, an illness he would give to one of his characters in later books. He also entered politics running as a Tory candidate for a Border constituency. During this time, Buchan supported Free Trade, woman's suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the power of the House of Lords. However, he opposed the Liberal reforms of 1905-1915, and what he considered the "class hatred" fostered by demagogic Liberals like David Lloyd George.
During World War I, he wrote for the War Propaganda Bureau and was a correspondent for The Times in France. In 1915, he published his most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller set just before the outbreak of World War I, featuring his hero Richard Hannay, who was based on a friend from South African days, Edmund Ironside. The following year, he published a sequel, Greenmantle. In 1916, he joined the British Army Intelligence Corps where, as a 2nd Lieutenant, he wrote speeches and communiques for Sir Douglas Haig.
In 1917, he returned to Britain, where he became Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook. After the war, he began to write on historical subjects as well as continuing to write thrillers and historical novels. Buchan's 100 works include nearly 30 novels and seven collections of short stories. He also wrote biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, Oliver Cromwell, and James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, but the most famous of his books were the spy thrillers and it is probably for these that he is now best remembered. The "last Buchan" (as Graham Greene entitled his appreciative review) is Sick Heart River (American title: Mountain Meadow), 1941, in which a dying protagonist confronts in the Canadian wilderness the questions of the meaning of life.
The Thirty-Nine Steps was filmed (much altered) by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935; later versions followed in 1959 and 1978.
In the mid-1920s Buchan was living near Oxford—Robert Graves, who was living on Boar's Hill whilst attending Oxford University, mentions Colonel Buchan recommending him for a lecturing position as a lecturer at the newly founded Cairo University in Egypt. Buchan became president of the Scottish Historical Society. He was twice Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and in a 1927 by-election was elected a Scottish Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities. Politically, he was of the Unionist-Nationalist Tradition that believed in Scotland's promotion as a nation within the British Empire and once remarked "I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable…Scotsmen should support it." The effects of depression in Scotland and the subsequent high emigration also led him to say "We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us" (Hansard, November 24, 1932). During the early months of the Second World War, Buchan read John Morley's Life of Gladstone, which had a profound impact on him. He believed Gladstone had taught people to combat materialism, complacency, and authoritarianism; he wrote to H. A. L. Fisher, Stair Gillon, and Gilbert Murray that he was "becoming a Gladstonian Liberal". The insightful quotation, "It's a great life, if you don't weaken" is also famously attributed to him. Another memorable quote is, "No great cause is ever lost or won. The battle must always be renewed. And the creed must always be restated."
Buchan's branch of the Free Church of Scotland joined the Church of Scotland in 1929. He was an active elder of St Columba's Church, London, and of the Oxford Presbyterian parish. In 1933–4, he was lord high commissioner to the church's general assembly.
In 1935, he became Governor General of Canada and was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had wanted him to go to Canada as a commoner, but King George V insisted on being represented by a peer.
Buchan's writing continued even after he was appointed Governor General. His later books included novels, histories, and his views of Canada. He also wrote an autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, while Governor-General. His wife was a writer, producing many books and plays as Susan Buchan. While pursuing his own writing career, he also promoted the development of a distinctly Canadian culture. In 1936, encouraged by Lady Tweedsmuir, he founded the Governor General's Awards, still one of Canada's premier literary awards.
Lady Tweedsmuir was active in promoting literacy in Canada. She used Rideau Hall as a distribution centre for 40,000 books, which were sent out to readers in remote areas of the west. Her program was known as the "Lady Tweedsmuir Prairie Library Scheme." Together, Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir established the first proper library at Rideau Hall.
Tweedsmuir took his responsibilities in Canada seriously and tried to make the office of Governor General relevant to the lives of ordinary Canadians. In his own words, "a Governor General is in a unique position for it is his duty to know the whole of Canada and all the various types of her people."
Tweedsmuir traveled throughout Canada, including the Arctic regions. He took every opportunity to speak to Canadians and to encourage them to develop their own distinct identity. He wanted to build national unity by diminishing the religious and linguistic barriers that divided the country. Tweedsmuir was aware of the suffering experienced by many Canadians due to the Depression and often wrote with compassion about their difficulties.
Tweedsmuir was recognized by Glasgow, St. Andrews, McGill, Toronto and Montréal Universities, all of which conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, and he was made an Honorary Fellow and an Honorary D.C.L. of Oxford.
When King George V died in 1936, the front of Rideau Hall was covered in black crepe and Lord Tweedsmuir cancelled all entertaining during the period of mourning. The new heir to the throne, King Edward VIII, soon abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson – creating a crisis for the monarchy. However, when the new King, George VI and Queen Elizabeth traveled throughout Canada in 1939; the regal visit – the first visit to Canada by a reigning Sovereign – was extremely popular.
Like many people of his time, the experience of the First World War convinced Tweedsmuir of the horrors of armed conflict and he worked with both United States President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King in trying to avert the ever-growing threat of another world war.
While shaving on February 6, 1940, Tweedsmuir had a stroke and injured his head badly in the fall. He received the best possible care—the famous Dr. Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, operated twice—but the injury proved fatal. On February 11, just 10 months before his term of office was to expire, Tweedsmuir died. Prime Minister Mackenzie King reflected the loss that all Canadians felt when he read the following words over the radio, "In the passing of His Excellency, the people of Canada have lost one of the greatest and most revered of their Governors General, and a friend who, from the day of his arrival in this country, dedicated his life to their service."
This was the first time a Governor General had died during his term of office since Confederation. After the lying-in-state in the Senate Chamber, a state funeral for Lord Tweedsmuir was held at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Ottawa. His ashes were returned to England on the cruiser HMS Orion for final burial at Elsfield, where he had bought the Manor, in 1920.
In recent years, in common with some of his contemporaries, Buchan's reputation has been tarnished by the lack of political correctness, for example, the anti-semitism and racism expressed in some passages from his novels, such as the opening chapter of The Thirty-Nine Steps. (It should, however, be noted that he was active on behalf of the Jews during the 1930s and, for this reason, his name appeared on Adolf Hitler's "hit list.") A thoroughly engaging storyteller, his work stands the test of time, and he is currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity.
Buchan had a reputation for discretion. He was involved with the Intelligence Corps as a propagandist during World War I and may have had an involvement with British intelligence later; he is cited as having some involvement during the years leading to the Second World War by Canadian-born British spy master, William Stephenson.
In the 1930s, Buchan gave financial and moral support to the poor, young academic Roberto Weiss, as Buchan was fascinated by the classical antiquity period Weiss studied, and wished to support this.
His autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door (published in the United States as Pilgrim's Way), was said to be John F. Kennedy's favorite book although a list given to Life magazine, in 1961, quoted Montrose at the head of the list.
John Buchan is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh.
Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.
All links retrieved May 14, 2018.
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