I am happy to report that CWA has found another contributor. This piece on author and Governor General of Canada, John Buchan, is by D. S. Proudfoot, an apprentice test pilot living under the Heathrow flight path.

Criterion Theatre poster

Criterion Theatre poster

Currently on stage in London’s West End is a highly inventive and very funny adaptation of John Buchan’s novel,The 39 Steps. The play’s protagonist, Richard Hannay, is a Canadian resident in London when the action takes place, but Buchan’s Hannay was a transplanted South African; the play follows the 1935 Hitchcock film, which made Robert Donat’s Hannay a Canadian. I wonder how many of the Canadians in the audience at the Criterion Theatre every evening are aware that the novelist whose work inspired the play (as well as at least three film versions) was an important figure in Canadian history who died in Canada in 1940 as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General.
John Buchan has been the subject of several biographies, including his own memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door, completed when he was living in Rideau Hall. Both his wife Susan (née Grosvenor) and his sister wrote memoirs about him.* J.William Galbraith’s John Buchan: Model Governor General (Dundurn 2013) is unique in focusing on Buchan’s viceregal tenure and legacy, and the final years of his eventful life.Buchan cover
A Scotsman from the Peebles area, John Buchan was a soldier, scholar, lawyer, intelligence chief, journalist, publisher, and the prolific and best-selling author of 100 books. He was the first to be named Governor General after the Statute of Westminster (1931), and the first untitled person to be appointed Governor General, though he was elevated to the peerage prior to his arrival in1935, for reasons Galbraith explains.
Mackenzie King had wanted Buchan appointed a decade earlier, and even as Leader of the Opposition manoeuvered to arrange his nomination. Buchan soon clashed with the mercurial King, but the two developed a strong bond, which proved particularly invaluable with the coming World War. Galbraith examines the context and political circumstances of Buchan’s appointment.

Despite a strong desire for a native-born GG, Canadians enthusiastically welcomed Buchan, in part because of his literary fame. Buchan returned the affection. He travelled extensively, including to the Far North, which became the subject and setting of his last novel, Sick Heart River. He was keenly aware of the sensitivities of the newly independent Dominion, and of the challenges to national unity which Canada has always faced. He celebrated the French fact in Canada, and encouraged Canadian national identity within the Empire.
Buchan’s time in Government House spanned the height of the Depression, the Abdication Crisis, and the Royal Visit of 1939. He was instrumental in initiating that visit, which in Galbraith’s words “breathed life” into the Statute of Westminster by bringing the King of Canada to his Canadian Parliament. With the outbreak of the war, he cultivated Roosevelt and helped wear down American isolationism.

Buchan is "a chief of the Blood Indians" in this photo in his memoir

John Buchan as “Eagle Face” according to his memoir (Yousuf Karsh, NPGP490/79, 1937)

Most importantly, at least for Canadian Writers Abroad, Buchan remained a man of letters. He found time to write four books while Governor General, and helped encourage Canadian literature, then in its infancy. He patronised the Canadian Authors Association, and in 1936 founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards. A Canadian writer? Perhaps not, but a writer who was a Canadian figure, whose career spanned continents and who fostered writing in Canada? Surely.

Related*

  • Susan Grosvenor Buchan, Lady Tweedsmuir, published many books, including the volume Canada in the series, The British Commonwealth in Pictures. Her memoir is: John Buchan by His Wife and Friends (1947).
  • John Buchan’s sister wrote under the name Anna O. Douglas; her memoir of the family is Unforgettable, Unforgotten (1945).
  • About J. William Galbraith (dundurn.com)
  • Review by Buchan’s grandson, James, “The Scot who Became More Canadian than the Canadians.” (spectator.co.uk)
  • Marc Horne, “39 Steps Author’s Fascist Links,” The Sunday Times, 12 May 2013.
  • Buchan’s thriller, The 39 Steps, is ranked No. 42 in “The 100 Best Novels” (The Observer, 6 July 2014)

 ©D.S.Proudfoot

Posted by CWA

5 Comments

  1. Sheila Coutts 27/08/2014 at 15:34

    After having discovered the 39 Steps at the age of 17 and fuelled by a course on Conspiratorial Fiction at Vic in the early 80s, I decided that if I were ever going to collect anything other than dust bunnies it would have to be Buchan first editions. I have a fair few, and I have certainly read everything the man ever published. Alarmed his grandson, the former FT correspondent David Buchan, by confessing my fan-girl status within the first five minutes of meeting him.

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    1. That’s where the first editions went…

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  2. He’s such an interesting character and I admire his ability to create suspense although i find the stories rather dated.

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    1. Your site is interesting too.

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  3. Sheila Coutts 28/08/2014 at 15:47

    In fact, it’s worth noting that “The 39 Steps” (original film version) features prominently in “The Catcher in the Rye”. Holden Caulfield’s favourite line: “Can you eat the herring?”.

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