Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361
Born in 1875, John Buchan was the eldest son of a Scots clergyman. His childhood was formed by the Border country landscape, wide reading, and religion; these influences also shaped his later life. He won a scholarship to Glasgow University, where he was soon recognized as a leader and a fine writer. Continuing his studies at Oxford University, he supported himself with journalism. With writing as his vocation, Buchan devised an exhaustive plan that included writing fiction, journalism, and histories in addition to pursuing his Oxford degree.
After completing his studies, Buchan accepted a government position in South Africa, an opportunity that allowed him to fulfill his desire for exotic travel. Though he did not lack the prejudices of his era, Africa became a beloved place to Buchan and was the setting of several of his fictions, including Prester John (1910). On returning to England, Buchan continued a double career as a barrister and as an editor for The Spectator, a leading periodical. His marriage in 1907 caused him to work even harder to ensure adequate finances for his wife and for his mother, sisters, and brothers.
Buchan served as a staff officer during World War I, as high commissioner of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, and as a member of Parliament. He completed his career of public service as governor general of Canada. By this time, he had received a peerage: He was now Lord Tweedsmuir. His varied responsibilities allowed him to travel extensively, and he was fascinated by the more distant explorations of others. As he grew older, though, his Scottish and Canadian homes and his family claimed a larger share of his attention.
The record of Buchan’s public achievement shows a full life in itself, but throughout his public life he was always writing. His work includes histories, biographies, travel books, and especially fiction. A number of hours each day were set aside for writing. Buchan depended on the extra income from his popular novels, and he disciplined himself to write steadily, regardless of distractions. He continued to write and work even when his health declined. When he died suddenly of a stroke in 1940, he left behind nearly seventy published books.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184
John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, on August 26, 1875. He spent his early childhood near the Firth of Forth, an area to which he often returned for holidays and that served as the setting for a great deal of his fiction. His father was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland; his mother was the daughter of a sheep farmer. From both of his parents, but particularly from his strong-minded mother, Buchan learned to value endurance, hard work, and, above all, perseverance, and he placed such emphasis on these qualities in his novels that many readers have come to regard this emphasis as the hallmark of his work.
When Buchan was thirteen years old, his father was called to the John Knox Free Church in Glasgow. There, Buchan attended Hutcheson’s Grammar School and, later, the University of Glasgow, whose faculty then included such scholars as Lord Kelvin, A. C. Bradley, George Ramsay, and Gilbert Murray; the latter became one of Buchan’s closest friends. At the end of his third year at the University of Glasgow, Buchan won a Junior Hulme scholarship to Oxford University, and in the autumn of 1895, he began his studies there at Brasenose College.
Because his scholarship was not sufficient to meet all of his expenses, Buchan earned extra money by reading manuscripts for the publishing firm of John Lane; among the manuscripts that he recommended for publication was Arnold Bennett’s first novel, A Man from the North (1898). Buchan also became a regular reviewer for several publications and continued to work steadily on his own novels and nonfiction prose. In 1898, he had the distinction of being listed in Who’s Who: He had at that time six books in print, two in press, and three in progress, and he had published innumerable articles, essays, and reviews. He was also an active member of several prestigious Oxford and London clubs and organizations, notably the Oxford Union, of which he was librarian and later president. In 1899, he sat for his final examinations and earned a first-class honors degree; one year later, having “eaten his dinners” and passed the examination, he was called to the bar.
During the two years following his graduation, Buchan wrote leading articles for The Spectator, worked as a barrister, and continued to write both fiction and nonfiction. In 1901, he accepted the post of political private secretary to Lord Milner, who was then high commissioner for South Africa. During the two years he spent in that country, Buchan became familiar with the practical administrative aspects of political situations that he had discussed on a more theoretical level in his essays for The Spectator. He also acquired background material for several of his novels, notably Prester John.
When he returned to London in 1903, Buchan resumed his legal work at the bar and his literary work on The Spectator. In 1906, he became second assistant editor of The Spectator, and, in 1907, he accepted the position of chief literary adviser to the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson. He also continued to extend the circle of acquaintances that he had begun to form at Oxford, and he became one of the best-known and most promising young men in London society and politics.
Buchan was greatly attracted to a young lady whom he met at a London dinner party, and on July 15, 1907, he and Susan Grosvenor were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. Their first child, Alice, was born one year later, followed by John (1911), William (1916), and Alastair (1918). Until the outbreak of World War I, the Buchans lived comfortably in London while John Buchan continued to write fiction, legal opinions, and essays and articles for such publications as The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement.
Shortly after World War I began, Buchan, who had been asked to write a continuing history of the war for Nelson’s and who also acted as correspondent for The Times, visited a number of French battlefields as a noncombatant. In 1916, he returned to France as a temporary lieutenant colonel, acting as press officer and propagandist for the foreign office and working for Field Marshal Lord Douglas Haig as official historian. In February, 1917, he was appointed director of information, in charge of publicity and propaganda. In the middle of all of his war-related activities, between 1914 and 1918, he wrote three of his most popular novels: The Thirty-nine Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast.
When World War I ended, Buchan purchased Elsfield, a country house near Oxford, and settled down to a routine of writing, working at Nelson’s, and entertaining his numerous friends, including T. E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, W. P. Ker, Gilbert Murray, and A. L. Rowse. In 1919, he became a director of the Reuters news agency, and four years later he became deputy chair. Buchan’s peaceful routine at Elsfield, however, ended in the spring of 1927, when he was elected to Parliament as the member for the Scottish universities, a position he held until 1935. He became as active a member of London society during his term in Parliament as he had been as a younger man, and he became increasingly well known and influential in political circles. He was appointed lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1933 and again in 1934, and in 1935 he was appointed to a much more important post: governor-general of the Dominion of Canada. In recognition of his accomplishments and of his new position, he was created a baron; he chose as his title Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.
Buchan’s tenure of office as governor-general (1935-1940) coincided with the growing tension in Europe that eventually led to World War II, and, because his post was largely a ceremonial one, he had to be extremely cautious in his statements and in his behavior. Among the delicate diplomatic situations that he handled well were the visits of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada; Buchan’s greatest error in diplomacy occurred when he made a speech in which he suggested that Canada’s defense policy was inadequate. Despite occasional lapses of this type, however, Buchan was a successful governor-general, in part because he made a point of visiting not only such cultural centers as Montreal and Quebec but also more remote places such as Medicine Hat, Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton. In addition to enhancing his popularity as governor-general, these trips provided background material for his last novel, Sick Heart River.
As the end of his five-year term of office approached, Buchan was asked to allow himself to be nominated for another term. He refused because of his steadily declining health and his plans to leave Canada at the end of 1940. On February 6, 1940, however, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and struck his head during a fall; five days later he died. He left an autobiographical work, a novel, a children’s history of Canada, a volume of essays, and a volume of lectures, all of which were published posthumously, as well as an unfinished novel and two chapters of a nonfiction work; these chapters appear at the end of the autobiography.
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