In the Gaslight Crime blog of March 19th, I looked at John Buchan’s classic spy thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, the first of his novels featuring his hero Richard Hannay. Today I want to look at the third Hannay novel “Mr Standfast”’
Although “Mr Standfast” is the third novel in the sequence (Greenmantle comes second) it is very much a sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it concludes some of the outstanding matters of the first novel.
The novel starts in the summer of 1917, with Richard Hannay journeying to an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds. Hannay, very much the amateur spy-catcher in his first adventure, is now a Brigadier-General, who has made his mark as a soldier on the Western Front. Suddenly he finds himself torn away from the trenches to participate in the old game of nailing a master spy and finding out how secrets are being sent from Britain to Germany.
It is a journey that takes Hannay from a English Garden City full of pretentious individuals to the poverty-ridden tenements of Glasgow. Then on a puffer steamer through the Hebrides before Hannay embarks on a long walk through the Scottish Highlands to the dramatic mountains of the Cuillin on Skye.
Buchan, a great walker himself, and a terrific describer of landscape, is at his best here. As a writer he had a considerable gift of summoning up Temenos – the spirit of place – in just a few words. Unlike a lot of authors, Buchan was no carpet-bagger when it came to backgrounds, particularly Scottish scenes. He had done all of these walks himself and in his youth was a rock-climber of some renown. The scenes in Skye are amongst the finest Buchan ever wrote. Nobody does it better.
But Buchan can write urban scenes as well. Hannay returns to London during an air-raid. He conveys very well the sense of shock in a city than finds itself under aerial attack – an unpleasant novelty for the people of England at that time. Then to the Western Front which Buchan depicts with great validity. He had been in the trenches and the dug-outs himself. Here we have some familiar though welcome Buchan elements; a sinister chateau, sudden and hurried journeys in the dead of night, the tales soldiers tell to stave away buried fears.
Then to neutral Switzerland where Hannay finds himself under cover once more. There is a description through a snow-bound Alpine pass which deserves its place as a classic of mountaineering literature – he captures the physical exhaustion, the sudden bursts of fear, the satisfaction that emerges when the climb is done, in a way that perhaps only a mountaineer can fully appreciate. Then back to the trenches for a thrilling, almost Wagnerian conclusion, where victory is achieved but at a terrible cost to Hannay.
In this novel we see a good example of what Buchan’s biographer Janet Adam Smith described as his “root-of-the-matter treatment”. Buchan takes a character and presents him at first unsympathetically, and at odds with the philosophy of his hero. And then he reveals aspects of the character which show a different side to that person, winning admiration. Here it is with the character Launcelot Wake, a conscientious objector to the war, holding views which are initially anathema to the warrior Hannay. At first it seems quite impossible that they could ever be comrades. Then gradually, over the course of the book, Wake’s real courage is revealed. We see him as a better rock climber and mountaineer than the skilled scrambler Hannay. A man who is prepared, despite his opinions, to fight courageously. The once unsympathetic character becomes someone Hannay can really admire.
Now in the 21st century, when our views on the Great War have become somewhat revised, we can side more with conscientious objectors. But when Buchan published the novel in 1919 the subject of pacifism, of men who simply refused to fight, was still almost too raw to be mentioned. That Buchan can go so bravely against a warlike dominant ideology and show both the martial and anti-war philosophies is a mark of a great writer, and that he can present a conscientious objector sympathetically is stunning given that it was written when the guns were still firing. The popularity of “Mr Standfast” as a novel may well have done much to create a better understanding of the wartime role of the pacifist in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the trenches.
For “Mr Standfast” is more than just a thriller. It looks deeply into issues such as courage. Hannay is no stock wartime hero. He often admits to very real fear, he recognises the bravery in others. His sympathy with the rank-and-file soldiers of a mostly working class army is portrayed as genuine and touching.
Hannay is what another thriller writer, Geoffrey Household, described as ‘Class X’. Despite being apparently part of the Establishment he can mix well and empathise with almost anyone, whether they be Clydeside ship workers, hill shepherds, private soldiers, or ministers of the crown and generals. It shows Buchan’s immense interest in people as individuals, rather than stock characters or folk penned into an artificial and quite ridiculous class structure. If he occasionally falls down to the modern reader with language that might be judged politically incorrect, it is because he was a man writing near a century ago, in a very different world with much different mores.
John Buchan famously described the Hannay novels as ‘shockers’, not intended to be taken very seriously amongst his wider canon of historical novels and straight histories. I think you can take humility too far. And I do wonder, in his heart, if he recognised just how good a novel like “Mr Standfast” really was?