The Sweet Smell of Success

John Buchan

by Janet Adam Smith
Little, Brown, 528 pp., $7.50

John Buchan
John Buchan; drawing by David Levine

Buchan has been lucky in his biographer. Like him Janet Adam Smith is the child of a Scots minister. (Her father, who was a distinguished academic, was indicted for heresy by among others Buchan’s father. The indictment failed.) Like him she knows the two Scotlands of post-Jacobite days. There was the democratic, strenuous, puritan tradition, despising English softness and worldliness, which bred tough individualistic men of brains and push who sought their fortune in England, the Empire or America; and there was the other Scotland from which they fled—the mawkish, rhetorical, self-righteous, juicy, unctuous society pilloried in literature from Holy Willie’s Prayer to The House with the Green Shutters. The Scots kept an eye on their bright boys and deflated them if they assimilated too smoothly to English ways; but they were proud that in their poverty-stricken country a man rose by his merits and not by birth. To seek success was part of the national myth. Buchan simply set out to be successful in the classic Scots way.

First move. Educated at a fine Glasgow grammar school, Buchan enters the university there at seventeen. In his first term he goes up to Gilbert Murray at the end of his lecture and asks what Latin translation of Democritus was used by Francis Bacon: He would like to know because he is preparing an edition of Bacon’s Essays. Shrewd. On to Oxford with glowing testimonials from Murray where he keeps himself by his writing as much as by winning prizes and scholarships. The publisher, John Lane, makes him his literary advisor and, already in Who’s Who giving his profession as “undergraduate,” he ends with a First in Greats, many useful upper-class friends and the entrée to great houses and London society. Then off to South Africa after the Boer War to join Milner’s kindergarten of dashing young administrators engaged on the pacification of the country. Having broken into the world of affairs he marries on his return a Grosvenor. Fails to wangle a job under Cromer in Egypt. Friends worried that he won’t declare himself for one or other political party: finally plumps for the Tories. In the First World War becomes director of propaganda. Fails to get a knighthood. Best sellers pour out at the rate of one a year, romances with imperial settings and of secret service doings. Soon he is in Parliament representing the Scottish universities. Becomes an intimate friend of Baldwin and later, in the days of the National Government, of Ramsay MacDonald. Fails to get into the Cabinet or even a ministry. Turns to writing biographies and historical works. Sends sons to Eton. Represents the Sovereign as High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Asked in 1935 to perform in similar style as Governor-General in Canada. Mackenzie King wants him to come as a commoner, but Buchan writes “An immediate peerage might revive Mother.”…

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