John Buchan (1875-1940) is a member of a very small club: namely that club of serious novelists and poets who had a
genuine career as politicians or diplomats (this is not the same as politicians or diplomats who have turned their hand to the odd novel or two). One thinks in this context of WB Yeats (senator), Mario Vargas Llosa (ran for president), Václav Havel (president), Nadine Gordimer (activist) Pablo Neruda (ambassador) and Carlos Fuentes (ambassador) and a few distinguished others.
Buchan, in fact, may have outdone them all. In his extra-literary life he was, variously, a member of parliament, a
lawyer, a company director, a journalist, a publisher, director of intelligence for the War Office, Lord High Commissioner for the Church of Scotland and, last but not least, governor-general of Canada from 1935 until his death. In the process of this very public life he also managed to write more than a hundred books – fiction and nonfiction – and many tens of thousands of words of journalism and correspondence. Buchan’s energy makes other prodigies of prolixity such as Charles Dickens and John Updike look positively idle.
Buchan came from middle-class Scottish stock – his father was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland – and he went to a grammar school in Glasgow before going to the university there and then on to Brasenose College, Oxford. At Oxford he lost his Scottish burr and developed what was then known as a “Varsity accent”. Oxford marks the beginning of his extraordinary career – he published a novel while an undergraduate – and his semi-exile from
Scotland: he chose not to live in his native land again, though he was a regular, enthusiastic visitor.