Mon 24 Jul 2023

The 39 Steps – where it all began

"You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass."

It could easily be a 21st century commentator considering the current state of the Western world. In fact it’s John Buchan, writing over 100 years ago in one of his lesser-known thrillers The Power-House, a precursor to his most famous story The 39 Steps by two years.

John Buchan was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life, and was very much concerned with civilisation and the duty of the civilised man to protect that fragile construct.

His best-known hero was Richard Hannay, who made his first outing in The 39 Steps in 1915, and subsequently appeared in four more ripping yarns: Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep.

It would be a step too far to say that the dashing major-general was autobiographical – Hannay is generally believed to be based on a friend of Buchan’s, senior army officer Lord Ironside – but the two men share many similar qualities, not least their deep concern for humanity.

In our stage version of The 39 Steps, Hannay stumbles into a rural political rally where he makes an impassioned speech for a better world ‘where no neighbour plots against neighbour, where there’s no persecution or hunting down, where everybody gets a square deal and a sporting chance and where people try to help and not to hinder! A world where suspicion and cruelty and fear have been forever banished!’

“Is that the sort of world you want?” he asks. “Because that’s the sort of world I want!”

Like the rest of this ingenious adaptation of the story, the speech is played for laughs – but the underlying conviction isn’t lost, and is a source of pride to Buchan’s granddaughter, Deborah Buchan, Lady Stewartby.

In a foreword to the published script, she writes movingly about her generous-spirited grandfather and his admirable values.

“[He] would be amazed and delighted that a play of his novel is being published as a script nearly a century after he wrote it for his own amusement,” she says. “JB was never proprietorial about his work… the more people who feel they want to put on and perform what was possibly the first spy thriller, the more delighted he would be.

“Two themes JB was anxious to convey in his novels were, firstly, that the veneer of civilisation is very thin, easily exposing the horrors beneath and, secondly, that evil comes in very attractive forms, making it all the harder to resist.”

So what shaped John Buchan – government administrator, First World War officer, MP, tax lawyer, journalist, literary adviser, author, and Governor General of Canada?

He was born in Perth in Scotland in 1875, the son of John, a Free Church of Scotland minister, and Helen, the daughter of a sheep farmer. His jolly and caring father (who loved to sing Scottish folk songs and regularly gave away his tram fare to the poor despite the family’s modest income) opened his eyes to inequality, and summers spent with his mother’s family in the Scottish Borders engendered a lifelong love of nature and the outdoors.

At the age of 17, Buchan went to study classics and mathematics at Glasgow University on a scholarship; a second scholarship took him to Brasenose College, Oxford to continue his studies. He graduated with a Doctor of Laws, but also wrote regularly, having several stories and essays published.

In 1900 he was apprenticed to a London law firm – an unhappy, lonely period in his life which perhaps influenced the mood of Richard Hannay on his own return to London at the start of our story.

By 1902, Buchan had accepted a post as private secretary to Lord Milner, High Commissioner of South Africa, and travelled extensively in that country.

On his return to England, he became a partner in a publishing firm, Thomas Nelson & Son, was appointed as assistant editor of The Spectator, read for and was called to the Bar, and got married to Susan Grosvenor – all within two eventful years, 1906 and 1907.

It may have been this frenetic lifestyle that caused a duodenal ulcer which left him bedbound and bored in Broadstairs for some months in 1914 – an enforced convalescence that led to his most famous novel, The 39 Steps.

Writing in his old magazine The Spectator in 2015, another granddaughter, Ursula Buchan, tells us: “The novel was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, and appeared in book form in October, when it was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling 25,000 copies in the first six weeks.

“The plot was, of course, informed by the febrile international situation in the summer of 1914; the title came from the number of wooden steps that led down to a Broadstairs beach, counted for Buchan by his six-year-old daughter, Alice.”

In 1934, an up-and-coming young English film director, Alfred Hitchcock, optioned the book from Buchan and made a movie which later became acclaimed as one of the best British movies ever made, and made its director a star in the States.

Ursula tells us: “Much of the plot was changed to accommodate a love interest and to reflect the different international situation, 20 years on from 1915. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, acquires a beautiful but reluctant companion, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). The scene where they have to share a room in a Scottish inn and she removes her stocking, while handcuffed to him, gives off an erotic spark even now.

“An amused Buchan told Hitchcock at the premiere that the film was a great improvement on the book; only my loyal granny could never be reconciled to Hitchcock changing the story.”

For many people, it could be the zenith of their lives – for Buchan, the best was yet to come. In yet another remarkable career change, he was elevated to the peerage, becoming Lord Tweedsmuir, and spent the last five years of his life as the much-loved Governor General of Canada. When he died in Montreal in 1940, he was given a state funeral in the country before his ashes were returned to England, where they are buried in the churchyard of St Thomas’s in Elsfield, Oxfordshire.

And it’s heartening to know that, despite his warnings about the fragility of civilisation, Buchan always maintained an enduring belief in human nature: “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it,” he said. “For the greatness is already there.”


The 39 Steps play at Theatre by the Lake from Thu 3 August – Fri 2 September. Tickets available here.