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‘This Insubstantial Pageant Faded’: John Buchan’s London Between the Wars

Pilvi Rajamäe

“I sat in my semi-underground chambers in Middle Temple Lane, feeling as if I were in Plato’s Cave, conversant not with mankind but with their shadows,” Buchan recalls his disillusion with London after his return from South Africa in 1903 in his autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door (132). An outsider in London due to his nationality and class, for the next three decades he would make a concerted effort to penetrate its mysteries. Ostensibly successful in penetrating to the heart of the establishment, his fiction, especially between the wars, betrays a growing unease. The clearly demarcated social boundaries of the Late-Victorian society which he had entered are gradually dissolving, being replaced by an indeterminate shadowland –- a social maze where the rules of navigation are constantly changing and which is reflected by the physical geography of London which metamorphoses from a locus of desire and aspiration into a labyrinth of anxiety, disillusion and frustration.
Buchan was of a self-confessed conservative cast of mind, “very sensible of the past, approving renovation but not innovation” (39). When he had gone to London in 1900, he had enthusiastically embraced its Dickensian flavour and still preserved Georgian air. On the surface, the aristocratic lifestyle still appeared intact, though inroads had been made into its wealth and prestige by parliamentary reform and agricultural decay. To the starry-eyed youth from a lower middle class suburb of Glasgow, however, it was a charmed life, “friendly and well-bred”, yet seemingly untainted by “the vulgarity and worship of wealth” (96).

For the relatively poor son of the manse who had to make his own way in the world, what particularly seems to have appealed to Buchan was London society’s solidity and stability: the social hierarchy was intact but flexible enough to allow entry, provided the entrant could hold his own in conversation and argument. Having cultivated to near perfection his ability to make friends, he was to use this gift and his undeniable flair for writing to enter the country house circuit and make a name for himself in the literary world. His initial attempts to capture this, to him, still dazzling world of self-assurance and neglectful ease are rather gauche and stilted, sometimes painfully so, as manifest in the novel The Half-Hearted (1900). Sometimes the dialogues in it read as if the author were trying to master a foreign lingo and is not entirely sure of his footing, when actually he was. His childhood in Fife and youth in a rather disadvantaged suburb of Glasgow, his struggles to finance his studies at grammar school and Glasgow and Oxford Universities made his background a very different one from the scions of families with old money or a venerable lineage, whose lifestyle must have appealed to him as irresistibly exotic. As he was finding his feet as a writer of the modern spy thriller, he was to turn his alienation into a virtue by cultivating a distinctly modern style where the clipped and bantering style of utterance of his upper middle class characters lends an added charm to the heady-paced action. A number of his most loveable characters were later unkindly dubbed ‘Clubland heroes’ by Richard Usborne, the pioneer of dismissive criticism of Buchan’s work after the Second World War (see Usborne 1974). Though some of his accusations do not bear a closer examination, there is an undeniable fascination with the London clubland present in Buchan’s modern ‘shockers’, as he playfully called his thrillers to distinguish them from his more ambitious historical fiction. When he first came to London, its “clubs were still in their heyday, their waiting lists were lengthy, and membership of the right ones was a stage in a career” (Memory Hold-the-Door 96). Youth and age were not segregated, conversation was an art which carried prestige and the Late Victorian social hierarchy, still comfortably in place, provided a framework where a young man could learn about men and manners and acquire a due humility. For young Buchan about to penetrate its mysteries, its greatest appeal was its reassuring “steadfastness of nerve” (ibid.)

This was to change with the new century. A two-year stint in South Africa as Lord Milner’s private secretary overseeing the work of reconstruction after the South African War considerably broadened Buchan’s horizons and turned him for a few years into an adherent of New Imperialism. The lofty vision of a federated empire advocated by Milner and his fellow empire builders, held together by ‘men of destiny’ who would magnificently rise above the petty squabbles of narrow trade interests and party politics (for Buchan’s version of their manifesto see his novel of ideas A Lodge in the Wilderness from 1906), made London look small and provincial on his return in 1903. Edwardian London had suddenly lost its Georgian charm which had so bewitched him earlier and had turned overnight into “a dull, mercantile modern place” (132) where the overriding emotion seemed to be “a rastaquouère craze for luxury” (133). Buchan clearly felt uncomfortable in these new surroundings, preferring colonial settings for his adventure novels for boys Prester John (1910) and Salute to Adventurers (1915). Some of the disillusion of an imperial enthusiast is echoed by Richard Hannay, just ‘home’ from South Africa at the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915):

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. … In about a week I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. … Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on their own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet schoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was the dismalest business of all. Here I was, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. (5)

The First World War shattered what was left of the old certainties. Buchan had given his all, including his health, to the service of his country, first as a war correspondent for The Times and Daily News, then as Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information coordinating official war propaganda. His work for the War Office and Foreign Office and employment in the Intelligence Corps furnished him with a varied and first-hand knowledge of the war which he came to see as the vastest disordering of the world since the Pax Romana (Memory Hold-the-Door 189). At the Armistice he collapsed into bed with nervous exhaustion. When he emerged from his sickbed early in 1919 to survey the post-war scene, his first emotion was of “a brittleness of life and a profound insecurity” (190) and his steps were wary, as if the new terrain were a minefield. From the vantage-ground of 1939 he could claim that his worst nightmare had not materialized, that civilization had not perished, as many had feared, and that the new brave world, though altered beyond recognition, was not without hope (293), but his fiction, especially that concerning London, does not bear this out. The rule of law might have been preserved but its very preservation carried in itself a danger. Barbarians had challenged the complacency of the civilized world and it had withstood the test, but its worst danger was lurking at its very heart and Buchan had no cure.

For the rule of law was “not a mechanical apparatus but a spirit” (293), a free development of the personality once the material rudiments of life had been taken care of. The modern machine age seemed to hold out a promise of such material ease, but with a caveat. Once the bitter struggle for bread is removed and the world has become one big, smooth-running machine, the impulse to build, to exert oneself physically and mentally, would be gone:

New inventions and a perfecting of transport had caused the whole earth to huddle together. There was no corner of the globe left unexplored and unexploited, no geographical mysteries to fire the imagination. Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great air-liners carried week-end tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia. Everywhere there were guesthouses and luxury hotels and wayside camps and filling-stations. What once were the savage tribes of Equatoria and Polynesia were now in reserves as an attraction for trippers, who bought from them curios and holiday mementoes. The globe, too, was full of pleasure-cities where people could escape the rigour of their own climate and enjoy perpetual holiday.
In such a world everyone would have leisure. But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life. … Everybody would be comfortable, but since there would be no great demand for intellectual exertion everybody would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. The raffish existence led to-day by certain groups would have become the normal existence of large sections of society. It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of riotous life there would be death at the heart. Men would go anywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. In the perpetual hurry of life there would be no chance of quiet for the soul. … In such a bagman’s paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair with Mr. Talkative as the chief figure on the town council. The essence of civilisation lies in man’s defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanical universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. (297-300)

Buchan calls this condition de-civilisation, civilisation gone rotten (297).

Always mindful of a need to keep at least a semblance of an open and flexible mind to avoid the trap of the dogmatism of his church, and yet keenly conscious of the pathos of lost things, Buchan could not express his growing unease freely and so he explored it obliquely in his fiction. The disillusion and escapism of the twenties especially grated on his religious sensibilities but the requirements of his genre and the moral imperative of not backsliding into Calvinist gloom necessitated the treatment of his fears at one remove. Nevertheless, in two books the gloom surfaces and assumes interesting forms.

The Dancing Floor (1926) can be read as a modern chivalric romance where two men, one middle-aged and one young, are on a quest to save a maiden in distress, one of whose avatars is the Jazz Age flapper. Their quest will take the men to a fictional Greek island where the young man attains his quest by proving his mettle and winning the girl, while the elder man recovers his forgotten religion. The book operates on a number of levels, being among other things a reworking of the Perseus and Andromeda myth with a modern twist. For our purposes, what is interesting is the pithily described social scene before the protagonists embark on their Aegean adventure. Besides giving the author an opportunity to discuss the differences in young and middle-aged love, the two male protagonists, Vernon and Leithen, also embody two attitudes to religion. These are intriguing both in respect to how this relates them to the societal changes after the war and vis-à-vis Buchan’s own views on religion which combined the harshness of his native Presbyterian Calvinism with the mellowing influences of Christian Platonism and classical scholarship. One would expect, considering Buchan’s self-proclaimed hatred of religious extremism, the author’s approval to go to the non-dogmatic and religiously indifferent Leithen at the expense of Vernon the Calvinist prig but this is not the case. Instead, Vernon is given the prize by Fate herself who steers him to the island where he is to rescue the virginal goddess of spring in the guise of an Apollonian priest, while Leithen is by the same Fate debarred from staking his claim and directed to seek solace in the church. The crucial difference between them has to do with the sureness of their footing in a society which has become insecure and is in danger of perishing.

Both are war heroes who have served with distinction at the Western Front. Leithen, who is middle-aged and world-weary, has come out of the war with his horizons shortened, while his young rival and friend has retained the longer perspective. Since boyhood Vernon has inhabited a dream-world of his own which is dominated by his unshaken Calvinism. War has left his beliefs intact, giving him an “uncanny balance” (48) in the feverish post-war climate of forgetfulness. As Leithen remarks, “war had altered everybody’s sense of values” (46) and while Leithen tries to adjust, developing “an immense pity for youth struggling to adjust its poise” (48), Vernon sits “like a skeleton at the feast” (ibid.), oblivious of their frolics. A large part of the action in the first part of the book takes place in London and the Home Counties and this allows Buchan the Calvinist, via Vernon, to pass harsher moral judgement on societal developments than his presumed alter ego Leithen, the determined moderate. Vernon views his surroundings “like an Israelitish prophet at the feast of Baal” (47), wordless in his contempt and hermit-like in his isolation, while Leithen, though no less acrimonious, makes an effort to understand, as in the passage below summing up Buchan’s unease with the new age:

People had taken furiously to dancing, and that summer, though there were no big balls, every dinner party seemed to end in a dance, and every restaurant was full of rag-time music and ugly transatlantic shuffling. For youth it was a good way of working off restlessness, and foolish middle age followed the guiding of youth. I had no fault to find with the fashion. The poor girls, starved for four years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. One could forgive a good deal of shrillness and bad form in such a case. My one regret was that they made such guys of themselves. Well-born young women seemed to have taken for their models the cretinous little oddities of the film world.
One night Vernon and I had been dining at the house of a cousin of mine and had stayed long enough to see the beginning of the dance that followed. As I looked on, I had a sharp impression of a change which five years had brought. This was not, like a pre-war ball, part of the ceremonial of an assured and orderly world. These people were dancing as savages danced –- to get rid of or to engender excitement. Apollo had been ousted by Dionysos. The nigger in the band, who came forward now and then and sang some gibberish, was the true master of ceremonies. (48-49)

The two protagonists are struck particularly unpleasantly by the lack of inhibition of modern womanhood, unbeknownst to them embodied by their future love object, the English-Greek maiden Koré who is the epitome of the latest fashions. Leithen generously perceives a certain innocence beneath the war paint:

It was a tall girl, who was dancing with a handsome young Jew, and dancing, as I thought, with a notable grace. She was very slim, and clearly very young, and I daresay would have been pretty, if she had let herself alone. I caught a glimpse of fine eyes, and her head was set on her neck like a flower on its stalk. But some imp had inspired her to desecrate the gifts of the Almighty. Her hair was bobbed, she had too much paint and powder on her face, she had some kind of barbaric jewels in her ears which put her head out of drawing, and she wore a preposterous white gown. Don’t ask me to describe it, for I am not an expert on dress, but it seemed to me wrong by every canon of decency and art. It had been made, no doubt, with the intention of being provocative, and its audacious lines certainly revealed a great deal of the wearer’s body. But the impression was rather of an outrage perpetrated on something beautiful, a foolish ill-bred joke. There was an absurd innocence about the raddled and half-clad girl –- like a child who for an escapade has slipped down to the drawing-room in her nightgown. (49)

Vernon’s laconic dismissal is sternly unforgiving: ‘So much for our righteous war,’ he said grimly. ‘It’s to produce that that so many good fellows died.’ (ibid.)

Social reality is clearly out of joint with Vernon’s private nature and also, it becomes apparent, with Koré’s. The white dress, so inappropriately vulgar in a society which still considers itself Christian, would be revealed as entirely appropriate later, in a pagan setting, transforming Koré into the virginal priestess of spring and regeneration. On her native Greek island, where the backsliding Christian community has resorted to ancient pagan practices to eradicate the evil her dissolute father has brought to the island, her avatar is that of the archetypal virgin, the forerunner of all Greek goddesses associated with fecundity. When she deliberately manifests herself to them as such when they have set their hearts on sacrificing her and Vernon to their ancient gods, in her pagan guise she effects their return to their church. The interesting implication is that, while the islanders find their humble way back to the Christian God, no such redemption is available to Londoners. The modern hedonistic world is irredeemably Godless and this is underlined by Leithen’s quest on the island. Debarred from the main action, this religious indifferent is forced by Fate into the arms of the church, the humility of its creed emphasized by the simple modesty of the island’s Greek Orthodox chapel. It is obvious from Leithen’s arduous quest for meaning on the island that without such a trial where true paganism and true faith meet in a pitched battle, there would be no way back from the loose and false paganism of the modern western world.

This is nowhere more evident in Buchan’s work than in his later novel A Prince of the Captivity (1933) where the modern condition in its disconsolate starkness stands fully revealed. The money-making, egotistic post-war world of mindless oblivion has reduced London to a land of shadows, an insubstantial pageant, a phantasmagoria where spirit is absent. The condition that was only glimpsed in The Dancing Floor is here explored in its unforgiving brutality.

No redemption at all is available to the Londoners who inhabit the spiritual wasteland of A Prince of the Captivity. The London of the novel is a city of the walking dead. Material, hedonistic, superficial, without morals or God, it is a wilderness in which a lone knight is questing. This knight too has retreated into a private dream world but whereas Vernon in The Dancing Floor lived out his life in the real world and could finally reconcile the dream and the reality, Adam Melford, the protagonist of A Prince of the Captivity, is no longer capable of such a feat. It is, naturally, no accident that the protagonist bears the name of the primal man. Buchan is not very successful in developing this general human condition theme because his hero is too singular and too removed spiritually, and even physically, from his fellow men for the connection to be obvious, yet his intention is clear. Adam Melford, the modern man, falls through the sinfulness of his wife and has to make his way back to God through a spiritual rebirth. This rebirth is emphatically denied to anybody else, except a few hermit-like mentors who steer Adam’s course through the bewildering maze of modern experience which forces Adam, with his recovered Calvinism, into the twilit shadows of the underworld, from which he refuses to surface. His underground spy’s world is flooded with light for his spiritual retreat and, ultimately, the Empyrean is a Scottish island inhabited by his Christ–like son, while the daylight London remains a dark, dank maze: “a rabbit-like warren” of “infinite pettiness” (A Prince of the Captivity 28).

This pettiness is highlighted by juxtaposing two worlds –- the old world of Christian ideals embodied by Adam and its modern, deranged version summed up by the character of his wife Camilla. She is a London socialite and in her Buchan’s disillusion with the once revered aristocratic class becomes evident. On the surface she is the perfect English rose, “the fairy-tale princess” (5), but she is rotten at the core. The traditional county upbringing “in a ramshackle country house among dogs and horses and hard-riding squireens” (9) has produced an almost illiterate, “bird-witted” (5) girl with a hard, glossy surface of selfishness. If Adam stands for the values of the Victorian Chivalric Revival, being a latter-day knight in shining armour without blemish, then Camilla would stand for the complete reversal of those values. Put humbly on a pedestal by Adam, she refuses to play the angel in the house and acts in contravention of every tenet of Victorian womanhood. Completely indifferent to Adam’s every aspiration, refusing to share even the smallest emotional or intellectual part of Adam’s life, she lives in a cocoon of utter superficiality, neglecting her duties as wife and mother, intent only on admiration and gaiety. She is completely unprincipled: when in need of money she forges a cheque and allows Adam to take the blame. Self-abnegating to the last and true to the idea of the self-less service of womanhood, Adam, before going to prison for a crime he did not commit, settles the larger part of his income on her and she cheerfully goes on to marry a hunting baronet, presumably as callous as she is.

Adam gets out of prison at the start of the war and goes straight into service as a spy in the enemy’s rear. Having washed off the taint of dishonour by his exemplary war record, he returns to the London society after the war to witness utter disintegration. He makes it his business to examine every facet of post-war life and comes away disappointed every time. Debates in parliament are inane, society in its effort to resume its pre-war bonhomie is “dementedly gay” (69) and in the clubs the talk is only of money and how to have a good time. Meanwhile, the church has lost its guiding role and intellectual debate is unable to fill the resultant vacuum, its place usurped by quacks and mystics of all sorts. Old rules have vanished and people go about their business “feverish and muddled” (116). What is worse, the world has shrunk and the modern confusion has desecrated even the farthest corners of the earth, until recently the last refuges of traditional values. In such a world people are not looking for solutions but an anodyne. Adam draws from this a rather idealistic conclusion that while the world is “badly broken” (89), human spirit is not, it rather needs reordering and his business would be to find a leader capable enough of effecting that ordering. The rest of the book is dedicated to that search, a not irrelevant concern in the 1930s with nascent dictatorships ousting failed democratic regimes all over Europe.

A Prince of the Captivity is, among other things, also a Condition of England novel and though its social and political analysis is at times amateurish and faltering, its message could not be clearer. In this barbarous new reality, de-civilization is complete and it would take a man of extraordinary powers to save what is left from utter ruin. The choice is extremely limited, finally coming down to the intellectual and moral duel between Adam and Mr. Creevey, the modern financial wizard. They are declared sworn enemies and their comparison highlights the modern malaise of the world. Adam represents the old world of spiritual and moral certainty, and the material stability dependent on the former. Creevey the financial speculator, in turn, represents the soulless, wholly material world of impermanence and change, where novelty, not time-tested traditions, is the prerequisite of success. In this spiritual desert, where everything is in a metaphorical flux, Adam is looking for a leader who would be able to steer a course out of the impasse but does not find any, all candidates (and they are carefully picked from the three estates) falling pray to material lure. He finally has to settle on Creevey himself, the ultimate egotist, sophist and materialist into whose philistine mind Adam tries to introduce some now discredited humanist values for him to be able to save the world from materialism and attendant dictatorships. Whether this quest is successful, we never know, for Adam perishes before Creevey is ready. The latter is left stumbling unsteadily downhill, fascist cutthroats in pursuit.

It is evident to all who know him that Adam himself is more than eminently qualified to lead but he persistently refuses, for in Buchan’s scheme of things, his fate is to highlight the fate of his whole dispossessed class, ousted from power by the detested money-makers. Adam’s marginalization in every field except the spiritual charts the decline of aristocracy which between the wars finally became painfully obvious even to bystanders. The Georgian London he had known as a young man was largely demolished, as aristocratic residences were pulled down or turned into pokey flats. The steady tone of social intercourse was supplanted by the frantic pursuit of the latest, and more often than not lower-class American, amusements. In the country, the invasion of the shires by the men with money undermined the aristocrats’ power base and their identity based on land (Adam’s own home, an ancestral castle in the Scottish Highlands, has been let to a Glasgow merchant and thus becomes the material symbol of his spiritual disenfranchisement). Aristocratic service as the disinterested service of the state can only take the form of an intensely private quest to make one’s soul in the complete anonymity of the underground, while the public sector is usurped by utter philistines. An ascendancy built over a thousand years has disintegrated, like an insubstantial pageant faded, leaving not a rack behind. The aborted future of this class is symbolised by the early death of Adam’s son who is allowed a ghostly existence on the dream island as his father’s guiding spirit but whose influence extends no further and ends with his father’s demise.

As it happened, Buchan was to say a final symbolic farewell to London in what turned out to be his last novel. In 1935 he took up his post as Governor-General of Canada and Sick Heart River, which was published posthumously in 1941, has a Canadian setting. However, the opening episodes take place in London, as Leithen, whose spiritual journey the book traces, says his own farewells to London and his London friends. He is dying but decides to spend his last months on a final quest, looking for a French-Canadian businessman, presumably lost in the wilderness of the Canadian Arctic. In the process, he recovers his particular brand of Calvinism tempered with Christian Platonism and saves his soul. Interestingly, to accomplish this he has to leave London behind. It is too materialistic and success-oriented to allow a final reckoning. Leithen’s inner world is crumbling, and so is the London of his youth:

It was a different London then, quieter, cosier, dirtier perhaps, but sweeter smelling. On a summer evening … the scents would have been a compound of wood paving, horse-dung, flowers, and fresh paint, not the deadly monotony of petrol. The old land-marks, too, were disappearing. In St James’s Street only Mr Lock’s modest shop-window and the eighteenth-century façade of Boodle’s recalled the London of his youth. (Sick Heart River 7)

He leaves the town with little regret to search for a purer fountain of spiritual nourishment and finds it ultimately in the humble chapel of Hare Indians whose tribe he adopts as his true family and in the service of whom he finally attains his beatific vision. In a way it is a combination of Grail quest and Christ-like sojourn in the wilderness; and by putting his earlier life into this broader, cosmic perspective, Leithen is able to redeem his London years. Only complete abnegation in the name of selfless service to humanity can atone for the easy pleasures of those years. In the cosmic struggle of good and evil and when pitched against the naked fury of the elements, the soulless stoicism which London inspires proves inadequate. To embrace the totality of man’s experience, the ephemerality of city pleasures has to be replaced by true caritas. Only then can the experience of London be woven into the tapestry of a life well lived which has the flow of eternity in its waters.

Works Cited

Buchan, John. The Dancing Floor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

__________ The Half-Hearted. London: The House of Stratus, 2001.

__________ A Lodge in the Wilderness. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1916.

__________ Memory Hold-the-Door. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.

__________ Prester John. London: Thomas Nelson, 1954.

__________ A Prince of the Captivity. Edinburgh: B & W Publishing, 1996.

__________ Salute to Adventurers. London: House of Stratus, 2001.

__________ Sick Heart River. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

__________ The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: Penguin, 1994.

Usborne, Richard. Clubland Heroes: A Nostalgic Study of Some Recurrent Characters in the Romantic Fiction of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and Sapper. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1974.

To Cite This Article:

Pilvi Rajamäe, ‘‘This Insubstantial Pageant Faded’: John Buchan’s London Between the Wars’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]