Hero Ahead of His Time

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I spent the freezing cold winter of 1976 working in a flowering bulb nursery in Haarlem in Holland. Every day after work, I slipped and slid along frozen canals on wooden skates that Pieter Bruegel would have recognized, then retired to my room to try to teach myself Dutch. I was young and sometimes homesick, so I turned quite often in relief to English books that I borrowed from the local library. One day I found a copy of Montrose, written by my grandfather, John Buchan, and published in 1928. Despite having been taught at university to be pretty sniffy about any history that made personality, rather than socio-economic forces, the driver of great events, I nevertheless thankfully abandoned my Dutch and read the book straight through.

I wrote to my 93-year-old grandmother to tell her how much I had been moved, impressed and, frankly, horrified by it. She replied that she was very pleased that I had come to discover the merits of Montrose for myself, since she had made a point of never pressing her husband’s works upon the grandchildren he had died too early to meet.

This was the perfect truth, which even now makes me want to cry out: ‘Why ever not?’ Was it an habitual reticence, in a woman who was 19 when Queen Victoria died, or a fear that I might be put off the man and his hundred books by pressure from her, or even, perhaps, an unassuaged grief, that struck her dumb and denied me the priceless knowledge of how and why and in what way the books were written? I can recall us talking of the works of writers she had known ‒ H. G. Wells, A. L. Rowse, Virginia Woolf and Henry Newbolt ‒ as well as of the German poets she liked, especially Goethe and Heine, but rarely, if ever, of her husband’s books. So, although I have read and reread his twenty-eight novels over the years – especially when I’m ill or out of sorts, and in need of sprightly prose and thrilling excitement – it’s taken me half a lifetime to discover and

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About the contributor

Ursula Buchan is very glad not to have lived through the Civil War, but is happy to read about it from a safe distance. She is writing a biography of John Buchan for Bloomsbury.

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