I have been slowly working through John Buchan's Dickson McCunn novels over the last year or two, and last week I meandered through the third and last of the Dickson McCunn novels, The House of the Four Winds.
Two years after the events of Castle Gay, the world still waits with baited breath for the downfall of the Communist Republican government of the fictional Eastern European country Evallonia to the forces of the Monarchists, whose figure-head, the young and chivalrous Prince John, we met in the previous novel. As all the old familiar characters prepare to leave England for holidays on the Continent, a rumour floats around London high society: Don't go too far East. Something is about to happen in Evallonia.
It's Jaikie, of course, who gets sucked into it first. When his friend Alison's cousin Randal Glynde appears atop a circus elephant and invites him to dinner at an Evallonian castle--The House of the Four Winds--Jaikie accepts, but he doesn't agree to stay until an old Cambridge acquaintance, Count Paul Jovian of the nationalist youth movement, Juventus, ambushes him on his way out of the country. Meanwhile in Germany, when Alison discovers that someone has mislaid Prince John in the mountains, she enlists those respectable diplomats, Sir Archie and Lady Janet Roylance to help kidnap him--purely for safe-keeping, of course. With Republicans, Monarchists, and Juventus practically at each other's throats, it's up to Dickson McCunn (retired grocer), Jaikie Galt (rugby three-quarter) and Alison Westwater (trusty conspirator) to calm Evallonia's political upheavals, restore the rightful king, and evade the wrath of the fearsome Countess Araminta Troyos.
Obviously, this is not an overly serious book. John Buchan was quite capable of crushingly tragic novels like Midwinter or Witch Wood, but when he writes Dickson McCunn, his tongue is always planted firmly in his cheek. The House of the Four Winds is delightful--basically a farcical version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which an elderly Scotsman impersonates the king and the part of the romantic princess is taken by a theatrical amazon. That said, I was surprised by the big issues the book explores.
The most momentous event of John Buchan's life, as for all his generation, was World War I. A keen intelligence and high position at the heart of English politics and public life poised Buchan uniquely well to comment on the cultural impact of that conflict. His conclusions are contained most plainly in his memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door, as well as being encoded into fiction in The Three Hostages, The Dancing Floor...and The House of the Four Winds. To recap his views rather quickly, he believed that the War had dealt a death-blow to the notion of human perfectibility: it had quenched humanist optimism. He saw a new generation, rootless and disillusioned but powerful and unfettered, rising up to abandon the rationalist agnosticism of its parents. He believed two basic things about this post-war youth: first, as explained in The Dancing Floor, that it was uniquely ripe to be turned back to Christianity; and second, as shown in The Three Hostages, that if it did not do that, then it would be susceptible to mysticism, cults, and dictators.
The Three Hostages was published in 1924, and The Dancing Floor in 1926. When Buchan revisited the same theme in The House of the Four Winds, a decade had gone by. It was 1935. Hitler, Mussolini, and other personalities had arisen. And they had their nationalist youth movements, as well as their paramilitary organisations, their Brownshirts and their Blackshirts. One might assume that Buchan's green-shirted paramilitary Juventus movement was a bit of upper-class British naivete, but Buchan was anything but naive, and the express comparison of Juventus's logo with Hitler's swastika should remove any doubts. Juventus, however, has much in common with the 1930s German Youth Movement than it has with the Hitler Youth which later supplanted and eventually suppressed it: it has no particular political leanings and no single figure-head. For Buchan, once again, Juventus represents the power and potential of postwar youth: no longer rootless and disillusioned, but finding meaning in a strenuous outdoors life of discipline and adventure.
Buchan doesn't however, idolise these nationalist youth movements. His characters find them, in fact, both dangerous and ridiculous: dangerous because of their lack of a sense of humour, ridiculous because of their insistence on ideological purity, which keeps Evallonian politics all tied up in knots: the Communist government will fall if anyone so much as sneezes, but the Monarchists dare not install Prince John for fear that Juventus will immediately depose him, not out of dislike for the Prince himself but out of dislike for his stuffy old supporters.
The answer is not so much to convince them, as to trick them into supporting the right candidate. This happens with all the usual amount of Buchan fun and adventure, almost slipping over into self-parody, but the message is the same: idealistic youth is a force in the world, capable of great good--or great disaster. In the event, Juventus's real-life counterparts brought about disaster.
Find The House of the Four Winds on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.