Friday, January 30, 2015

The House of the Four Winds by John Buchan

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.


Joseph Jalsevac said...

It is very fascinating to read Buchan's novels and absorb the atmosphere of the early 20th century as he observed it from his privileged position high up in the political world. He is very informative, although I cannot trust him implicitly as I do someone like Chesterton. He seemed to have been too contaminated by mainstream establishment English beliefs involving race, colonialism and big government, at least early on in his career, as I discovered to my chagrin in reading Prester John (not to mention his brief dismissal of Chesterton in his autobiography). But he is nevertheless frequently on the right track with the right spirit, and, as Christian men go, someone to look back on with longing nostalgia.

I tried reading Haggard’s Nada the Lily this week. Haggard’s style, almost as much as Buchan, has such an intoxicating effect on me, because it expresses the joy and excitement of pure manly adventure. But the subject matter was too dark to stomach. If I want to read about Africans massacring Africans I will just read the latest news on the activities of Boko Haram, and I’ve read enough already on the Rwandan genocide. I’m going to try reading Allan Quartermain instead. Haggard may not have the Christian wisdom and warmth of Buchan, but he has the adventure.

Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic book The Lord of the World was in the news recently when the Pope during a press interview recommended people read it. I recommended it to you a while back, and I hope its somewhere on your presumably lengthy list of books to read (along with Newman’s Callista).

Suzannah said...

Actually, I really enjoyed Nada the Lily--it seemed to me a very good tale of adventure from the days when the world was still big enough to imagine strange adventures lurking on the edge of the map. But then, of course, I have not read much about massacres, and I had read even less back when I read the Haggard book. You're right, though--Buchan has a good deal more warmth and wisdom, despite places where he went wrong.

Jamie W. said...

I'm new to Vintage Novels and have been reading through the archives. I actually found this blog while searching for online out-of-copyright Buchan novels (and was thrilled to find you take him seriously as an author), but quickly discovered that I have a lot more in common with you than just a fondness for Buchan! I started wondering if maybe I had written this blog during some vacation in Australia that was wiped from my memory: my favorite authors include Lewis, Chesterton, Spenser, and Wodehouse, so we have pretty much the same beliefs about literature. And furthermore, I'm homeschooled, and I'm a Presbyterian (Presbyterian Church of America). So I've really enjoyed reading all these reviews that seem to be written by my alter ego! I bookmarked your article "In Defence of the Puritans" -- it says so much I would like to say if I could write as well as you.

After my search for free Buchan, I ended up shelling out for a collection of the three Dickson McCunn books, and I'm in the middle of Castle Gay right now, so your review of The House of the Four Winds has got me really excited for the next book! Buchan's responses to WWI, which I agree form a major theme, are so interesting -- especially right now during the centennial of that most confusing war.

The one author in my personal pantime (such a good word!) that you don't seem to mention much is Sir Walter Scott. I see you've done a few reviews of him, but none of what I consider his best books (he was generally best when his books were set in Scotland or at least had something to do with it -- that's part of why Quentin Durward is a good one). Have you read Redgauntlet or Waverley (the first historical fiction novel) or maybe Rob Roy? (Rob Roy features the wonderful Bailie Nicol Jarvie, who was, according to Buchan, an ancestor of Mr. McCunn -- see the preface to Huntingtower.) My favorite is actually Old Mortality, which I think you said you'd read. I'm not sure why I like it quite as much as I do. I don't agree with Scott about the Covenanters or about Claverhouse, but for some reason I still love the book -- I think it's because of Scott's genius for evoking history -- so I'd love to know what you think of it.

I just wanted to thank you for putting the thought and work into this excellent blog, which I really enjoy reading, and to let you know that you have a fan in the great state of Texas!

Jamie W.

Suzannah said...

Hi, Jamie! I'm so glad you're enjoying my blog. It's always nice to meet someone with similar reading tastes!

Most, if not all, of Buchan's works are available online at Project Gutenberg Australia. Have fun reading him; he had such a wonderfully varied body of work, from sombre historical novels like MIDWINTER and WITCH WOOD to spy fiction and sheer fun like the Dickson McCunn novels.

I read a bunch of Scott when I was younger, and have always meant to go on and read some more (especially GUY MANNERING and THE ANTIQUARY). I've read all the ones you mentioned, but I think I was probably a bit too young to enjoy them properly. It's been much too long since I read OLD MORTALITY for me to remember what I thought of it.

Buchan didn't much care for the Covenanters either. RM Ballantyne did, but he's not quite on Scott's or Buchan's level. If you know of anyone who's written a really solid, pro-Covenanter novel, let me know!


Kim Marsh said...

Spurred by this post I was trying to find a s/h copy of Witchwood to re read and I saw Buchann described as a " romantic and a Presbyterian " which probably explains his ambivilence about the Covenanters. Scott was a pure romantic and that would make me chary of his historical reliability . Remember that the nation that produced the wonderful song Flower of Scotland also produced the song Parcel of Rogues! Unfortunately ,without wishing to defame my northern neighbours, I feel it is the second which is a more accurate summary of Scottish history.
Regards Kim

Jamie W. said...

Hmm... I wrote another comment and the internet seems to have eaten it. Oh well.

Wow, I'm excited about PG Australia now! I'd seen it before, but I didn't know it was legal to use in the US, but apparently it is. Thanks!

Hmmm... Covenanter novels? Well, besides Douglas Bond's series (which I haven't actually read, but several of my friends enjoyed them), there's a good nineteenth-century one called Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt. If this weren't a blog about vintage novels I would warn you that it's quite long and starts with the boyhood of the hero's grandfather, but I'm sure that won't be an issue here. :-) It's been a while since I read it, but I remember it being quite good though rather sad in parts. It respected a lot of character qualities that not all historical novels respected. It wasn't all about dashing young men and pretty ladies (delightful though such characters can be); the reader was led to admire responsible middle-aged people as well. All this is as far as I remember, of course -- I want to reread it now!

And that makes one novel. I've also read some good old-fashioned adventurey historical fiction by Samuel Rutherford Crockett, who sometimes shows the sympathies you would expect from a man named after Samuel Rutherford, but they weren't exactly about the Covenanters all through in the way that, say, Waverley is about the Jacobite rebellion.

Speaking of which, Kim Marsh, I agree that Scott's work is sometimes colored by his politics, unfortunately so from my rather Whiggish point of view. But I personally can't help feeling that Scott is rather like Shakespeare in this respect: "Shakespeare trumps history," as I like to say -- in other words, as long as you *can* find out the true story from somewhere, it's worth having the story told by such a master, even if you have to make allowances for his prejudices. Although when he actually makes something up he generally mentions it in one of those prefaces or notes... But I do particularly like The Antiquary which has almost no politics in it, and is full of delightful characters.

Long story short: Someone with a mastery of this style we enjoy should tell more stories with sympathy for the Covenanters. If only I believed in reincarnation I'd be looking for the reincarnations of my favorite authors, but if I believed in reincarnation I wouldn't be looking for pro-Covenanter novels, would I? :-)

Kim Marsh said...

Jamie I would agree with you that one can sometimes put up with historical inaccuracies if one can find the truth from elsewhere but if one's interest in not primarily historical who will have the time or desire to do so? I am afraid that in my case an historical mistake derails me from a novel very quickly. From a more general point of view reading an inaccurate historical novel can lead to making misjudgments of a current political situation. This is one reason I have almost given up reading historical fiction. As Stalin said if you control the present you control the past if you control. The past you control the future. I think that accurate historical knowledge is vital as a corrective to misunderstanding and prejudice. (Rant over)
Regards Kim


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