153. The 39 Steps

Shakespeare would not be the world’s greatest playwright if fate had treated him differently. The Bard was born around 1564. If he had been born five hundred years earlier, we would never have heard of him. If he had been born in 1564, but in central Asia or in a Mandan village on the plains of the Americas, we would never have heard of him.

Shakespeare is famous because he was great and because he was born in the right time and place, in a culture that was rising, and which would dominate the globe for the next 400 years.

For roughly a century, counting backward from World War I, there was an efflorescence of English literature celebrating the culture that came from that domination. Much of it is about rich, silly people worrying about their insignificant lives, without knowing or caring about the Caribbean slaves or Indian peasants who were paying the bill. There are masterpieces here, but I find them largely unreadable. I can’t look at Elizabeth Bennet’s little problems without also seeing the colonial system that underpins her world.

There is another literature of that period that understands what it takes to maintain the life of the home country. Kipling, with all his jingoism, comes immediately to mind, as do Stevenson and Scott. The protagonists of this literature know how to get their hands dirty, and are actively creating a nation. Looking backward, we see their failings, but at least they are working to build the world that Darcy and Bennet will unthinkingly inhabit.

I realize that it is illogical to dislike those who reap the rewards of colonialism, yet appreciate those who created the system. Sorry, I can’t help it; I have a prejudice for workers over whiners.

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott, with the addition of an elegiac tone as his world crumbled beneath his feet. He wrote 100 books, but is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps, and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay.

The Thirty-nine Steps
(Sometimes given as The 39 Steps,
just to confuse alphabetized book lists.)

Richard Hannay is just back from South Africa, having “made his bundle” and ready to  reconnect with his native country. Instead, he finds London dreary and dull compared to colonial life. He is about to give up and return to exile, when he becomes entangled in the affairs of Scudder, a sort of free lance spy who has discovered a massive threat to England. Scudder is killed, Hannay is blamed, and he sets off across Scotland and England, dodging the police while trying to keep Scudder’s discovery out of enemy hands.

Buchan wrote this as a light romp while he was recovering from an illness, and it can be read that way. Hannay is a very human superman. He has great endurance and hunter’s skills learned in South Africa, but he also has moods. He talks himself out of worrying about his fate, then falls into a funk, then rises again to a mood of certainty. It is very British – can you imagine a hard boiled American PI with moods – and very charming. More than anything else in the whole series, moods humanize Hannay and make us care about him, as well as about his mission.

The Thirty-nine Steps was written during WW I, but takes place just before hostilities broke out. It joins Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands as a call for England to wake up to the coming danger, although Childer’s book was true prophesy and Buchan’s only pretended to be. The second two novels in the series take place during the war (tomorrow’s post) and the last two take place after the war has ended (Wednesday’s post).


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