Sick Heart River
Hodder & Stoughton, 1941; Birlinn General, 2007
Born in the 1980s, I belong, I suppose, to the last generation to actually grow up on Buchan—the last, that is, to read his stories in childhood or adolescence, uncritically, as three or four previous generations of English-speakers did. Then, for several years from around 2003, the year of the Iraq War, I could not read him at all. Now I come back to him warily, appraisingly, as a deeply suspect part of a heritage that is nonetheless my own, and beyond me that of a nation and a now-dismantled Empire.
For Buchan was an imperial propagandist, quite literally: he worked for the War Propaganda Bureau in the First World War, was head of the Department of Information, and wrote Field Marshal Haig’s dispatches. In his novels, racism, jingoism, or a sympathy for authoritarian governments are not the unconscious attitudes of the time, but elements of an active ideology, which his work seeks to promote with greater or lesser subtlety. His thrillers follow quite closely the line of duty, with useful morals slipped into the adventure narrative. Prester John (1910) argues that British and Boers should put aside their differences in the face of the real threat, the “blacks”. His most famous works, the wartime sequence The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), and Mr Standfast (1919), are full of national unity against the Germans; the latter contains a converted pacifist and, as one of its sympathetic minor characters, a salt-of-the-earth Scottish working-man doing his duty as a Government spy in the labour movement. The House of the Four Winds (1935) involves Buchan’s British heroes in a scheme to replace an overly Communistic republic in Eastern Europe with a restored monarchy, in alliance with a paramilitary youth movement.
The prejudices in Buchan’s work are the deliberate expression of a “political faith” in the old, now thankfully vanished, British Empire. And voiced by one of its rulers, for of the great writers of the imperial adventure story—Rider Haggard, Kipling, Conrad—Buchan was the most centrally involved in imperial administration. Before his wartime propaganda work he had served the arch-imperialist Lord Milner in South Africa, briefly running the Boer concentration camps, and he ended his life as Governor-General of Canada (see his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-door, (1941)). He writes firmly from within this social milieu: his heroes are generals, aristocrats, Tory MPs, Captains of Industry—a fine cross-section of the ruling class. In Buchan’s thrillers, these men are all that stand between civilisation and its enemies: international revolution, megalomania, the Kaiser, and other forms of beastliness, and Buchan surely exaggerates only slightly in his depiction of the way they saw the world. But it is an essential part of his social imagination that in their battle with the forces of evil they can draw into alliance practically all decent people, including the workers, the poor and even the colonial natives, in whose interests, of course, they are really acting. And this connects with other parts of Buchan’s consciousness: his real if limited sympathy with working people, especially those of rural areas (he had grown up relatively poor, in Lowland Scotland), and his fine feeling for landscape. In describing wild scenery, particularly that of his beloved Scottish Borders, he is really impressive, on a level with the generation of mountain writers that succeeded him: Shipton, Tilman, and W. H. Murray. Add to this his technical excellence as a writer of stories—his sense of plot, suspense, and atmosphere—and it becomes clearer why it is not possible simply to dismiss the man as a jingoistic thriller-writer.
Certainly such a judgement could not survive a reading of his last book, Sick Heart River, completed just before his death in 1940. This is an adventure story like the others—but a strange, spare, introspective one, an example of “late style” manifested in the novelette. Here, for once, there is no international conspiracy against civilisation – but there is the threat of the approaching Second World War, and a more private dilemma. When a partner in an American bank, Francis Galliard, disappears into his native Canada for reasons unknown, Sir Edward Leithen, a Scottish lawyer, Tory MP, and the quietest of Buchan’s heroes, sets out, on behalf of his family, to find him. He is glad to accept the mission, for he is himself incurably ill and has made a resolution to ‘die standing’, doing some active duty, rather than at home as an invalid. Buchan sets these lines from the Lays of King Alfred as motto to the first part of the story:
If thou hast a woe, tell it not to the weakling,
Tell it to thy saddle-bow, and ride singing forth.
This morality—Puritan in some respects (Buchan was raised a Calvinist), almost Viking in others—runs right through Buchan’s works: it is another feature that makes him more than simply an ideologist. His favourite quality is fortitude: not fighting valour, but as one of his characters puts it (quoting R. L. Stevenson), “the auld, cauld, dour, deidly courage”. Of course this belongs to a wider pattern: the enclosed masculine world of the imperial adventure story, the frontier mentality of Kipling and Conrad—and also of Orwell, who carried across many patterns of feeling in his revolt from imperialism. In all of these there is the sense of the sternness needed to face a hostile environment. But in Buchan, and particularly in Sick Heart River, it is heightened and refined: through Leithen who, like Buchan, knows he has not long to live; and through the impressively bare and bleak landscape, the vast cold spaces of the Canadian North.
Leithen first visits Galliard’s ancestral home, which he himself had known in his youth:
This valley had been his road down country long ago. He remembered its loveliness when Chateau-Gaillard had been innocent of pulp mills and no more than a hamlet of painted houses and a white church. [. . .] Now all the loveliness had been butchered to enable some shoddy newspaper to debauch the public soul. He had only seen the place once long ago at the close of a blue autumn day, but the desecration beat on his mind like a blow. [. . .] He felt a curious nervousness and it brought on a fit of coughing.
Once in this place, he begins to unravel Galliard’s processes of thought:
The man […] had come to Chateau-Gaillard and seen the ravaged valley—ravaged by himself and his associates—and thereby a bitter penitence had been awakened. His purpose now was to make his peace with the past—with his family, his birth-place and his religion. […] He must shake off the bonds of an alien civilisation, and […] worship at the altars of the northern wilds.
This is a point of muted crisis, in which the tension between two strands of Buchan’s ideology threatens to break through into open conflict. On the one hand there are the values of rooted, settled communities, and of noble natural landscapes. On the other there are the values of the rulers of Empires, the holders of power and money, directors of what has clearly become a dislocating, uprooting, restless world. In the destruction of that corner of Quebec they come into collision: Galliard’s bank financed the pulp mills that have shattered his home. But this “alien civilisation” is the same world he has made his name in. Leithen, interviewing his friends, meets Bronson Jane: “He had been a noted sportsman and was still a fine polo player […] it was rumoured that in the same week he had been offered the Secretaryship of State, the Presidency of an ancient University, and the control of a great industrial corporation.” In such passages, with their interlocking ruling circles—political, economic, intellectual, even sporting—we encounter Buchan at his most offensive, with his deep assumption that this plutocratic class is thoroughly entitled to run the world’s affairs. We can feel the force of what Graham Greene, who reviewed Sick Heart River when it came out, called Buchan’s “materialism”: “the vast importance Buchan attributed to success”—and, we might add, power.
But in the ravaged valley of Chateau-Gaillard, Leithen, as well as Galliard, feels the force of the contradiction between these realities and his own beliefs: “the desecration beat on his mind like a blow”. A conservative like Buchan, with a sympathy for the rural world and the people who work in it and a stern sense of religion, becomes dimly aware of how little these values really agree with the ever-moving, creating-and-destroying forces of the civilisation he has worked for and helped to rule.
From this crisis the rest of the story unfolds. Galliard has gone north, to find the graves of his ancestors; Leithen pursues him. The Canadian is then persuaded by his half-Indian guide, Lew Frizel, to set out on a quest for the hidden valley of the Sick Heart River, known from an old Indian tale. The name is symbolic: both Leithen and Galliard are sick at heart, in revulsion from the civilised world. After a hard journey Leithen and Frizel’s brother find the two men there, practically out of their minds; they overwinter with them in a hut, and then bring them back to the camp of a tribe of Hare Indians. It is an opportunity for some magnificent landscape-painting in words but also for a religious conversion-narrative—a Pilgrim’s Progress of Leithen “making his soul”. The bleak, bare land is the backdrop to the stages of Leithen’s inner spiritual life; the search for Galliard comes to seem rather secondary.
Galliard is cured of his heartsickness: he can go back to his wife, his bank, and the United States government. The values of his ancestors and his religion are reconciled with the “alien civilisation”: the contradiction is muted again, apparently resolved. But Leithen has to “die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should”. As this suggests, he finds his salvation, finally, in command. The Hare Indians are dying, of their own kind of heartsickness: a malaise that has made them so apathetic they will let themselves perish. The French priest who lives with them does his best, but “[w]hat is needed is men—a man—who will force their life again into a discipline [. . .] Someone who will give them hope”. That man is Leithen, who takes charge, organises them, leads them, and makes them pull through, though he dies himself. Left to themselves, the Hares—but perhaps also, in Buchan’s mind, the world—will fall into chaos or despair. They need men like Leithen or Buchan—white men, with military virtues—to give them the will to live. “Empire and war,” wrote Victor Kiernan, a historian of the imperial ruling class, in 1971, “gave these men […] a sense of function, of being needed by their countries, such as any upper class requires to keep it in good heart. The rich cannot live by cake alone […].” Buchan provides a classic example of this ideology, but also shows with what force of feeling it had to be held and to what extremes it could drive some of these rulers. The stiffness of Leithen’s discipline seems not only a response to the Hares’ needs, or a religious duty, but also a way out of the intolerable contradiction between his own felt values and the reality of a world scarred by capitalist civilisation. There is a kind of desperation in his death, saving through his authority an alien people he does not even particularly care for. One wonders whether Buchan was not, in the end, propagandising to himself.
In 1940, before Sick Heart River had been published, John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, was dead. Five months before, representing Canada as Governor-General, he had declared war on Germany. It was a war which the British Empire would not long survive: despite the efforts of some of Buchan’s old colleagues, it was supplanted by a new, less blatant imperial order, centred on the United States. But the restless forces of power and money have not ceased to rage through the world, and documents from that earlier Empire retain their relevance. In Buchan’s last novel, it is clear that even its rulers could register, in a muffled way, the contradiction between their own values and the destructiveness of the forces behind them—forces on which they lived and may have directed, but did not ultimately control. This contradiction still runs through my responses to Buchan. His propaganda, his racism, the ease with which he moves in the corridors of power—these are easy to spot, and repugnant. But his feeling for natural landscape, the source of many of his positive values, will continue to move those who love wild places. His stern Viking creed leaves me ambivalent: it bears deeply the imprint of his Empire and his class, but brings with it a stark grandeur, a throwback to an earlier, heroic Puritanism. Through the heart of the plutocracy blew, however briefly, the cold wind of the North.
Peter Hill  is reading for a DPhil in Oriental Studies at St John’s College, Oxford.