New acquisition: John Buchan letters

“Publishing is my business, writing my amusement and politics my duty.”

It was the 75th anniversary of John Buchan’s death on 11 February and the Bodleian has recently purchased 21 letters (MS. Eng. c. 8330) from Buchan to his Brasenose College friend Benjamin Consitt Boulter, known affectionately as Taff or Taffy. Buchan is probably best-remembered today for his spy adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which has been filmed on multiple occasions with diminishing success after Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive 1935 version. But Buchan’s prolific novel writing formed only a part of a varied career as a politician and colonial diplomat, which culminated in his appointment as Governor General of Canada in 1935, a post which he held until his death in 1940.

Twenty of the holograph letters date from Buchan’s formative Oxford undergraduate days, while the last is a typescript sent from Government House, Ottawa, a few weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939 and three months before Buchan’s death  in 1940. By this time Buchan was first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford and his friend Boulter had retired to Burford, where he continued to write and illustrate Christian-themed books. There is a forty-year gap between the last handwritten ‘Oxford’ letter and the final typed one – an archival absence which is perhaps more poignant and voluble in its way than full documentation, passing as it does straight from the youthful hopes of the correspondents to their old age, although Boulter outlived Buchan by 20 years and died in 1960.

Also included among Buchan’s own letters is one to his younger sister, Anna Masterton Buchan (1877-1948), who was herself a novelist writing under the pseudonym O. Douglas. The sender is unidentified, but the subject is the tragic death of the Buchans’ brother, William, in 1912. William worked in the Indian Civil Service and the letter (sent from India) laments the loss of his ‘sweetness & unselfish devotion’.

 

-Judith Priestman, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts

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