Buchan of the Month: Mr. Standfast by John Buchan

Buchan of the Month

JohnBuchanThrillersAbout the Book

“First we must go through the Valley of the Shadow…And there is the sacrifice to be made…the best of us.”

It is 1917 and Richard Hannay is brought out of the battlefield to perform the desperate task of tracking down and destroying a network of German spies.  Hannay’s opponent is Moxon Ivery, the bland master of disguise, who seeks to outwit Hannay and he and his agents are pursued through England, Scotland, France and Switzerland.

For its pace and suspense, its changes of scene, and thrilling descriptions of the last great battles against the Germans, Mr Standfast offers everything that has made its author so enduringly popular.

Format: Paperback (354 pp.)        Publisher: Oxford University Press
Published: 1993 [1919]                  Genre: Thriller, Adventure

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 Find Mr. Standfast on Goodreads

My Review

Mr. Standfast is the third book in my Buchan of the Month reading project.  For a spoiler-free introduction to Mr. Standfast, including details of its first publication and context, click here.  To find out more about the project and my reading list for 2018, click here.

Before I say any more, I’ll confess that Mr. Standfast is a book I’ve read many times before and it happens to be one of my favorite Buchan books (alongside Sick Heart River, which I shall be reading later this year).  For me, it has everything: a mystery, some thrilling set pieces, great characters, numerous locations, a touch of romance and some chilling scenes on the battlefields of World War One France.  I always get a bit tearful at the end.  As well as being a very entertaining book, Mr. Standfast explores some serious themes – courage, fortitude, sacrifice.

Since the title refers to one of the characters in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s probably no surprise that Mr. Standfast has a number of allusions and references to Bunyan’s work.  The Pilgrim’s Progress was an important text for Buchan and it informs many of the themes in Mr. Standfast mentioned above.  Full disclosure: my dissertation for my MA in English from The Open University was on the subject of the influence of The Pilgrim’s Progress on John Buchan’s books.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to test your patience by quoting from it extensively.  However, just a few thoughts on the connections between the two texts…

In his autobiography Memory-Hold-The-Door, Buchan attributes his regard for The Pilgrim’s Progress to ‘its picture of life as a pilgrimage over hill and dale, where surprising adventures lurked by the wayside, a hard road with now and then long views to cheer the traveller and a great brightness at the end of it’.   The reference to the journey being ‘over hills and dales’ acknowledges that life brings moments of difficulty and challenge as well as ease, involving either physical or mental effort. The  journey features ‘surprising adventures’ – the use of the word ‘adventures’ rather than ‘experiences’ suggesting that these will be exciting episodes – but these ‘lurk’ by the wayside.  There is a sense of the unexpected, of danger in the choice of the word ‘lurk’.  All of these elements I feel are apparent in Mr. Standfast.

As well as having thematic influences, The Pilgrim’s Progress, as a physical object, plays a role in Mr. Standfast.  It acts variously as a prize, a code-book and a source of moral comfort.

For example, The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of Peter Pienaar’s few cherished possessions; with the Bible, it acts as a source of comfort during his captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Pienaar, one of the most endearing characters in Mr. Standfast, is described as ‘puzzling over it’, using it as one of his ‘chief aids in reflection’ and for ‘self-examination’.  Peter searches The Pilgrim’s Progress for examples that he can apply to his own predicament.  Charmingly, Peter takes everything in The Pilgrim’s Progress literally and talks about the character Mr. Standfast ‘as if he were a friend’.  Arguably, Peter’s identification with the characters in The Pilgrim’s Progress in part inspires his actions at the end of the book.

For Richard Hannay, The Pilgrim’s Progress has a more practical and utilitarian function; he describes it as one of his ‘working tools’.  For example, it alerts Hannay to the fact that someone has searched his belongings as he observes ‘a receipted bill which I had stuck in The Pilgrim’s Progress to mark my place had been moved’.  Later, it provides a method of authenticating the character Hannay has adopted (he likes his disguises!).  Producing his copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to the old postmistress of a Highland village, it creates a shared cultural connection between them as she comments, ‘I got it for a prize in the Sabbath School when I was a lassie’.

One of the most notable roles for The Pilgrim’s Progress in Mr. Standfast is as a means of communication between Hannay and his comrades.  This discourse operates at two levels: as a common language to express feelings, anxieties and hopes and, at a practical level, as a code for secret communications between the characters.  In particular, The Pilgrim’s Progress becomes a key part of the burgeoning relationship between Mary Lamington and Hannay.   At one point, Hannay sends a message of reassurance for Mary: ‘If you see Miss Lamington you can tell her I’m past the Hill Difficulty.  I’m coming back as soon as God will let me’.

There is a lot more I could say on the links between the two texts but I’ll just close by saying that Mr. Standfast is a great story even if you have no knowledge of The Pilgrim’s Porogress.  If, however, you are familiar with Bunyan’s work, you’ll have fun spotting other references and allusions.  I think Mr. Standfast is the best of Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventures and one of the finest books he wrote.

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In three words: Thrilling, action-packed, moving

John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

3 thoughts on “Buchan of the Month: Mr. Standfast by John Buchan

  1. A great book of the genre. And especially so if you love the Pilgrim’s Progress as I do.


    1. Can’t think of anything offhand in The 39 Steps but you’ll have to look out for any now! Definitely in Sick Heart River. I’ll make a point of mentioning any I find from now on as I read the rest of my Buchan list for this year.

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