Greenmantle is the fourth book in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month. To find out more about the project and my reading list for 2018, click here. If you would like to read along with me you will be very welcome – leave a comment on this post or on my original challenge post.
What follows is an introduction to the book (no spoilers!). It is also an excuse to show off a picture of my 1950 Hodder & Stoughton edition of Greenmantle complete with dust jacket. I will be posting my review of the book later in the month.
Although Buchan did not see active military service in World War One, he visited the Western Front on a number of occasions. In May 1915 he was there as a special correspondent for The Times and in October the same year, this time in uniform, as a Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. In June 1916 he was appointed Director of the Department of Information. In between, during the first half of 1916, he worked on Greenmantle, his second novel featuring the character Richard Hannay.
Characters and events in Greenmantle draw strongly on real life events. For example, the character of Sandy Arbuthnot was inspired by Aubrey Herbert. In her book The Man Who Was Greenmantle, Margaret FitzHerbert reports that, on learning of Herbert’s death in 1923, Buchan wrote to a friend “I drew Sandy in Greenmantle from him”. Aubrey Herbert’s wife had recognised the similarity when Greenmantle first appeared in 1916, noting “I must confess I prefer my Aubrey to his Sandy but I daresay it’s like him.” She sent a copy of Buchan’s book to Herbert, who was in Salonika at the time. Reportedly his only comment was “He brings in my nerves all right doesn’t he?”
The plot of Greenmantle involves the uncovering of a German plot to incite an Islamic uprising in the Middle East that will cause Britain and its allies to divert troops from the Western Front. The action moves from wartime Germany, through Europe to Constantinople as Hannay and his comrades seek to disrupt the plot. The book features a cryptic code, plenty of disguises, narrow escapes, a bit of homoeroticism and a formidable female character.
Like Buchan’s earlier adventure stories, Greenmantle first appeared in instalment form. It was serialised weekly in Land and Water magazine between 6th July and 9th November 1916. Originally a magazine about sporting country life, in 1914 Land and Water switched its coverage to World War One under the editorship of Hilaire Belloc.
Greenmantle was published in novel form by Hodder & Stoughton on 26th October 2016. Priced at six shillings, by the following March it had sold 34,000 copies. Buchan’s biographer, Janet Adam Smith, reports that by 1960 combined sales of the Nelson and Hodder & Stoughton editions had reached 368,000, meaning that Greenmantle actually outsold its now more famous predecessor, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Furthermore, the Pan paperback edition of Greenmantle published in 1952 had sold 200,000 copies by 1965. Buchan’s advance for Greenmantle was £200 so, even taking into account royalties, Buchan’s publishers got a good deal.
David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Works of John Buchan, puts Greenmantle up alongside Mr Standfast as one of Buchan’s greatest books. However, Daniell admits that one reviewer called Greenmantle ‘a daft sort of book’ that was ‘about two parts mad, but the third part was uncommonly like inspiration’. I leave you, dear reader, to decide which of them is right.
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )
Margaret FitzHerbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle: A Biography of Aubrey Herbert by (OUP, 1985)