Buchan of the Month/Book Review: Midwinter by John Buchan

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MidwinterAbout the Book

In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebel army is marching south into England. Alastair Maclean, one of the Prince’s most loyal supporters, is sent ahead to carry out a secret mission.

He is befriended by two extraordinary men-Dr. Samuel Johnson, an aspiring man of letters, and the shadowy figure known only as “Midwinter”.

Format: Hardcover (288 pp.)    Publisher: Thomas Nelson & Son
Published: [1923]   Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Midwinter is the fourth book in my Buchan of the Month reading project for 2019.  You can find out more about the project and my reading list for 2019 here.  You can also read my spoiler-free introduction to Midwinter here.

Midwinter was written at Elsfield Manor, the country house in Oxfordshire which John Buchan purchased in 1919 as his family home.  The book features Dr. Samuel Johnson who, in real life, walked out from Oxford to have tea with Mr. Francis Wise, a former owner of Elsfield, in the summer of 1754.    In Midwinter, Buchan indulges himself by imagining what Samuel Johnson may have been up to in the ‘missing years’ not documented by his biographer, James Boswell, using the literary conceit of some discovered documents as the basis for the story.

The book’s hero is Alastair Maclean (no, not that one), a young soldier pursuing intelligence duties in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Like John Buchan, Alastair is Scottish but sees something of his homeland in the landscape of Oxfordshire.

In my earlier blog post about the book, I noted that Kate MacDonald had described Midwinter as a ‘Buchan mystery thriller’ but with a historical setting.  I wasn’t sure if I agreed with that description at the time but, having read the book, I absolutely see what she was getting at.  In Midwinter, there are many of the elements readers have come to expect in a spy thriller: narrow escapes for the hero who is often a hunted man not knowing who to trust; the use of codewords, secret networks and disguises; and the race against time to save the day.  A ‘damsel in distress’ in the person of the fragrant Claudia Norreys adds an element of romantic adventure to the book.

I must also mention some great descriptions of food in the book such as the following gargantuan meal enjoyed by General Olgethorpe: “…he ate heartily of everything – beefsteak pie, roast sirloin, sheep’s tongues, cranberry tarts and a London bag-pudding – and drank a bottle of claret, a quart of ale, and the better part of a bottle of Madeira’.  As well as wondering (like me) what on earth a ‘London bag-pudding’ is, you may also marvel at the General’s capacity for alcohol as the author assures us that he ‘did not become garrulous, nor did the iron restraint of his demeanour relax’.

Kate MacDonald also comments that the eponymous (Amos) Midwinter might be a grown-up Puck taken from Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.   Indeed he is a mix between a tinker and a pixie, a charismatic figure who can seemingly travel at will without detection and conjure up assistance from the band of like-minded individuals who style themselves ‘The Naked Men’.  With their ability to move, track and observe unseen, they embody the spirit of what Midwinter refers to as ‘Old England’.  Asked by Alastair, “Where is this magic country?”, Midwinter replies, “All around you – behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches.  Some can stretch a hand and touch it – to others it is a million miles away”.

Midwinter is a lively historical adventure story by the end of which Samuel Johnson has been persuaded that his future lies as a man of letters and Alastair has been forced to make a fateful decision between his loyalty to the cause and the aforementioned damsel.  Could that decision, the author poses to the reader, have changed the course of history?

May’s Buchan of the Month is The Three Hostages, the fourth book featuring the exploits of Richard Hannay. Look out for my spoiler free introduction to the book shortly and my review towards the end of the month.

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In three words: Lively, historical, adventure

Try something similar: Huntingtower by John Buchan (read my review here)

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 or by reading the excellent new biography of the author by his granddaughter Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps.

buchan of the month 2019

2 thoughts on “Buchan of the Month/Book Review: Midwinter by John Buchan

  1. I read my first Buchan novel in April (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and now I would like to try one of his historical novels. I love the sound of this one!

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    1. This is the one his granddaughter, Ursula Buchan, recommends…that or The Blanket of the Dark. I heard her speak at Oxford Literary Festival recently about her new biography of John Buchan and she was asked for her favourites of his novels. She also mentioned Mr. Standfast and Sick Heart River (two personal favourites of mine) although they’re not historical novels.


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