My Buchan of the Month for March is A Lodge in the Wilderness. It was published by Blackwood on 14th November 1906, initially anonymously. It was only for the second impression in February 1907 that John Buchan was credited as the author. When the Nelson edition was published in 1917, its preface was signed with the initials “JB” and dated “British Army in France, December 1916”.
Buchan had begun working on the book in 1905. It takes the form of a symposium in which, through various fictional characters, he expresses some of his own views on the British Empire, based partly on his experiences in South Africa with Lord Alfred Milner. Buchan’s motivation for writing the book can be gleaned from the introduction to the 1916 ‘cheap’ edition in which he expressed the view that “certain larger matters which did not truly belong to party politics were in danger of being obscured and degraded”.
The setting of the book is Musuru, a lavish home built by ‘an intelligent millionaire’ nine thousand feet up on the East African plateau. Janet Adam Smith, Buchan’s first biographer, describes the house, with its library containing 62,000 volumes, as combining ‘civilization with wildness’. Readers familiar with John Buchan’s works will recognise the thin line between those two conditions as a regular feature of his novels.
The cast of characters includes a former Prime Minister, a former Viceroy of India, a big-game hunter, a famous explorer, a well-travelled journalist and a financier. Predictably perhaps, the latter is Jewish although Janet Adam Smith, conscious of accusations of anti-Semitism directed at Buchan’s writing, argues that it is a sympathetic portrait. A number of married women (without their spouses) are included in the company. Janet Adam Smith describes their portrayal as relatively emancipated for the time (although her main examples are that they are pictured smoking and ‘adventuring’ ) and notes their views are listened to seriously by the male characters.
Although nominally fictional, Janet Adam Smith observes ‘Spotting the originals of the characters was one of the pleasures of the book for its first readers‘. John Buchan himself is represented by Hugh Somerville, ‘a young man of thirty’ and the real life model for Lady Flora Brume is Susan Grosvenor, later to become Mrs. Buchan.
For David Daniell, A Lodge in the Wilderness is ‘an extraordinary book’, characterizing it as ‘a little bit of Wells, with a pinch of Shaw…a Fabian urgency…some Kiplingesque poetry, strong Meridithian influence, a Balliol tone, a Hegelian structure and a mixture of dialogue and lengthy address‘. Look out for my review later this month to see if I agree – not that I’m very familiar with ‘Meridithian influence’ or ‘Hegelian structure’!
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kenneth Hillier and Michael Ross, The First Editions of John Buchan: A Collector’s Illustrated Biography (Avonworld, 2008)