Midwinter is the fourth book in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month 2019. You can find out more about the project and the books I read in 2018 here, and view my reading list for 2019 here.
What follows is an introduction to Midwinter. It is also an excuse to show a picture of my Nelson edition of the book with its charming dust jacket. I will be posting my review of the book later in the month.
Midwinter was published in the UK on 6th September 1923 by Hodder & Stoughton and in the United States on 29th August 1923 by George H. Doran, Buchan’s American publisher.
It was begun in June 1921 at Elsfield Manor, the country house in Oxfordshire John Buchan had purchased in 1919 and which became his family home. (You can find out more information about Elsfield and the Buchan family’s life there here.)
His first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, describes Midwinter as ‘the first fruit of Buchan’s love-affair with his new home, the record of his exploration of it in space and time’. The book features what she calls ‘the greatest character from Elsfield’s story’, namely Dr. Samuel Johnson, who had walked out from Oxford to have tea with Mr. Francis Wise (a former owner of Elsfield) in the summer of 1754.
Janet Adam Smith characterises the book as ‘a brisk, exciting tale’ saying that its ‘spring and life come from Buchan’s delight in the Oxfordshire country and in the feeling about the past which they gave him’. Kate MacDonald describes Midwinter as ‘a fine Buchan mystery thriller’ and comments that the character, the eponymous Midwinter, might be a grown-up Puck taken from Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. David Daniell notes that Midwinter was widely admired, including by J. B. Priestley. He describes its main tones as ‘zest and alertness’ and ‘an eager new response to countryside’.
In her new biography of her grandfather, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, Ursula Buchan quotes John Buchan’s own comments that in Midwinter he had attempted ‘to catch the spell of the great midland forests and the Old England which lay everywhere just beyond the highroads and the ploughlands’. Indeed, Midwinter is subtitled ‘Certain Travellers in Old England’.
Midwinter, like all Buchan’s historical novels, was less commercially successful than his more well-known thrillers. Janet Adam Smith reports that it sold 16,000 copies in its first year after publication and had combined sales by 1960 (for the Hodder & Stoughton edition and the later Nelson edition) of 112,000. For comparison, The Thirty-Nine Steps had sold 355,000 copies by the same date.
Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (Bloomsbury, 2019)
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 )
Kenneth Hillier and Michael Ross, The First Editions of John Buchan: A Collector’s Illustrated Biography (Avonworld, 2008)