Book Review: White Houses by Amy Bloom

White HousesAbout the Book

In 1933, President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took up residence in the White House. With them went the celebrated journalist Lorena Hickok – Hick to friends – a straight-talking reporter from South Dakota, whose passionate relationship with the idealistic, patrician First Lady would shape the rest of their lives.

Told by the indomitable Hick, White Houses is the story of Eleanor and Hick’s hidden love, and of Hick’s unlikely journey from her dirt-poor childhood to the centre of privilege and power. Filled with fascinating back-room politics, the secrets and scandals of the era, and exploring the potency of enduring love, it is an imaginative tour-de-force from a writer of extraordinary and exuberant talent.

Format: ebook, hardcover (240 pp.) Publisher: Granta Books
Published: 1st Feb 2018 (ebook), 24th Apr 2018 (hardcover) Genre: Historical Fiction

Pre-order/Purchase Links*  ǀ  ǀ (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find White Houses on Goodreads

My Review

Opening in 1945, shortly after the death of President Franklin D Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’, recalls her first meetings with Eleanor, the development of their relationship and her move into the White House.  What follows is a series of flashbacks to the years they shared together.

One such flashback is to a train trip during which they share their most intimate secrets and childhood memories.  Eleanor’s stories take only a few minutes of reading time.  Hick’s take much longer.  Indeed the story sharing scene seems to act as a pretext for a long section depicting the traumatic events Hick endured as a child, her escape from an abusive home, her time spent with some delightfully eccentric circus folk and her eventual move to a career in journalism.  At the same time, it charts the awakening of Hick’s sexuality and her growing realisation that marriage was never going to be a route she would take, that ‘Women were not interruptions, for me.’

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the way Hick’s early life was written about but I wasn’t expecting it would form such a focus of the book.  Throughout the book, I felt I was getting to know Hick a whole lot better than I was getting to know Eleanor, who always remained somewhat elusive as a character even during flashbacks to scenes in the White House.  At times, Hick’s adoration for Eleanor serves to make that undoubtedly great lady appear a little like a saint on a pedestal.  ‘I loved being the brave and battered little dinghy.  She loved being the lighthouse.’

I really liked the narrative voice the author created for Hick with its sharp dialogue, witty wisecracks and waspish putdowns.  ‘I’d met Wallis Simpson.  Twice.  She wasn’t pretty.  She was a skinny rough-houser from a shitbox Southern town but she had done a phenomenal job of remaking herself, vanquishing good looking rivals, and turning a genial, not stupid, sort of spineless royal into her love-slave.’   

What I also admired was the convincing, heartfelt and sincere depiction of the love between two women.   There were lovely little intimate moments that revealed the women’s affection for each other.

‘She smiled when she saw me coming and I did the same.  When we had breakfast together, I sometimes took a sausage off her plate.’ 

‘And when I was the object of her love, when her eyes lit up across the room, when she touched her fingertips to the pulse at the base of her throat, to mark the spot for me, to mark herself, I thought that there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make.’

As a story about the relationship between two women at a time when such relationships had to remain largely secret, White Houses scores highly and there was a great deal that I enjoyed about the book.  The true nature of Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship has been disputed by historians over the years and the author freely admits that White Houses is a ‘work of fiction, from beginning to end.’

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Granta Books, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Tender, intimate, moving

Try something similar…Carol by Patricia Highsmith (click here to read my review)

Amy BloomAbout the Author

Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and Normal. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.

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My Week in Books – 15th April ’18


New arrivals  

Smile of the WolfSmile of the Wolf by Tim Leach (ARC, NetGalley)

Eleventh-century Iceland. One night in the darkness of winter, two friends set out on an adventure but end up killing a man. Kjaran, a travelling poet who trades songs for food and shelter, and Gunnar, a feared warrior, must make a choice: conceal the deed or confess to the crime and pay the blood price to the family. But their decision leads to a brutal feud: one man is outlawed, free to be killed by anyone without consequence; the other remorselessly hunted by the dead man’s kin. Set in a world of ice and snow, this is an epic story of exile and revenge, of duels and betrayals, and two friends struggling to survive in a desolate landscape, where honour is the only code that men abide by.

The Story KeeperThe Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (ARC, NetGalley)

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the word-of-mouth folk tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857, the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and the crofters are suspicious and hostile, claiming they no longer know their stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters tell her that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl has disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the spirits of the unforgiven dead. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but then she is reminded of her own mother, a Skye woman who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a link to be explored, and Audrey may uncover just what her family have been hiding from her all these years.

The Cliff HouseThe Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (ARC, NetGalley)

Some friendships are made to be broken

Cornwall, summer of 1986. The Davenports, with their fast cars and glamorous clothes, living the dream in a breathtaking house overlooking the sea.

If only… thinks sixteen-year-old Tamsyn, her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect home.  If only her life was as perfect as theirs.  If only Edie Davenport would be her friend.  If only she lived at The Cliff House…

I Will Find YouI Will Find You (Seal Island #2) by Daniela Sacerdoti (ARC, NetGalley)

After her mother dies, grief-stricken Cora discovers she has been left a cottage, a crumbling shelter on a mysterious Scottish island. The moment Cora arrives on the windswept isle of Seal, she falls under its spell and is drawn to brooding Innes, back on the island to confront his past.

As Cora begins to trace her mother’s roots, she learns Gealach Cottage has a dark, turbulent history. Another young woman has sought refuge here, fleeing terrible danger, and waiting for her lover to return. What became of her? Only by unravelling a forgotten story of passion and courage can Cora understand what has pulled her to Seal…and led her to a man of many secrets.

The Boy at the DoorThe Boy at the Door by Alex Dahl (ARC, NetGalley)

What would you do for the perfect life? Would you lie? Would you steal? Would you kill?…

Cecilia Wilborg has the perfect life. A handsome husband, two beautiful daughters and a large house in the picture-postcard town of Sandefjord.

But then Tobias enters her life. He is a small, friendless eight-year-old. And he threatens to bring Cecilia’s world crashing down.

That Summer in PugliaThat Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina (review copy courtesy of Bookollective)

Tommaso has escaped discovery for thirty years but a young private investigator, Will, has tracked him down.

Tommaso asks him to pretend never to have found him.  To persuade Will, Tommaso recounts the story of his life and his great love. In the process, he comes to recognise his true role in the events which unfolded, and the legacy of unresolved grief.

Now he’s being presented with a second chance – but is he ready to pay the price it exacts?

The DraughtsmanThe Draughtsman by Robert Lautner (paperback)

1944, Germany. Ernst Beck’s new job marks an end to months of unemployment. Working for Erfurt’s most prestigious engineering firm, Topf Sons, means he can finally make a contribution to the war effort, provide for his beautiful wife, Etta, and make his parents proud. But there is a price.

Ernst is assigned to the firm’s smallest team – the Special Ovens Department. Reporting directly to Berlin his role is to annotate plans for new crematoria that are deliberately designed to burn day and night. Their destination: the concentration camps. Topf’s new client: the SS.

As the true nature of his work dawns on him, Ernst has a terrible choice to make: turning a blind eye will keep him and Etta safe, but that’s little comfort if staying silent amounts to collusion in the death of thousands.

Behind the Scenes at the MuseumBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (hardcover)

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets.

March VioletsMarch Violets (Bernie Gunther #1) by Philip Kerr (ebook, Kindle deal)

Ex-Berlin cop and private detective Bernie Gunther has seen his share of bad guys. But when the worst guys of all are the ones running the show, it’s much harder to stay out of their reach.

Hired by a wealthy industrialist to investigate the murder of his daughter and her husband in an apparent botched robbery, Bernie soon finds himself drawn into the complex – not to mention lethal – internal politics and corruption of the Nazi party. When Herman Goering himself calls Bernie in with a task for him that throws his existing case into a whole new light, he must weigh up his hatred of the Nazis against his desire to stay alive.

Mutiny on the BountyMutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne (ebook, Kindle deal)

Pickpocket John Jacob Turnstile is on his way to be detained at His Majesty’s Pleasure when he is offered a lifeline, what seems like a freedom of sorts – the job of personal valet to a departing naval captain. Little does he realise that it is anything but – and by accepting the devil’s bargain he will put his life in perilous danger. For the ship is HMS Bounty, his new captain William Bligh and their destination Tahiti.

From the moment the ship leaves port, Turnstile’s life is turned upside down, for not only must he put his own demons to rest, but he must also confront the many adversaries he will encounter on the Bounty’s extraordinary last voyage. Walking a dangerous line between an unhappy crew and a captain he comes to admire, he finds himself in a no-man’s land where the distinction between friend and foe is increasingly difficult to determine…

On What Cathy Read Next last week

Blog posts

Monday – I published my review of the atmospheric Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam, set in the New Hebrides in the 1950s.  I also took part in the blog tour for The Room by the Lake by Emma Dibdin, sharing a Q&A with Emma and my review of this intense thriller.

Tuesday – I shared my version of the I Spy Book Challenge, choosing to make my selections only from collection of books by John Buchan.

WednesdayWWW Wednesday is the opportunity to share what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading next.   I also took part in the blog tour for Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen, an engaging historical mystery that is the first in a new series.

Thursday – My Throwback Thursday book was The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks, one of the books on the long-list for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.  I also introduced my Buchan of the Month for April –  Greenmantle.

Friday – I shared an excerpt from El Hacho by Luis Carrasco, a novel set in Andalusia, and a guest post by Chris Bridge, author of Girl Without a Voice.

Saturday – I featured a guest post by Sara Cook about the personal journey she and her brother, Robert Peacock, undertook in order to bring to life their recently published historical novel, The Jinn and the Sword.

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge – 53 out of 156 books read, 2 more than last week
  • Classics Club Challenge – 13 out of 50 books read, same as last week
  • NetGalley/Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2018 (Silver) – 17 ARCs read and reviewed out of 25, 1 more than last week
  • From Page to Screen– 10 book/film comparisons out of 15 completed, same as last week
  • 2018 TBR Pile Challenge – 5 out of 12 books read, same as last week
  • Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2018 – 25 books out of 50 read, 2 more than last week
  • When Are You Reading? Challenge 2018 – 7 out of 12 books read, same as last week
  • What’s In A Name Reading Challenge – 0 out of 6 books read, same as last week
  • Buchan of the Month – 3 out of 12 books read, same as last week

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Blog Tour/Review: The Black Earth by Philip Kazan
  • Book Review: White Houses by Amy Bloom
  • Blog Tour/Excerpt: Stories We Tell Ourselves by Sarah Françoise
  • Blog Tour/Q&A: Warrior of Woden by Matthew Harffy
  • Book Review: Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  • Book Review: Staying On by Paul Scott
  • Blog Tour/Review: Suitors and Sabotage by Cindy Anstey
  • Blog Tour/Guest Post: Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie
  • Book Review: The Good Father by S. R. Wilsher

How was your week in books?  Page-turner or snorefest?

Buchan of the Month: Introducing…Greenmantle

Buchan of the Month

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.

GreenmantleWhat 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.

The Man Who Was GreenmantleCharacters 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 [1965])
Margaret FitzHerbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle: A Biography of Aubrey Herbert by (OUP, 1985)


My Week in Books – 8th April ’18


New arrivals  

Crooked HeartCrooked Heart by Lissa Evans (ebook)

When Noel Bostock – aged ten, no family – is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he winds up in St Albans with Vera Sedge – thiry-six, drowning in debts. Always desperate for money, she’s unscrupulous about how she gets it.

The war’s thrown up all manner of new opportunities but what Vee needs is a cool head and the ability to make a plan. On her own, she’s a disaster. With Noel, she’s a team.

Together they cook up an idea. But there are plenty of other people making money out of the war and some of them are dangerous. Noel may have been moved to safety, but he isn’t actually safe at all…

Ike and KayIke and Kay by James MacManus (ebook)

In 1942, Cork-born Kay Summersby’s life is changed forever when she is tasked with driving General Eisenhower on his fact-finding visit to wartime London. Despite Eisenhower’s marriage to Mamie, the pair takes an immediate liking to one another and he gifts Kay a rare wartime luxury: a box of chocolates.

So begins a tumultuous relationship that against all military regulation sees Kay travelling with Eisenhower on missions to far flung places before the final assault on Nazi Germany. She becomes known as “Ike’s shadow” and in letters Mamie bemoans his new obsession with ‘Ireland’. That does not stop him from using his influence to grant Kay US citizenship and rank in the US army, drawing her closer when he returns to America. When the US authorities discover Eisenhower’s plans to divorce from his wife they threaten the fragile but passionate affair and Kay is forced to take desperate measures to hold onto the man she loves…

Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (ebook)

Meet Maud.

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognisable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.  Everyone, except Maud . . .

Forsaking All OthersForsaking All Others by Catherine Meyrick (ebook, review copy courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours)

England 1585. Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year’s grace to find a husband more to her liking.

Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.

Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes. With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.

Trigger MortisTrigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz (ebook)

It’s 1957 and James Bond (agent 007) has only just survived his showdown with Auric Goldfinger at Fort Knox. By his side is Pussy Galore, who was with him at the end. Unknown to either of them, the USSR and the West are in a deadly struggle for technological superiority. And SMERSH is back.

The Soviet counter-intelligence agency plans to sabotage a Grand Prix race at the most dangerous track in Europe. But it’s Bond who finds himself in the driving seat and events take an unexpected turn when he observes a suspicious meeting between SMERSH’s driver and a sinister Korean millionaire, Jai Seong Sin.  Soon Bond is pitched into an entirely different race uncovering a plan that could bring the West to its knees.

Welcoming back familiar faces, including M and Miss Moneypenny, international bestselling author Anthony Horowitz ticks all the boxes: speed, danger, strong women and fiendish villains, to reinvent the golden age of Bond in this brilliantly gripping adventure. Trigger Mortis is also the first James Bond novel to feature previously unseen Ian Fleming material.  This is James Bond as Fleming imagined him.

On What Cathy Read Next last week

Blog posts

Monday – I took part in the blog tour for Lords of the Greenwood featuring a fantastic guest post by its author, Chris Thorndycroft.

Tuesday – I shared my five favourite books in March and my review of Friends and Traitors by John Lawton, the eighth in his Inspector Troy series.  This one features, in fictionalised form, Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Spies whose defection rocked a nation.

WednesdayWWW Wednesday is the opportunity to share what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading next.   I also hosted a spotlight feature on crime novel The Ticket by Fred Shackelford and published my review of historical mystery The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait.

Thursday – My Throwback Thursday book was The Winner by Erin Bomboy set in the competitive world of professional ballroom dancing.  I also published my review of Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel, a collection of five compelling stories exploring the theme of manipulation.

Friday – I shared my review Charlemagne, one of the titles in in60Learning’s new range of concise historical and biographical works that can be read or listened to in under 60 minutes.  Ideal for history buffs with little spare time on their hands.

Saturday – I took part in the blog tour for Lesley Thomson’s latest novel in her The Detective’s Daughter series, The Death Chamber.  In a fascinating Q&A, Lesley shared some insights into the process of coming up with a great title for a book.   I also took part in the blog tour for A Mother’s Sacrifice by Gemma Metcalfe, sharing my review of this twisty, fast-paced psychological thriller.   Finally, I participated in the 6 Degrees of Separation meme constructing, through some twisted logic of my own, a chain that started with Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and ended onboard a plague-ridded cruise ship!

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge – 51 out of 156 books read, 4 more than last week
  • Classics Club Challenge – 13 out of 50 books read, same as last week
  • NetGalley/Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2018 (Silver) – 16 ARCs read and reviewed out of 25, 3 more than last week
  • From Page to Screen– 10 book/film comparisons out of 15 completed, same as last week
  • 2018 TBR Pile Challenge – 5 out of 12 books read, same as last week
  • Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2018 – 23 books out of 50 read, 2 more than last week
  • When Are You Reading? Challenge 2018 – 7 out of 12 books read, same as last week
  • What’s In A Name Reading Challenge – 0 out of 6 books read, same as last week
  • Buchan of the Month – 3 out of 12 books read, same as last week

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Blog Tour/Q&A: The Room by the Lake by Emma Dibdin
  • Review: Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam
  • Buchan of the Month: Introducing…Greenmantle by John Buchan
  • Review: The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks
  • Blog Tour/Review: Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen
  • Throwback Thursday: Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  • Excerpt: El Hacho by Luis Carrasco
  • Guest Post: Girl Without A Voice by Chris Bridge
  • Review: The Good Father by S. R. Wilsher

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

Purchase Links*  ǀ  ǀ (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 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.