About the Book
This sympathetic portrait starts with the death of Edward VII and George V’s accession. It was a reign that saw many changes including the Union of South Africa, the First World War and the General Strike of 1926. John Buchan wrote, ‘This book is not a biography of King George, but an attempt to provide a picture – and some slight interpretation – of his reign, with the Throne as the continuing thing through an epoch of unprecedented change.’
Format: Hardcover (156 pages) Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: April 1935 Genre: Nonfiction, History
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My Buchan of the Month for November was The King’s Grace which was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in April 1935. You can read my earlier blog post introducing the book here.
In that post, I included a comment by Buchan’s first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, that The King’s Grace was not a piece or “royal tushery” but a history of the events of the reign. The opening few chapters definitely prove that to be the case concentrating as they do on a number of constitutional crises facing the new King, including a dispute between the House of Commons and the House of Lords (the lower and upper chambers of the UK Parliament) and the Irish Home Rule Bill. Although demonstrating Buchan’s customary attention to detail and clarity of prose, I’ll admit I would have welcomed a bit of “royal tushery” to enliven this section of the book.
Of more interest were the later parts of the chapter entitled The Restless Years, covering the period up to the outbreak of the First World War. Here Buchan eloquently describes the tensions both at home and abroad. When it comes to Britain he notes that “behind all the self-confidence of prosperity there was a sense of impermanence, as if good things would not last, and black clouds were banking beyond the horizon“. Writing about Germany, he identifies the “deadly peril in the conjunction of a flamboyant Emperor, ambitious of ranking with the makers of history, an army and navy burning to prove their prowess to the world, an aristocracy intolerant of all democratic ideals, rulers of industry at once resultant and nervous, popular teachers preaching a gospel of race arrogance, and throughout the nation a vague half-mystical striving towards a new destiny“. Replace Emperor with Chancellor, and sadly he could have been describing the situation before the Second World War.
As might be expected from the author of the multi-volume Nelson’s History of the War, the chapters covering the First World War are detailed and contain commentary on the successes and failures, both strategic and tactical. Buchan is at his most eloquent when describing the global nature of the war and its impact.
“Far-away English hamlets were darkened because of air raids; little farms in Touraine, in the Scottish Highlands, in the Apennines, were untilled because there were no men; Armenia had lost half her people; the folk of North Syria were dying of famine; Indian villages and African tribes had been blotted out by plague; whole countries had ceased for the moment to exist, except as geographical terms. Such were but a few of the consequences of the kindling of war in a world grown too expert in destruction…”
In her biography of John Buchan, Janet Adam Smith argues this passage illustrates his horror of war and explains his backing for Chamberlain’s attempt to reach a peace agreement at Munich.
Another telling moment in the book is the description of the moment the First World War ends ‘in the fog and the chill’ of the morning of 11th November 1918. “Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a sound of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.” However, as Buchan points out, “Victory dawned upon a world too weary for jubilation, too weary even for comprehension”.
Towards the end of the book, Buchan reflects on the societal changes that have taken place since King George’s accession in 1910. He observes that the cinema is now ‘a universal habit’ and – a little regretfully it seemed to me – that in the City ‘the top-hat had largely gone’ and ‘club life was a declining thing’. He adopts a rather dismissive tone about changes to the landscape and increasing urbanization describing ‘towns spreading into mushroom suburbs and ancient villages blotched with bungalows’.
Some of his observations about the geopolitical changes in the period following the First World War seem distinctly prophetic. “This instinct to crowd together might at first sight to offer some hope for a union of nations. But unfortunately, the new internal integration of people was apt to be a narrow chauvinist basis; the refuge they sought must be isolated, exclusive, a border keep bristling with defences, and not an open law-abiding city to which all are welcome.”
Although entitled The King’s Grace, King George V himself is absent for much of the book, although Buchan does include vital moments when the King’s presence raised morale or lessened tensions. A patriotic advocate of the monarchy as part of our constitution, for Buchan it is “the mystical, indivisible centre of national union“, and “the point around which coheres the nation’s sense of a continuing personality“.
The most memorable lines for me were in the closing paragraph of the book, in which Buchan writes, “the true task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, since the greatness is already there… The king has led his people, for he has evoked what is best in them“.
My final Buchan of the Month for 2020 will be The Long Traverse, published posthumously in 1941.
In three words: Detailed, factual, eloquent
About 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 one hundred 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.
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )