Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This month we have also read the Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. Responses were very mixed! Some thought the later novels inferior to the first, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), others thought them a rollicking read!

The five Hannay novels are:

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915);

Greenmantle (1916);

Mr Standfast (1919);

The Three Hostages (1924);

The Island of Sheep (1936).

Review by Sue R:

Richard Hannay, recovering from wounds sustained at Loos, is called to the Foreign Office. He is asked to sabotage an international Muslim jihad against the Empire, funded by the Germans. He agrees and recruits his friend, Sandy Arbuthnot (a soldier and Orientalist) and an American, John Blenkiron. They agree to rendezvous at Constantinople in 2 months. Hannay poses as a disgruntled Boer in Lisbon and meets an old friend, Peter Pienaar, a big-game hunter. Having contacted the Germans, they embark on a journey which takes them to Constantinople via Germany and the Essen Barges on the Danube. En route they meet the dangerous Colonel Stumm, Hilda von Einem, a mysterious femme fatale, and the ‘Companions of Rosy Hours’.

It is what we would call a ripping yarn: an exciting spy thriller with exotic locations and mysterious characters. However there are weaknesses.

The plot depends on coincidence and unlikely events: Hannay’s meeting with Peter Pienaar, not once, but twice; the dangerous Colonel Stumm leaving an important map just where Hannay can steal it.

Also there are only two female characters who are rather two dimensional: a simple German peasant woman who nurses Hannay through a bout of malaria, and the mysterious Hilda von Einem with hypnotic powers and steely resolve who almost bewitches him.

Hannay’s journey across Europe becomes hard to follow geographically and betrays, perhaps, the haphazard way in which it was written. The plot falters and there is rather too much detail.

There are issues with the language which many 21st   century readers will no doubt see as racist. Racial stereotypes abound: the Germans are always “the Boche”, even “Brother Boche”. He makes many sweeping generalisations : “Only the Jew can get outside himself”; “That is the weakness of the German”; “All African people are alike in one thing: they can go mad” ; “Islam is a fighting creed”. Of course there is an element of jingoism: “We are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples”.

The story focuses on traditional virtues: manliness, courage in the face of impossible odds; loyalty and camaraderie. There is a suggestion that Stumm is gay: despite being “a perfect mountain of a man…with shoulders on him like a shorthorn bull”, he has “a perverted taste for delicate things”. Hannay sees the “queer other side which gossip has  spoken of as not unknown in the German army”.

The book clearly reflects the period in which it was written: the middle of the First World War. There are several references to Loos, the New Army (formed by Kitchener). Also the author frequently refers to the Boer War ( 1900-1902) and the Boer Rebellion of 1914 which   reflects his own experience as an administrator and diplomat in South Africa.   These events would have been very familiar to the contemporary reader. The   language too is of the period and seems very old fashioned to the modern ear.  “Loos was no picnic”; “That was all rot”; “I was in a complete funk”.

However the contemporary reader would probably have enjoyed this book. It would have been a morale booster at a time when the troops were bogged down in trench warfare. After all, Buchan did work for the British Propaganda Bureau. The story of bravery and resourcefulness, of doughty British triumphing over dastardly Germans like Stumm, would reinforce an ethnocentric view of the war and the enemy. The plot relates to events which would be fresh in the minds of the readers. The defence of the British Empire would not be so problematic as it seems today; in fact in Edwardian England many would have been proud that it was so extensive. Comments such as “nigger driver” might have been more acceptable and even commonplace.

The plot is not as improbable as it may seem: there is evidence that the Germans may have contemplated supporting a jihad against the British.

It has the makings of a Bond movie – there are two clean-cut heroes and a femme fatale. Hannay is self-deprecating but brave; Sandy Arbuthnot has been likened to Lawrence of Arabia with his taste for dressing as an Arab and his leadership of the Companions of the Rosy Hours. Hilda is glamorous and beautiful, even in death despite being killed by a shell.  However it has never been made into a film. Hitchcock preferred the story to The Thirty Nine Steps but could not get permission to film it.

I quite enjoyed it though I did get bogged down when Hannay is making his way through Central Europe: a map would have been useful.

8 thoughts on “Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

  1. It is always difficult to put oneself in the position of either the writer or a contemporary reader of something written 100 years or more ago. So much has changed, especially where the novel touches on political themes. Ultimately, Buchan was a man of his time. Although he was a very successful author, he had many other irons in the fire, and wrote novels as much for relaxation as to make a living. I think the only way to appreciate his work is to immerse oneself in the period, and try to ignore everything that has happened since. This may in fact enable one to understand how things have changed, and perhaps lead one to the conclusion that things have not changed as much below the surface as one might believe. I enjoy reading Buchan’s contemporary work. His historical novels don’t interest me in the same way. One thing about him – he occasionally quotes in Greek. Is it my acknowledgement of my ignorance that irritates me, or his arrogant assumption that the reader will be familiar with that language?

  2. If I remember rightly, there is also an extra-ordinarily sympathetic portrait of the Kaiser- the German emperor- as a man trapped by circumstances he cannot control or escape.

  3. Pingback: Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919) | Reading 1900-1950

  4. Pingback: The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924) | Reading 1900-1950

  5. Pingback: The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936) | Reading 1900-1950

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