Today in Literary History – August 26, 1875 – novelist and Canadian Governor General John Buchan is born

John Buchan, the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, British novelist and 15th Governor General of Canada, was born in Perth, Scotland on August 26, 1875.


Buchan wrote many novels — one a year for 25 years. The best known today are Prestor John, The Thirty-Nine Steps and its sequel Greenmantle. The Thirty-Nine Steps was turned into an acclaimed thriller by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, the year Buchan became Governor General.

Buchan with Alfred Hitchcock

Buchan led parallel careers as a diplomat and politician as well as an active man of letters. He was a Member of Parliament from a Scottish riding, worked as an intelligence officer during World War I and served diplomatic posts in South Africa.

All the while he was writing and publishing novels, military histories and biographies — 50 books in all. He worked as a correspondent for The Times of London and as the editor of The Spectator magazine. He was also the director of the publishing house Thomas Nelson and Sons, assistant director of the Reuters news agency and the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. A busy man indeed.


He was recommended for the governor generalship in 1935. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was quite happy to have Buchan serve as a commoner, but King George V insisted that he have a peerage and so Buchan became Lord Tweedsmuir.

As governor general Buchan was a champion of the arts, literature in particular. One of his lasting legacies is the founding of the Governor General’s Award for literature.


He also had a small hand in helping one of the century’s greatest writers, Malcolm Lowry, when the Second World War broke out. The alcoholic Lowry was a “remittence man” living in Vancouver — his wealthy British family paid him a regular sum of money to stay away from them.

The advent of the war brought a disruption in overseas mail and an end to his cheques. He appealed to Governor General Buchan as an aspiring fellow writer down on his luck, and after some correspondence Buchan advanced Lowry $50 (a large sum during the Depression). Lowry later said, perhaps jokingly, that he lost it all at the racetrack. More likely he spent it on gin.


Buchan died on February 11, 1940 at the age of 64, after injuring his head in a fall after suffering a stroke at Rideau Hall, having been governor general for only a little over four years.

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