A couple of book reviews: Prester John and The Setons

I’ve been having a bit of a Buchan-fest, reading the works of John Buchan and his sister Anna, who wrote as O. Douglas. They were writing a century ago, and I’ve been pondering the ‘datedness’ of their books. I had decided that Buchan’s books seem more dated than Douglas’, because he wrote about race, attitudes to which have changed enormously, while she wrote about class, and 21st-century readers aren’t as shocked by class prejudice as we are by racial prejudice. But then I read The Setons, and realised that O. Douglas’ attitudes to war are as dated as Buchan’s attitudes to race.

Prester John

John Buchan writes an exciting, fast-paced ‘thriller’ which is full of his love for the Scottish and African landscapes. His hero, David Crawfurd, is a million miles away from the hero of modern movies: he gets tired and hurt to the point that he cries, and there’s never any suggestion that he’s invulnerable. As a relaxing read to pass the time I would give this four stars. But …

It’s a great big ‘But’. Prester John was published in 1910 and its attitude to issues of race is appalling. But is this the attitude of Buchan or of his characters? The first example of racism that took my breath away was a description of an African preacher by a twelve-year-old Scottish boy:

“‘A nigger,’ he said, ‘a great black chap as big as your father, Archie.’ He seemed to have banged the bookboard with some effect, and had kept Tam, for once in his life, awake. He had preached about the heathen in Africa, and how a black man was as good as a white man in the sight of God, and he had forecast a day when the negroes would have something to teach the British in the way of civilization. So at any rate ran the account of Tam Dyke, who did not share the preacher’s views. ‘It’s all nonsense, Davie. The Bible says that the children of Ham were to be our servants. If I were the minister I wouldn’t let a nigger into the pulpit. I wouldn’t let him farther than the Sabbath school.'” (pp. 13-14)

That’s obviously the twelve-year-old speaking, and not Buchan. But the next one is in the words of the narrator, nineteen-year-old David:

“I blush to-day to think of the stuff I talked. First I made him sit on a chair opposite me, a thing no white man in the country would have done. Then I told him affectionately that I liked natives, that they were fine fellows and better men than the dirty whites round about. I explained that I was fresh from England, and believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters.” (pp. 102-103)

I’m pretty sure God would forgive David for saying that he supported African majority rule, but that isn’t what David is asking forgiveness for. For him the idea of Africans ruling themselves, and sitting with white men as equals, is preposterous. Again, is this Buchan or his character?

The reason I wonder this is because the Rev. Laputa, David Crawfurd’s African adversary, is the real hero of the book. He is the ‘Prester John’ figure after whom the book is named. I can imagine the book being rewritten to make this clear, in a time when an African man calling on God to help him free his people wouldn’t be seen as so appalling:

“He prayed — prayed as I never heard man pray before — and to the God of Israel! It was no heathen fetich he was invoking, but the God of whom he had often preached in Christian kirks. I recognized texts from Isaiah and the Psalms and the Gospels, and very especially from the two last chapters of Revelation. He pled with God to forget the sins of his people, to recall the bondage of Zion. It was amazing to hear these bloodthirsty savages consecrated by their leader to the meek service of Christ. An enthusiast may deceive himself, and I did not question his sincerity. I knew his heart, black with all the lusts of paganism. I knew that his purpose was to deluge the land with blood. But I knew also that in his eyes his mission was divine, and that he felt behind him all the armies of Heaven.” (pp. 126-127)

So, could Buchan be writing a story about an African hero, whose heroism is partly disguised by the prejudices of the young narrator? I could argue that right up until the end of the book, in which the narrator writes about ‘the white man’s burden’ in such Kiplingesque terms that I can’t help but think he’s reflecting the mind of his creator:

“I knew then the meaning of the white man’s duty. He has to take all risks, recking nothing of his life or his fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.” (p. 238)

So, only two stars for Prester John, for the writing and the heroism of Laputa. I’m glad to have read this, but I don’t think I’ll reread it.

The Setons

The Setons

For 18 of its 20 chapters this is a wonderful book. It’s the story of a Scottish minister’s family written by a daughter of the manse and as a minister I can recognise the world she describes, even with the near-century between us. For example: “It’s more difficult than you would think to be a minister’s family. The main point is that you must never do anything that will hurt your father’s ‘usefulness,’ and it is astonishing how many things tend to do that—dressing too well, going to the play, laughing when a sober face would be more suitable, making flippant remarks—their name is legion. Besides, try as one may, it is impossible always to avoid being a stumbling-block. There are little ones so prone to stumble that they would take a toss over anything.” p. 148.

But the book was published in 1917 and set in 1913, and so the last two chapters took me into a world I couldn’t recognise, a world in which ministers not only encouraged men to go to war, but went themselves; in which ministers comfort the bereaved with the consolation that a noble death in war is a fine thing. One minister says he must enlist: “I’m going to enlist, with as many Langhope men as I can persuade to accompany me. It’s no use. I can’t stand in the pulpit—a young strong man—and say Go. I must say Come!” (p. 272); one young woman writes to her lover: “To die for one’s country is a great privilege—God knows I don’t say that lightly, for any day I may hear that you or Alan have died that death—and to those boys the honour has been given in the very springtime of their days.” Knowing what we know now about the futility and sheer stupidity of the First World War it’s hard to comprehend this.

It’s also hard to read because there is a sense in which O. Douglas is comforting herself and her mother for the loss of Alistair Buchan, the original of the little boy ‘Buff’ in this book. O. Douglas cheats a little; the son and brother who dies in the book is Alan, who is only seen for a few pages; not Buff, who is a major character.

A lovely book, but a strange insight into a very different time.

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