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Summary

Bloomsbury presents Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps by Ursula Buchan, read by Alasdair Buchan.  

John Buchan’s name is known across the world for The Thirty-Nine Steps. In the past hundred years the classic thriller has never been out of print and has inspired numerous adaptations for film, television, radio and stage, beginning with the celebrated version by Alfred Hitchcock.   

Yet there was vastly more to ‘JB’. He wrote more than a hundred books - fiction and nonfiction - and a thousand articles for newspapers and magazines. He was a scholar, antiquarian, barrister, colonial administrator, journal editor, literary critic, publisher, war correspondent, director of wartime propaganda, member of Parliament and imperial proconsul - given a state funeral when he died, a deeply admired and loved Governor-General of Canada.  

His teenage years in Glasgow’s Gorbals, where his father was the Free Church minister, contributed to his ease with shepherds and ambassadors, fur trappers and prime ministers. His improbable marriage to a member of the aristocratic Grosvenor family means that this account of his life contains, at its heart, an enduring love story.  

Ursula Buchan, his granddaughter, has drawn on recently discovered family documents to write this comprehensive and illuminating biography. With perception, style, wit and a penetratingly clear eye, she brings vividly to life this remarkable man and his times.

©2019 Ursula Buchan (P)2019 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Critic reviews

"John Buchan was a writer of considerable significance but he was also a man who led a remarkable public life. This magnificent biography leads us through that life with great style and understanding." (Alexander McCall Smith)

"[An] outstanding biography. Though factual, it reads like a big, rambling Victorian novel, and takes you, as novels do, into other people’s lives. " (John Cary, Sunday Times)  

"Page-turning, buccaneering stuff." (Laura Freeman, The Times)

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A thorough and beautifully crafted biography

Ursula Buchan writes from a unique standpoint as JB's granddaughter. This is not a book of unfiltered and gushing praise for a man whom she clearly admired and whose widow she obviously adored. What is clear to any reader is that the author had access to a vast array of material, not least the prodigious output of John Buchan himself. The author has totally mastered the source material and forged a truly superb book. She analyses most of Buchan's published work and has weaved his life story around what he had time to put into print. The magic, however, comes from the descriptions of Buchan's close family and friends and the impact that the free kirk, geography and topography had on what he wrote and thought.

Like many readers, I have dipped in to the Thirty Nine Steps of the title and a little more, but had no idea as to the poetry, biography and historical analysis which also came from Buchan's pen. The book is well arranged into the episodes of Buchan's life, from the borders, via university, South Africa, into publishing, the law, politics and diplomacy. Buchan's service in WW1 in what would now be called propoganda is well-described, as is his tenure as Governor General of Canada. JB's achievements leave most modern professionals totally out of breath. Anyone who has had even a passing acquaintance with John Buchan's output must read this book.

It is performed with energy by one of John Buchan's great-nephews. Not the finest performance, especially the pronounciation of "Memory hold the door" and "Tweedale". But don't let that put you off this great audiobook, with an introduction (and afterword) by the author herself.

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Top class biography, beautifully written

A top class biography of an interesting and varied life, beautifully written and illuminated by many timeless Buchan epigrams.

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Superb biography

According to the Audible app, I have purchased almost 150 audiobooks. This is the first time I have been moved to leave a review. I have read many biographies and autobiographies, and this is definitely one of the the best. It’s a beautifully written and read work. Easy to listen to but still a fully comprehensive, chronology of, in many ways, a great man. Anyone with an interest in literature, politics or history will find it fascinating. One small criticism of the male narrator—since the beginning of the book deals with Buchan’s early life in Scotland, it may have been useful to check on the correct pronunciation of the Scottish towns mentioned. But this is, as I say, a small criticism. I particularly liked very much (I’m not quite sure why) how the discussion of each of Buchan’s novels and collections of stories always includes a mention of to whom the work is dedicated and, if required, why.This isn’t something I have seen in other literary biographies but I think it gives an interesting insight into Buchan’s thinking at the time of writing. All in all, a well-written, well-read, well-produced book which I would heartily recommend.

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  • Gavin Scott
  • 18-07-20

A splendid biography of a splendid man

Rich, detailed and fascinating
Highly recommended and very good on his novels and public life.

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