Friday, 30 January 2015

Book Review: Midwinter by John Buchan a book title can be quite misleading like in the case of the novel which I’m reviewing today. As you know, the reading list for My WINTER Books Special has kept me busy for weeks now and for containing the word “winter” in the title Midwinter by John Buchan has been on it from the beginning. Although the historical novel is clearly set in the winter of 1745/46 (thus of the Jacobite rising), its title doesn’t refer to the time around winter solstice as might be expected. Much rather it’s the sobriquet of a mysterious character appearing ever again in the story and helping the protagonist Alastair Maclean who is a captain in the Scottish army and committed to the Jacobite cause with all his heart. Coming from France he is on his way through England to join Bonnie Prince Charlie with important news, but he moves on enemy territory and even supposed friends soon turn out to be foes.

John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, U.K., in August 1875. He studied the classics first at the University of Glasgow and as from 1895 in Oxford. Already as a student he made his debut as a writer publishing poems and other works. After graduation from Oxford he started his career as a diplomat and politician, but didn’t give up his literary ambitions. In 1910 his first adventure novel, Prester John, came out. Many thrillers, most famous among them The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), and Mr. Standfast (1919) of the Richard Hanney series, and historical novels like Midwinter (1923), Witch Wood (1927) and The Blanket of the Dark (1931) followed. John MacNab (1925) is probably his most popular novel today. In 1935 he became the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and was appointed as Governor General of Canada later the same year. John Buchan died in Montreal, Quebec, in February 1940. The thriller Sick Heart River was published posthumously in 1941.

The story of Midwinter emerges from a mysterious bundle of centuries old documents which the new senior partner of a renowned law firm found clearing the archives. The origins of the papers are obscure, but the intrigued narrator believes that they hint at James Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson. The manuscripts and letters tell of the adventures of Captain Alastair Maclean during the time of the Jacobite rising in winter 1745/46. He has recently crossed the channel from France where he has been living in exile with Charles Edward Stuart aka Bonnie Prince Charlie and his entourage. The Prince is preparing his army’s march to London and Captain Maclean is on his way to join him with important news. Given the situation he avoids all main roads and before soon he gets lost in the English country. When he hears voices, he first wants to turn away from them, but he needs help to get back on his way and one of the voices is sharp with pain. He finds a boy in the hands of a keeper about to beat him up for poaching and saves him from his tormentor. The boy leads the Scotsman to the camp of the Spoonbills where he meets a mysterious, violin playing man who is known only as Midwinter and who is revered almost like a king. Before Captain Maclean leaves the next morning, Midwinter assures him that he can turn to the Spoonbills for help whenever he needs it. And indeed, they will rescue him several times, once even from certain death, because he gets into the way of the traitors Nicholas Kyd and Sir John Norreys scheming to make their fortune. On the road he finds a loyal companion in Samuel Johnson chasing after his young lady Claudia Grevel who has eloped with Sir John Norreys and married him. When the Scotsman meets her, he falls in love with her despite all. The adventures of Alastair Maclean and Samuel Johnson continue in pursuit after and hiding from the traitors… with the help of wise and calm Midwinter.

The historical spy novel titled Midwinter evokes a particularly chaotic period in English history, namely the Jacobite rising. The protagonist is one of many loyal and virtuous, though impoverished Scottish noblemen in the service of the Stuart Prince Charles Edward, the grandson of James II, who claims the English throne. Beside the fictitious protagonist Captain Alastair Maclean, who finds himself caught in a maze of intrigues and risks his life to join his Prince with news, and the almost otherworldly Midwinter (who reminds me of Merlin from the Arthurian legend in a way although he has no magic powers) appears also a real historical character, namely Samuel Johnson who after the novel’s time period became known as the author of The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and as an important lexicographer bringing out the first comprehensive dictionary of English. Also Life of Johnson by James Boswell to which the first-person narrator of the preface and the postscript refers really exists as it is described (the biography was first published in 1754), but everything else regarding Samuel Johnson is the product of the author’s vivid imagination. John Buchan skilfully brought the true historical background down to the individual level and weaved a thrilling, eventful and somewhat credible story of eighteenth-century life in times of war into it. Consequently following the declared intention of simply recounting the contents of the rediscovered old documents, the author chose a language which seems slightly antiquated to me, but then I’m no native speaker of English and I might well be mistaken. In any case it took me a bit to get used to it and to enjoy the read.

As I mentioned before on this blog, I’m no particular fan of the thriller and espionage genre or of historical fiction. Reading Midwinter by John Buchan has been an interesting and pleasurable experience despite all. I admit that the novel didn’t overly impress me because I missed the depth necessary to challenge my mind and to make me think, but this is because the author meant it to be a popular and entertaining book… which it definitely is. And in countries where copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death, the novel is in the public domain.

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