Buchan, Janet Raden and the Challenge

Janet Raden appears in John Buchan’s John Macnab as the (in)famously boyish heroine with whom Archie Roylance falls in love:

Her bright hair, dabbled with raindrops, was battened down under an ancient felt hat. She looked, thought Sir Archie, like an adorable boy.

I was delighted to rediscover John Macnab for two reasons – first, Buchan’s description of the Scottish landscape, which is truly masterly and arguably even finer than in his other quintessentially Scottish writing, notably The Thirty-Nine Steps, and second for his portrayal of Janet and her feelings.

Buchan’s views of women are condescending and irritating at times, but also deeply compassionate.  In the following passage, Archie seems to speak with the author’s voice:

At the back of his head he had that fear of women as something mysterious and unintelligible which belongs to a motherless and sisterless childhood, and a youth spent almost wholly in the company of men.  He had immense compassion for a sex which seemed to him to have a hard patch to hoe in the world…”

Buchan’s own mother lived to the age of 80 (d. 1937) and he also had a sister, Anna – who wrote under the pseudonym of Olivia Douglas, so he is not referring to himself here but probably to other men, like Archie,  whom he met in Oxford when he won a scholarship to Brasenose in 1895.

But it is Janet Raden’s ideas about land ownership and the challenge of life that really interested me.  Buchan was a conservative throughout his life, but his ideals were always liberal, as is pointed out here (taken from the DNB):

Buchan had an impatience with the Liberal Party and especially with what he saw as woolly-headed radicals. He was seen at Oxford as ‘a Tory-Democrat Jacobite’ (Isis, 28 Jan 1899, cited in Adam Smith, John Buchan, 71) but he also had an insistence on the practical and the rational and, despite himself, his values throughout his life were those of a free-trade Liberal Unionist rather than of a tory.

When Archie Roylance repeats Janet’s views in his speech as the prospective parliamentary candidate at a Tory public meeting, one listener comments “He ca’s himsel’ a Tory. By God, it’s the red flag that he’ll be waving soon.”

The lecture on the hillside that inspires Archie’s Damascene moment focuses on property, which has been and will remain a burning issue in Scotland.  Janet’s family, the Radens, have been on the land for thousands of years – there was a Raden with Robert Bruce and a Raden died beside the king at Flodden, and the dig for the presumed tomb of a Viking ancestor, Harald Blacktooth, also features in the novel’s plot.

When we had to fight hard for our possessions all the time, and give flesh to the sons of dogs who were our clan, we were strong men and women… But civilization killed them – they couldn’t adapt themselves to it. Somehow the fire went out of the blood, and they became vegetables. Their only claim was the right of property, which is no right at all.”

When Archie comments that her views sound like “pretty steep doctrine”, she replies:

“It isn’t doctrine, and it isn’t politics, it’s common sense.  … people should realize that whatever they’ve got they hold under a perpetual challenge, and they are bound to meet that challenge.  Then we’ll have living creatures instead of mummies.”

Janet then proceeds to define her particular challenge for Archie:

If you’re going to do any good you must feel the challenge and be ready to meet it.  And then you must become yourself a challenger.  You must be like John Macnab … I’m all for property, if you can defend it; but there are too many fatted calves in the world.”

So, fatted calves … fat cats… it all sounds very much a case of plus ça change

As for our challenges today – well, there are plenty of them … so let the fun commence, whatever form it takes. Anyone fancy a spot of poaching? Or, more seriously, we could start with canvassing world governments on climate change, poverty and the provision of education and health care.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in book reviews, Cultural history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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