This is the third time I’ve read Mr. Standfast by John Buchan. It’s one of my favourite books by this author and the third time around hasn’t diminished my ardour.
Mr. Standfast is the third book of five in Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels that began with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and was followed by Greenmantle. The book was published in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution and as World War I was coming to a close. Buchan’s story opens in 1917 when Hannay was serving as a Brigadier in France. He is recalled by British Intelligence to pose as a pacifist in order to infiltrate a spy ring that threatens to bring about an Allied defeat on the Western Front.
Hannay, an upfront man of action, is disgusted with the idea of being a fake pacifist, but he sees his duty, does what is required of him, and by the second half of the book he’s well and truly in on all the action, and nearly gets annihilated a couple of times.
There is a romantic element in this story as Hannay falls in love with the charming Mary Lamington, who is also working for British Intelligence. There are some tense moments for him when the sinister Graft von Schwabing, the German master of disguise, succeeds in tricking Mary. She walks into his trap and finds herself on the ‘Underground Railway’ heading into Germany with him.
What I loved About Mr. Standfast
• Buchan uses the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book. When Hannay is given his assignment via Mary, she tells him to buy a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and ‘get it by heart.’ When he receives letters and messages about his assignment, they are written in a style reminiscent of John Bunyan. Some of the chapter headings are taken directly from Pilgrim’s Progress: The Village Named Morality; The Valley of Humiliation; The Summons Comes for Mr. Standfast.
• Buchan has a very literary style and perceptive insights into human nature. Add those qualities to his grasp of the historical setting and his ability to tell a thrilling political/spy adventure story and the result is a winner.
• Buchan was a fellow Scot and I love his descriptions of the Scottish Highlands and its people. He also had a very full and interesting life, living in South Africa and later in Canada where he held the position of Governor General. This wide experience of life is reflected in his writing.
• Buchan’s characters: Mr. Blenkiron, who starred in Greenmantle, makes his appearance again in Mr. Standfast, this time as a healthy man cured of his chronic dyspepsia; Sir Archie Roylance, the light-hearted youth who previously served with Hannay and now is in the flying Corps, and Mary Lamington, the courageous and patriotic eighteen year old girl who wins Hannay‘s heart.
• My favourite character in this book would have to be the wiry and wise, Peter Pienaar, an old associate of Hannay’s from South Africa who participated in some previous adventures. He had found his niche in the Flying Corps and gained a reputation for skill amongst his fellow flyers, but also from Lensch, the German aviation hero. Peter had been downed by Lensch in a air fight and at the beginning of this story he is a crippled prisoner of war. The Pilgrim’s Progress was his constant companion and he had singled out Mr. Standfast as his counterpart because he did not think he could emulate Mr. Valiant-for-Truth. How wrong he was!
Among the unopened letters was one from Peter, a very bulky one which I sat down to read at leisure. It was a curious epistle, far the longest he had ever written me, and its size made me understand his loneliness. He was still at his German prison-camp, but expecting every day to go to Switzerland…
Peter’s letter was made up chiefly of reflection. He had always been a bit of a philosopher, and now, in his isolation, he had taken to thinking hard, and poured out the results to me on pages of thin paper in his clumsy handwriting. I could read between the lines that he was having a stiff fight with himself. He was trying to keep his courage going in face of the bitterest trial he could be called on to face – a crippled old age. He had always known a good deal about the Bible, and that and the Pilgrim’s Progress were his chief aids in reflection. Both he took quite literally, as if they were newspaper reports of actual recent events.
Peter preferred Valiant-for-Truth to Mr Greatheart, I think, because of his superior truculence, for, being very gentle himself, he loved a bold speaker…He thought that he might with luck resemble Mr Standfast, for like him he had not much trouble in keeping wakeful, and was also as ‘poor as a howler’, and didn’t care for women. He only hoped that he could imitate him in making a good end.
But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you’re feeling empty inside, and your blood’s thin, and there’s no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble’s not over in an hour or two but lasts for months and years. One of the men here was speaking about that kind, and he called it ‘Fortitude’. I reckon fortitude’s the biggest thing a man can have—just to go on enduring when there’s no guts or heart left in you.
Peter was writing for his own comfort, for fortitude was all that was left to him now. But his words came pretty straight to me, and I read them again and again, for I needed the lesson. Here was I losing heart just because I had failed in the first round and my pride had taken a knock. I felt honestly ashamed of myself, and that made me a far happier man.
Mr. Standfast by John Buchan is my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Re-read a favorite classic
John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels are scheduled as free reads in the AmblesideOnline Year 11 curriculum, but they are also great reading for around age 12 to 13 years and up. My kids loved them.