I have, you will recall, a bit of a weakness for John Buchan, and The House of the Four Winds is a splendid tale of derring do, of the villains getting what they deserve, and lots of fairly improbable adventures along the way. The locale is Evallonia, mysterious east European country somewhere east of Austria, where a dissolute republic is collapsing, and the question is whether a decent, romantic constitutional monarchy will succeed it, or a Communist dictatorship. No need to tell you which side our brave lads are on, Jaikie and Dougal, Gorbals lads made good, their mentor, the retired Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn, the delightful Alison Westwater (with whom Jaikie is incoherently in love), and Archie and Janet Roylance. The bulk of the cast comes straight from Huntingtower and Castle Gay, but Archie is an import from the Richard Hannay books; a new arrival is the master of disguise Randal Glynde, touring Evallonia with his circus – in particular the elephant Aurunculeia, with which he appears at critical and exciting moments.
In a book of this sort, it is no plot spoiler to say that our side pulls it off, and all is well. The Republic folds, the communists are discredited and damaged beyond repair, and the young King John ascends his throne in a blaze of popular support and good intentions. It is easy to laugh at this sort of thing – and I do – but it is very engaging, and almost wholly free from the worst characteristics of the genre – racism and sexism (though there is a fair bit of royal gallantry around).
But it is genuinely fascinating to put the book into its historical context. In 1935, John Buchan was being ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir, and had just been appointed Governor-General of Canada, forcing him to give up his seat in Parliament (he had been MP for the Scottish Universities since 1927); in Europe, Hitler was very active politically but England had not realised that she would have to fight, and there were still many Hitler sympathisers in Britain, some from the very highest political classes. A youth movement (Juventus) in Evallonia looks very like the Hitler Youth, though more decent and less aggressive and thuggish. It must have been reassuring to have a fun book which cantered through international affairs as if Britain still ruled the world, and in which some of the darker forces were tamed and decent men came to power. It was, of course, an utterly futile vision for Germany, but that does not stop this being a most entertaining read!