John Buchan is best known today for his spy novel (in terms of length more of a novella, really) The 39 Steps (1915), or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is remembered for authoring the source novel to Hitchcock’s famous film The 39 Steps (1939). He also wrote several other popular novels, one of the most popular being Greenmantle (1916), which was the sequel to Steps, featuring the same protagonist, Richard Hannay. Hitchcock wanted to direct Greenmantle, too, but couldn’t agree terms with the copyright holders. Thus it has become far less known and less read than its predecessor, though it is certainly a fine read in itself.
Greenmantle was published during World War I, and it is also set in said conflict. Buchan saw the writing of the book as part of his contribution to the war effort. It was, in short, intended partially as propaganda. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. No less a work than the film Casablanca (1942), for example, was conceived as propaganda.
At the beginning of Greenmantle, Hannay has returned from a stint as an officer in the trenches, where he took his soldiers over the top on a “glorious and bloody 25th day of September” (Buchan, Greenmantle, Penguin, 2008, 1). Hannay reflects with pride and enthusiasm on the Western Front, reminding us that this book was written relatively early in the war, just before the glorification of the wartime experience became very difficult. Indeed, shortly afterwards Hannay does give some voice to the disillusionment with war that had begun to set in: “[T]his isn’t just the kind of war I would have picked myself. It’s a comfortless, bloody business” (3). In other parts of the book, too, it is clear that the old jingoistic love of war is becoming frayed at the edges.
For both commercial and propagandistic purposes, war has to be made fun in Greenmantle. Buchan recognized that trench warfare wasn’t fun and even his narrative gifts couldn’t convincingly make it so. So at the outset, Hannay has just left the trenches and is about to engage in wartime espionage. In the James Bondian opening (the comparison is inevitable), Hannay is told that his mission is to head for the Middle East and find out what the Germans (or Boche, as they’re often known in the novel) are up to. Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office (also seen in Steps) calls Hannay in: he knows that the Germans are cooking up some secret plan involving the Middle East, but he doesn’t know what it is or where to look for information. It’s all very vague, and the detail seems very much in the tradition of what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin – the device whose content is less important than the fact that it allows the plot to move forward. In Greenmantle this means opening the way for travel in farflung and wartorn lands, for brushes with the enemy/death, and for adopting disguises.
Perhaps it is this latter that is the most potentially interesting motif in Greenmantle: the joy and freedom the characters experience when in disguise may point to a certain ontological insecurity hiding behind the mask of pure identification with English manhood that Hannay exhibits. Brave, modest, self-denying, self-regulating, devotedly patriotic, it’s not an easy ideal to live up to. No wonder Hannay and his friends enjoy make-believe so much. Of course the propensity to become other people is given a somewhat crass ideological justification:
We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. (23)
At this early point in the book, the whole Middle Eastern operation is rather delicate, propagandistically, as the patriotic Hannay can’t be seen to be escaping the trenches in undertaking his mission. So he demurs, and has to be talked round to the idea that he can best serve his country away from the front lines. But talked round he is, and once the protagonist’s unimpeachable wartime patriotism is firmly established, the narrative can begin in earnest.
Hannay establishes his band of brothers: a Scot, a Boer, and a loquacious and slightly blustering American. This bond between British and American was particularly important at the time, as American entry into the war was still hoped for, and did eventually transpire. On the other side are, of course, the Germans, and later the Turks. Buchan’s treatment of the enemy is quite nuanced. One recalls Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), wherein an evident admiration for the German national character exists alongside an insistence on seeing them as an intolerable threat to British security and dominance. Buchan has a similar admiration, but at the same time a commitment to locating a decisive flaw in the German character. When he first meets the villain von Stumm, Hannay confusedly notes:
Here was the German of caricature, the real German, the fellow we were up against. (57)
Paradoxically, the caricature is equated with the real, with the implication that Germans who do not correspond to the caricature are not real Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm II appears briefly and is portrayed with overt sympathy. Along with Hannay’s semi-sympathetic stance towards the Germans is a perhaps more surprising sympathy with the Turks: “I took a fancy to the Turkish fighting man: I remembered the testimonial our fellows gave him as a clear fighter, and I felt very bitter that Germany should have lugged him into this dirty business.” (240) Hannay is not a xenophobe, though he is a racist (as shown in the quote above about “the only race who etc.”). He doesn’t hate the enemies of his country, and that element of generous mindedness is a positive in Greenmantle.
So Buchan does not aim at the easy targets in this book. Nevertheless, he does ultimately make some approaches to the standard propagandist aim of presenting an embodiment of evil in the political enemies of the protagonists. Here is where national politics and gender politics become merged, for Buchan here introduces a female character, one of only two female characters in the book, and by far the most important (none of the protagonists’ are married, it seems). It is because women are so far removed from the everyday milieu of the characters that Buchan is able to ascribe to the one who does play a significant role a metaphysical significance:
She’s a she-devil. It isn’t madness that’s wrong with her. She’s as sane as you and as cool as Bleniron. Her life is an infernal game of chess, and she plays with souls for pawns. She’s evil – evil- evil… (282)
The overheated prose here contracts with most of the rest of the book, and recalls the feminized evil of fin de siecle works like Machen’s The Great God Pan. It’s a trope that jars somewhat in the context of Buchan’s espionage thriller with its realistic detail and understated emotional landscape. On the other hand, the evil of the enemy has to be embodied to create effective propaganda, and Buchan evidently found in easier to ascribe evil to a feminine figure.
There’s much more to Greenmantle than this, though. I mentioned earlier that there is one other female figure: that is the sympathetic German woman whose house the fleeing Hannay stumbles upon and who gives him shelter and sustenance. She prompts him to reflect as follows:
That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter’s cottage cured me of such nightmare. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. (121)
Sure, Hannay doesn’t by any means go so far as to question the righteousness of his country’s cause, but there is still a humanity that permeates the book and that gives it a value beyond the propagandistic. Even now, Greenmantle is a good read, one whose ulterior motives are counterbalanced by a breezy and straightforward narrative style and an outlook without the insularity or dogmatism one might associate with British imperial literature.