When I first got into John Buchan, I focussed on his ‘shockers’ – the adventures of Richard Hannay and some of those concerning the semi-autobiographical Sir Edward Leithen (although it was only in recent months that I read Sick Heart River, the one set in Canada – of which more at a later date). Over the years I also encountered his short stories, one of which happens to feature an elderly (and decidedly unimpressive) Bonnie Prince Charlie (the story in question being ‘The Company of the Marjorlaine’, which can be found in The Best Short Stories of John Buchan, Volume 1). Like many a novelist, Buchan wasn’t averse to the odd walk-on appearance by a real person (in Greenmantle, Richard Hannay’s escapades in Germany during the First World War include a brief meeting with the Kaiser who is not depicted as some sort of panto villain; even when he was writing his ‘shockers’, Buchan was far too clever for that), and it’s the appearance of a real person that was what fascinated me about one of Buchan’s more overlooked novels.
The Young Pretender, or rather the rebellion he led in 1745, forms the backdrop of Midwinter (1923) which tells the story of Alastair Maclean, a young Jacobite officer on a mission in the English Midlands of the pre-industrial age. His task is to establish how much support the Prince can expect from the English as he advances south, and the main thrust of the plot concerns his attempt to stop two noblemen (who are posing as Jacobite sympathisers) from passing false information to Bonnie Prince Charlie (in this, an unseen character); they are doing this while simultaneously passing information about actual Jacobite sympathisers to the Hannoverian government in the hope of being rewarded with the lands which those sympathisers will forfeit in the event of the rebellion being defeated. Maclean is, though, conflicted because he happens to fall in love with the wife of one of the antagonists, and he faces the age-old dilemma of having to choose between love and duty.
In some ways, this is a reversal of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley (in which, to be brief, an English officer heads north of the border during the Forty-Five), although as far as resourceful (and fictional) young military men are concerned Maclean is a much more convincing character than that romantic and incompetent fool Edward Waverley ever was. Like Waverley, Maclean meets many characters who represent the country which he is visiting, from country squires to gipsies – among them the titular Amos Midwinter, leader of a shadowy, semi-pagan group of innkeepers, charcoal-burners and peasants going by names such as the ‘Spoonbills’ or the ‘Naked Men’ which represents an England that “has outlived Roman and Saxon and Dane and Norman … the land of the edge of the moorland and the rim of the forests and the twilight before dawn”. For a titular character, his appearances are fleeting which has led some to suspect that Buchan may have intended to return to him and his group (representing an England that, by the above description alone, would appear to predate England itself) in a later work.
The highlight of Midwinter, though, is the appearance of one Samuel Johnson as one of the main supporting characters. This is in itself a clever piece of plotting by Buchan, as it is not known what the great man of letters was actually doing at the time of the Forty-Five. In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell stated that “his literary career appears to have been almost totally suspended in the years 1745 and 1746, those years which were marked by a civil war in Great-Britain”, adding that Johnson, being an old-fashioned sort of Tory, “had a tenderness for that unfortunate House [of Stuart] … some may fancifully imagine, that a sympathetick anxiety impeded the exertion of his intellectual powers”. Boswell is used as part of the framing device for the story – in this case, a text supposedly written by Johnson’s biographer is purportedly found in a solicitor’s office that claims to shed light on the great lexicographer’s ‘missing years’. Thus is the main story, that of Captain Maclean’s mission, introduced.
The Johnson of Midwinter is introduced as a “big shambling fellow” of whom “disease and rough usage had wiped every sign of youth from his face. That face was large, heavily-featured and pitted deep with the scars of scrofula … he wore his own hair, straight and lank and tied with a dusty ribbon. His clothes were of some coarse grey stuff and much worn … he had no boots, but instead clumsy unbuckled shoes and black worsted stockings.” Being an embodiment of the ‘John Bull’ type of Englishman, he eats and drinks heartily, although his well-known physical traits are not ignored; his short-sightedness is touched upon and at one point he suffers from “a grievous melancholy … his left leg twitching like a man with the palsy.” But he is identified as a good man of “simplicity and courage and honest friendship”, speaking with a “queer provincial accent” yet “at moments he had a fine dignity, and his diction was metropolitan if his pronunciation was rustic.”
Naturally for a man reckoned to be the second-most quoted Englishman in history (after Shakespeare), this is a character who talks “wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating”. Buchan of course couldn’t resist inserting a few classic Johnson quotes into the character’s dialogue, and who can blame him for doing so? If one is going to have Samuel Johnson as a character in a novel, one must have him speak like the real thing although quite a few of the quotes are reworded to suit the plot rather than inserted verbatim. On encountering Maclean in one of several country pubs that feature in Midwinter, Johnson declares that: “Of all the good gifts of a beneficient Providence to men … I think that none excels a well-appointed inn”. Claret, he advises, is “but a liquor for boys”, while “for men port, and for heroes brandy.” On Midwinter and his group, he declares that “when one praises rusticity it is because he is denied the joys of town. A man may be tired of the country, but when he is tired of London he is tired of life.” On learning of Maclean’s profession, he declares that: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” (that one I had thought to be from Kipling, but my copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes those words to Johnson). He also chants “what sounded like Latin hexameters” and expresses a desire to visit the Western Isles one day – which, of course, he would do with Boswell in 1773.
His presence in the English countryside in 1745 (he had moved to London in 1737) is explained by his being a tutor at a country house, which is how he encounters a young lady called Claudia, the wife of one of the novel’s antagonists and Maclean’s love interest. He’s not just there to talk, though – he spends quite a bit of time in the saddle and gets involved in the fight scenes as well (in a fist-fight, Johnson – a much bigger man than his opponent – has “no skill, but immense reach and strength … He simply beat down the other’s guard, reckless of the blows he received, and presently dealt him such a clout that he measured his length on the floor”), and it is he who helps Maclean to decide what to do with regards to the protagonist’s love/duty dilemma.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is made in Midwinter of Johnson’s noted antagonism towards the Scots; he befriends Maclean and helps him on his quest, and after hearing of the Prince’s retreat north from Derby he acquires a sword and expresses a desire to accompany his new friend to Scotland to fight for the Jacobite cause, and even “change my name to MacIan, and be as fierce as any Highlander” – thus trying to put his above quote about soldiers into practice by becoming a man of action! In the event, though, he is convinced that he should return to his wife and his writing career in London.
Although not in the same vein as Buchan’s ‘shockers’, this is an historical novel par excellence – there’s intrigue and treachery aplenty as Maclean is ultimately faced with an uncomfortable choice (albeit one not unfamiliar to romantic heroes). What elevates it above most, though, is a convincing and realistic portrayal of a great historical figure.