RogerBW's Blog

Midwinter, John Buchan 19 December 2020

1923 historical thriller, set in the rebellion of 1745. Alastair Maclean is carrying messages to England and getting promises of support for his Prince. But it seems that one of his fellow couriers may be a traitor to the Cause.

So. Well. Yes. While Buchan clearly had some grasp on reality, he was also a romantic, and of course his Maclean is thoroughly committed to that havering paranoid alcoholic wife-beater Charles Edward Stuart. (Who, perhaps fortunately, never appears on the page.) One doesn't wish to conflate the character's ideas with the author's, but this can be hard to read at times – especially since even if we do get into sympathy with Maclean we still know that this is a hopeless cause.

And of course this rebellion doesn't look much like the one I know about, the one that was doomed from the start as Charles failed to get French military support but set out anyway. It seems here that England is ready to rise for the Stuart if only Charles will win a battle on English soil… but in practice the country was largely indifferent to him, naturally cheering when touchy and violent men rode past their houses but otherwise mostly out of favour with this antiquated cause. (And of course Charles didn't have to suffer what was done to Scotland after he'd lost…)

That's background to the personal story, but it's important background, because it drives the principal conflict. Maclean is meant to be bringing pledges of support to Charles, to stiffen his resolve and provide the voice of a professional soldier in his counsels (and of course like most Stuarts Charles tended to agree with whomever had spoken to him most recently). But he allows himself to be distracted; he falls in love with the new-wedded wife of an English supporter of the cause, though that supporter has a bad reputation, so when it appears that the man may be a traitor, there's a tempting way of aiding both the cause and his own ambitions…

Not that the wife has anything to say on the matter; she is to be Cherished and Protected from learning anything she might find unpleasant, and she's constantly described in childlike terms. Which might not be too bad, since she is very young, but the only other female character (rather older) is also described with "the limpid depth of her great childlike eyes", "a Flora of spring whose summer had not begun", "childlike laughter", and on; it gets rather wearing. (She does get one scene in which she gets to do something, but even then it's largely at the direction of Maclean.) It's worse because we know that Buchan can write female characters with agency and even physicality, rather than porcelain ornaments to be put on a shelf and worshipped: Mary Hannay in The Three Hostages, for example, or Anna Haraldsen in The Island of Sheep. He just doesn't, here.

Maclean is young and frankly rather stupid, and I found myself quite out of sympathy with him in the latter part of the book, particularly when he makes obvious and foolish assumptions, and when he takes the entire blame for the failure of the invasion on himself. At length. But the earlier part is rather better, with lots of travelling across rough country, opposition and aid from unexpected quarters, and action that fits the period rather than being generic thrillery stuff.

A central conceit here is that Samuel Johnson was alive at the time, but this is a part of his life about which Boswell didn't write; and so he can be placed as temporary tutor to the lady who's just run off and got married. That brings him into contact with Maclean, and much of their journeying is together. Buchan can't quite resist shoehorning in all the Johnson quotes one has heard of, but otherwise the portrayal of him is effective.

Rather more in the background is the title character, Midwinter, a sort of Puck-figure of "Old England"; although he's not implied to be a supernatural being, he or his followers are always available to supply a deus ex machina when it's needed. As a plot device he works; as a sage who knows all and gives exactly the right advice, he doesn't work as well; and fortunately he's not developed as a character beyond that, because it really wouldn't convince.

The first half is definitely better than the second, and Maclean's self-loathing brings back memories of the more maudlin passages of Sabatini, but as always with Buchan the descriptive writing of landscapes and travel is superb.

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