Bestselling Governor General

For John Buchan, writing fiction was a sideline. Yet one of his works, adapted for film and theatre, remains part of popular culture long after his term as Governor General has faded from memory.

Written by Kate Jaimet

Posted August 1, 2016

Even when he became Canada’s Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir in 1935, John Buchan did not stop writing. During his time at Rideau Hall from 1935 to 1940, he worked on a biography of the Roman Emperor Augustus, his autobiography, Memory-Hold-the-Door, and his last novel, Sick Heart River, which was set in the Northwest Territories.

Over his lifetime, Buchan wrote a total of twenty-nine novels, forty-two non-fiction works, ten biographies, four books of poetry, and two short story collections. He was also the editor of fourteen books. Of these, his most memorable work is TheThirty-Nine Steps. A spy novel set prior to the First World War, it was an instant bestseller and has never been out of print.

The book spawned several radio plays, an award-winning stage show that continues to run in London and New York, and three movie adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation The 39 Steps.

Nor was Buchan the only writer in the family. His wife, Susan Buchan — Lady Tweedsmuir — wrote several novels, children’s books, plays, and biographies. As Lady Tweedsmuir, she promoted literacy in Canada, organizing a program to send books to remote areas of the West. It was due to her urging that Governor General’s Literary Awards were established in 1936.

The viceregal couple travelled widely throughout Canada, including above the Arctic Circle, and encouraged Canadians to develop their own distinct identity. In a speech in Montreal in 1937, Lord Tweedsmuir famously stated, “a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” He also seemed to be genuinely attached to his new home. In a letter to friends that same year, he stated, “I am a passionate Canadian in my love for the country and the people.”

Lord Tweedsmuir’s life ended on Canadian soil. In February 1940 he suffered a stroke and died shortly afterwards. Today he is remembered as one of Canada’s most outstanding Governors General.

Video clip of The 39 Steps.

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An extended version of this story by Kate Jaimet which appeared in the August-September 2016 issue of Canada’s History.

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