What are the thirty-nine steps? You would be forgiven for not knowing with the amount of adaptations there have been of John Buchan’s most famous novel featuring Richard Hannay, the canny protagonist who dodges trouble whenever it arrives. Each film, including the 1935 original directed by Alfred Hitchcock, diverges greatly from Buchan’s novel first published in 1915, including major plot inclusions such as Hannay’s female companions who are completely absent in the novel (such additions were probably made due to the film industry’s growing demand for female co-stars, as well as Hitchcock’s apparent fetish for blonde damsels in distress).
But it is thanks to such representations that has bestowed The Thirty-Nine Steps the luxury of becoming one of Britain’s most loved novels, becoming a reminder of the mystical British stiff-upper lip that the Victorians supposedly possessed. It is no surprise therefore that Buchan – who lived a variety of many lives as a writer, soldier, and a Governor General of Canada – has become known as “the last Victorian” (Woods 2020).
Bearing such themes in mind, it is therefore quite a miracle that The Thirty-Nine Steps has not faced any opprobrium for promoting ‘British jingoism’ or some form of nostalgia for imperialism. After all, it hardly gives a positive portrayal of the German ‘blackguards’ that relentlessly pursue Hannay’s escape into the scenic mountains of the Scottish Highlands when he is framed for murder. Nevertheless, Buchan can sleep soundly in his grave by not suffering from such claims that are made against other Victorian authors such as Rudyard Kipling and, to a lesser degree, Joseph Conrad.
The Thirty-Nine Steps however displays a patriotic spirit in a unique manner that other novels such as Kipling’s Kim had previously done before, with the notable exception of Buchan’s espionage thriller being set in the peaceful metropole of the British Empire itself. Whilst Buchan modestly described his magnum opus as a ‘dime novel’, The Thirty-Nine Steps represents several themes in one succinct manner. Whilst not as dramatic as its media portrayals, the powerful and stoic use of words Buchan uses for Hannay’s narration shows the protagonist appreciating the adventurous, albeit dangerous, circumstances he is now placed in, unlike the constant inertia civilian life in London had brought him:
“The sailor morosely agreed, and I started my new life in an atmosphere of protest against authority. I reminded myself that a week ago I had been finding the world dull.”The Thirty-Nine Steps, p. 22.
Whilst Hannay did not choose to place himself in the predicament he has found himself in, he nevertheless continues to try and decipher the conspiracy that endangers his country. Even though this is somewhat out of self-preservation, his army days in the Boer War are long over – his obligations to his country are no longer needed. Hannay’s built-in British stiff-upper lip prevents him from giving up.
Besides this, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the perfect novel for anyone who seeks escapism in the form of a thrilling adventure of the past within the majestic Scottish Highlands. Whilst Richard Hannay is a fictional character consisting of far-fetching abilities and luck, he is nevertheless a man who is likeable for the determination he has for defending his country, even when the odds are strongly against him. One also greatly appreciates how such a simple but exciting concept has not yet been politicised just for the sake of generating criticism and unnecessary controversy.
- Buchan, John (2018) The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: Penguin Books.
- Woods, Brett F. (2020) The Last Victorian: John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet. California Literary Review, 19 April. Available: https://calitreview.com/42/the-last-victorian-john-buchan-and-the-hannay-quartet/ [Accessed: 6 May 2020].