Mr Standfast by John Buchan

John Buchan
Mr Standfast

I struggled with this book a little, it had a bit of a slow start and didn’t really grab me like Thirty Nine Steps did, and I felt initially that I wasn’t following the plot or the characters very well. However the end of the book detailing the battle in the First World War was incredibly inspirational and humbling and stirring and emotional, and I was quite honestly in tears by the end with the tension and the pride of what the allies achieved!

Mr Standfast by John Buchan available on Amazon

I struggled with this book a little, it had a bit of a slow start and didn’t really grab me like Thirty Nine Steps did, and I felt initially that I wasn’t following the plot or the characters very well. However the end of the book detailing the battle in the First World War was incredibly inspirational and humbling and stirring and emotional, and I was quite honestly in tears by the end with the tension and the pride of what the allies achieved!

As I was struggling with following the characters, I quickly re-read Thirty Nine Steps which helped enormously as Mr Standfast brings in people and circumstances from the earlier book. Thirty Nine Steps was about trying to prevent war in a time when the population was unaware of the danger in its midst, The Blackstone Gang were trying to build up conflict between countries and to gain possession of plans that England was passing to our ally, France, and Hannay was then acting on instructions from Bullivant and McGillavry and Blenkiron, and these men also recruit him again in Mr Standfast (this therefore explains the lack of details about the characters that I was struggling with, as we’re presumed to know these people from Thirty Nine Steps). The Blackstone Gang in Thirty Nine Steps was made up of three men, one with hooded eyebrows, and one with a lisp, and the lisping man escaped and reinvented himself as Ivery. 

Richard Hannay is sent on a mission, he’s not given details of what he’s looking for but told to assume the identity of Cornelius Brand and to pretend to be a pacifist, which is against all his personal beliefs. The Pilgrim’s Progress book seems to be used as a kind of a code (which makes me intrigued to also read this book, so it has duly gone onto my list of books to purchase). Hannay’s friend, Peter Pienaar, is reading this book while a prisoner in a prisoner-of-war camp. Hannay’s contact is Mary Lammington, who’s only a young girl.

The English informer giving information to the enemy is Ivery. Hannay is sent to Glasgow to find the ‘postbox’ where messages are passed from the spy to the next person in the gang. He meets Amos there, who identifies himself as an ally. Hannay stays in Glasgow for a while and gets introduced to Gresson, who Amos believes is also linked to Ivery. Gresson goes to the Scottish Highlands on the Tobermoray boat, so Hannay goes on the same boat saying he’s having a walking holiday. Hannay guesses Gresson is collecting or delivering a package on Skye, so he walks from Oban to Skye avoiding inns and authorities as he becomes aware that a description has been given out for him. He does find the ‘postbox’ in a cliff. Wake turns up at the postbox, he doesn’t really explain why he’s there apart from saying he likes climbing and walking, Hannay is suspicious of him at first and thinks he’s part of Ivery’s gang but then changes his mind and tells him all about Ivery and gives him a message to deliver to Amos, which he does. 

Ivery had recognised Hannay, so has been onto him and seen through him ever since, and has been trying to foil his plans. Hannay thought Ivery looked familiar but discounted the Blackstone Gang as he thought all were captured or dead, he finally realises Ivery’s identity when his ‘mask’ dropps during a bomb raid, but Ivery then also sees that Hannay recognises him so is now alerted and flees. (These ‘disguises’ that Ivery uses seem a bit strange as they seem very successful but with very little change to his appearance, it is kind of implied that because Ivery believes himself to be that character he is then believable as that character and so avoids recognition even when being a famous person, such as a Sea Lord at a meeting with top officials in Thirty Nine Steps or mixing with important people, and no-one seems to see through this ‘disguise’ apart from now Hannay who is determined to never be taken in again by him. But this ‘disguise’ thing is very strange). Ivery is actually a noble/aristocrat called Graf von Schwabing. 

Hannay goes back to the Front Line, as he’s played his part in Scotland and is awaiting his next role. While in France, he interpretes newspaper adverts as being an enemy code. He is based near a chateau in France that (hugely coincidentally!) he finds that Greeson has visited, he becomes more suspicious when he sees a woman going into the chateau with a gas mark on. He investigates, and finds Mary inside (another coincidence!) also investigating, they find what they guess is anthrax being made. Ivery then arrives at the chateau and then flees before he can be captured, but they learn he was using the name Beaumont in France. Mary and Hannay declare their feelings for each other and plan to marry after the war (though she’s 19, and he’s 40!). 

Blenkiron thinks they’ve tracked Ivery to Switzerland, this is also where Hannay’s convalescing friend Pienaar has been sent so Hannay goes to Switzerland as Pienaar’s servant. The team all receive fake messages from each other, Hannay’s message leads him to a lonely house by a lake where he is trapped by Ivery who says he will take Hannay on the Underground Train to Germany where he will be dealt with, and says he’s also taking Mary there. Ivery then leaves to meet Mary, and says he will come back the next day for Hannay. Hannay escapes and steals a car to drive through the snowy Swiss mountain passes to where Mary is, but he crashes the car and misses Mary and Ivery. He meets Wake there (all these chance meetings!) who confirms they’d all had fake messages. Wake and Hannay then mountain climb/hike back through the passes Hannay’s just driven through, risking their lives, to get Hannay back to the lonely house by the lake that he’s just come from (I’m not sure if all this seems a bit overly complicated?). Hannay also gives information to Pienaar to pass to Blenkiron. When Hannay arrives at the lonely house, Blenkiron and Amos and others are there, and Ivery is captured. Hannay decides it would be more of a punishment to Ivery to send him into battle on our side, so he joins the Front Line with Hannay. 

The German Spring Offensive/Operation Michael battle then begins, on 21st March 1918,  with the allies trying to prevent the Germans (or ‘The Boche’ or ‘The Hun’, as Hannay calls them) pushing their line deeper in France to reach Amiens and beyond. The allies fight successfully, and also the Germans couldn’t get their supplies in swiftly enough to provide support to their troops, and so begins the Hundred Days Offensive pushing the German line back over previous territory they’d gained and destroying their morale, and this ended the First World War. 

Wake dies after bravely getting a message to headquarters about the desperate state of play in Hannay’s front line. Pienaar also dies by sacrificing himself in a plane to take out the remaining plane trying to fly back to Germany lines with the information that the allies’ line is weak.

The description of the battle is quite technical, with ‘forward zone’ and ‘flanking fire’, and I didn’t understand it all, but the gritty determination and bravery of the men while exhausted and injured and having lost comrades is humbling. The allies’ defending line consists of a pitiful number of men compared to the Germans’ line, and it’s only by the allies’ planes preventing the Germans’ planes from flying over and realising this weakness in numbers that this is concealed. I found it very emotional at the end. Even though the technical descriptions of battle lines and formations were over my head, the absolute bravery and determination of the allies hugely lower in numbers fighting against the Germans and fighting to the death and not for a moment giving way and using quick-thinking and their courage and pride of their country to make them the stronger force even though they were pitifully weak, was inspirational, and then winning! Apparently Buchan wrote the final battle scenes at about the same time it was really happening, which is perhaps why it reads so true. There are lots of details of other battles from the war in the book too, but it felt like the author presumed an in-depth knowledge of these battles by the reader so didn’t explain each one, and as I don’t have this in-depth knowledge it was frustrating not to get more details and learn more. It was also clear that taking part in these battles had obviously contributed to the man that Richard Hannay had become, so I felt I’d understand better the courage and bravery he’s doubtless shown in battle if the battles had been detailed more fully. Mr Standfast also seemed a bit like Buchan was trying to repeat the success of Thirty Nine Steps with the chase through Scotland, and Thirty Nine Steps was also a small book and it felt at times like Mr Standfast was dragging a little and like the story was being padded out so I wonder if perhaps a smaller book would have been better. But I definitely am glad I read the book, if just for the final battle alone which made it a very memorable and special book to read. I also read that Buchan was influenced in the writing of this book by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress which I have on my shelf waiting to be read so I’d be interested in reading that book too.

Mr Standfast by John Buchan available on Amazon

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