Gibbs and Buchan

Thinking about Philip Gibbs’s General Strike novel, Young Anarchy (1926), it strikes me how different its attitudes are from those found in John Buchan’s A Prince of the Captivity (1933).

The values of Buchan’s novel are just as grounded in the war – which gives its hero, Adam Melfort, a chance to redeem his reputation. As in Gibbs’s novel, the post-war period is seen as a time of disquiet and uncertainty. As one of the characters says:

“There’s going to be all kinds of queer by-products of the war. You know how after a heavy day you are sometimes too tired to sleep. Well, that is the position of a good many today – too tired to rest – must have some other kind of excitement – running round like sick dogs till the real crash comes. The big problem of the world is not economic but psychological – how to get men’s minds on an even keel again.”

Buchan is as worried as Gibbs by the spectre of Communist extremism, and like him focuses on an intelligent young working man, who has the potential to be a future leader of Labour. Gibbs’s David Swayne is a Ruskin College student who goes on a journey from class resentment to moderation. Buchan’s Utlaw is a self-educated Trades Unionist with an ambitious wife, who works his way to political success.

For both, the crisis of their story comes with a General Strike. David Swayne sees the unreasonableness of it, and dedicates himself to the moderate constitutional wing of the Labour Party, with Gibbs’s approval. Utlaw is in a not dissimilar position. A General Strike is in the offing, and everything will depend on the commitment of Utlaw’s metal-workers. Utlaw is persuaded by Creevey, the voice of practical reason and the book’s villain, that it would be in everyone’s interest to keep his men out, and avert a national stoppage. Persuaded that this is in the interests of the country, Utlaw persuades his men, gaining a tactical victory but knowing that this moderation will in end doom his future in the Labour movement. He does what he ought to do, but at the expense of distancing himself from his community, and from the clear ideals of solidarity that he used to stand for.

Politically Buchan was very much against National Strikes, but as a novelist he knew that what mattered most was his characters’ integrity. Utlaw has done the sensible thing, but in the process has lost part of his soul. Later he joins the Conservatives.

So maybe we can take Gibbs and Buchan as examples of two types of novelist. For Gibbs a happy ending is when all his sympathetic characters come round to his point of view. For Buchan a tragedy is when a man loses his inegrity. A happy ending, on the other hand, is when a man’s integrity is saved – as the villain Creevey’s is at the end of the book.

A Prince of the Captivity is a decidedly odd book – but rather a thought-provoking one.


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