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The Buchan Years

Unlike when the Parsons family lived at the Manor, there were housemaids from the village, Mabel and Dorothy Chaulk being two of them, sisters recruited during the 1930s. Mabel remembers that they had to be "quiet as mice" as they did their work so as not to interrupt John Buchan’s writing. They were allowed Sunday off every other week but were obliged to go to church. If they failed to do so, they were severely reprimanded. John Buchan sat at the front of the church surrounded by his household and always did the readings. When King George V died, Mabel, along with all the other Elsfield children, was given a copy of John Buchan’s book The King’s Grace, though it is difficult to imagine Mabel having any interest in a book such as this. It contains a great deal about the political situation during the King’s reign, not a topic to grab the attention of a fourteen year old.

Not only was Susan Buchan concerned to support her husband in all his varied responsibilities. She also turned her face towards the village, involving herself with not just the physical well being of the residents, but the social and educational aspects of the women’s lives. She did this through the Women’s Institute, the Elsfield branch of which she founded the year after her arrival in the village.

However, if the Buchans contributed to village life, the village and its environs gave a considerable amount back. To Susan Buchan, they gave friendship and support. To John Buchan, they gave a knowledge of English country life which he used to good effect in his novels. The idea of ‘an older England’ crops up time and again not only in Buchan’s fiction but also in what the rest of the family write. The idea that people who live close to the soil can and have survived in spite of whatever political system is in place and that they provide a network of support for one another which stretches across the land from village to village, unnoticed by their political masters.

"These rogues have their ears very near to the ground and hear much which other men miss", Buchan writes of the vagabonds who form a sort of unofficial Masonic lodge in Blanket of the Dark. "They have knowledge which the King’s Council could not buy for gold. Also they are strong and secret, and throng as a swarm of bees, and they cover all England."

The idea crops up again in Midwinter and Susan Buchan herself writing in 1954 says that in spite of all the modern conveniences which have come to village life, radio, television and farm mechanisation, planners for rural England "often strike something primeval, some up-surge from a far older world, when the community draws together impalpably but implacably against the invaders, and defeats their plans and well-meant schemes."

John Buchan had shooting rights in all the woods within the parish: Pennywell, Long Wood and Woodeaton Wood, as well as Stowood, which is just beyond the parish boundary, so he knew the woodlands well. He uses the woods around Elsfield as the setting for the beginning and end of Blanket of the Dark, set in the days of Henry the Eigth and the dissolution of the monasteries.

"The place was quiet. It had the scent of all woodland places in high summer –mosses, lush foliage, moist earth which has had its odours drawn out by a strong sun. There was also a faint sweetness of cut hay from the distant Woodeaton fields, and something aromatic and dry, which was the savour of stone and tile and ancient rumbling mortar."

His relationship to the land he owned in Elsfield is well expressed at the beginning of The Three Hostages.

"It was still mid-March, one of those spring days when noon is like May, and only the cold pearly haze at sunset warns a man that he is not done with winter. The season was absurdly early, for the blackthorn was in flower and the hedge roots were full of primroses. The partridges were paired, the rooks were well on with their nests and the meadows were full of shimmering grey flocks of fieldfares on their way north... It was jolly to see the world coming to life again, and to remember that this patch of England was my own, and all these wild things, so to speak, members of my little household.’

Midwinter, too, starts off in this part of the world, and though the main character spends much of the novel on a journey, one of the characters he meets is Samuel Johnson before he is famous, and Johnson was, of course, a visitor to the Manor in the 18th century.


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