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The Buchan Years

The following are found in this section:

The Buchan Family:

Manor doorway showing plaque to John Buchan
Manor doorway showing plaque
to John Buchan

1919 was a momentous year for Elsfield. Not only had the war ended and families could start to rebuild their lives, but the estate was sold by the Parsons family. The Oxford College of Christ Church bought it, perhaps remembering that in the 13th century some of the land in the parish had been owned by and farmed for St Frideswides. They almost immediately split off the Manor and its attendant outbuildings and twenty acres of land surrounding the house which they sold to John Buchan, the writer, journalist and politician.

During the war, poets such as Sassoon, Blunden and Brooke had presented the pastoral landscape of England as a healing power in contrast with the horror and waste of Flanders fields. Buchan was too old to be conscripted into the army but he had visited the Western Front and seen for himself the carnage and destruction the war had wreaked. Many of his friends from Oxford days had been killed. He wrote: "The war left me with an intense craving for a country life" and he purchased the "little manor of Elsfield" and speaks with delight of the countryside around Elsfield:

"Our ridge was old forest land and it provided one of the two types of landscape which have always had a special charm for me... the mountain meadow and the woodland clearing... Elsfield was rich in those secret glades, sometimes only an acre wide, but all ancient clearings whose turf had been cropped for centuries. Summer never dulled their verdure, for there was water in most of them, and in autumn their fringes were a riot of berries. One could find primroses there every month of the year."

As we can see, Buchan had a great affection for the countryside around Oxford, which he already knew from his days at Brasenose College. His arrival from Glasgow University in 1895 had catapulted him into the midst of the English establishment. There he had met people who were to be important in his career and social life. Some of them, such as Raymond Asquith, son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and Tommy Nelson, whose family owned the publishing firm Nelsons, of which Buchan would become a director, Aubrey Herbert, nephew of Lord Cowper and second son of the Earl of Caernarvon, famed for his roof climbing exploits and a possible model for Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle had all been killed in the war. Others, though, would be regular visitors to Elsfield while the Buchans lived there.

Susan and Alastair Buchan with Spider and Black Douglas (By kind permission of the John Buchan Centre, Broughton, nr. Biggar, Scotland)
Susan and Alastair Buchan with Spider and Black Douglas
(By kind permission of the John Buchan Centre, Broughton,
nr. Biggar, Scotland)

When the Buchan family moved into the Manor they brought with them their four young children, Alice, Johnnie, William and Alastair. Susan Buchan had been a Grosvenor before her marriage, but from a relatively impoverished branch of the family. Her father worked for the Sun Life Insurance Company, though we can assume he did not go from door to door collecting subscriptions. He was in the highest echelons of the organisation and eventually became its chairman. Susan had spent much of her young life in her paternal grandparents’ home, Moor Park, a Palladian mansion in Hertfordshire. John Buchan’s mother was not pleased when they announced their engagement, as Susan Grosvenor represented two of the organisations she hated most: the Church of England and the Aristocracy.

John and Susan Buchan assumed the responsibilities of the incumbent of the Manor with the energy and dedication they had demonstrated in other walks of life. They continued the system which the Parsons family had begun, taking on board the welfare of their employees and taking an important part in village life. In return, villagers took the whole family to their hearts, basking in the reflected glory of being connected to such an illustrious family. They were ‘comers-in’ but had every intention of being accepted by the residents.

While John Buchan presented a public face to the world, inviting famous friends from the many aspects of his working life, it was Susan Buchan who, besides nurturing her family, supported her husband’s career by the hospitality she offered. She was a woman schooled in the duties of a society hostess and aware of the significance this could have in furthering a husband’s reputation. Writing about house parties before the first world war she writes,

"In a gathering of people selected by a really clever hostess there might be one or two Cabinet Ministers who welcomed the opportunity of quiet conversation or there (could) be a Viceroy or high official…These parties often included a diplomat home on leave, a painter, and almost certainly a musician who played to some of the company in the evening. Besides these eminent people there was usually a sprinkling of women famous for their beauty and wit."

She knew the importance of networking, and when she came to Elsfield set about organizing house parties which would be not only enjoyable but useful to her husband and their guests. Every weekend there was a constant flow of visitors to Elsfield Manor: colleagues and friends of the Buchans and students from the various Oxford colleges, though not musicians as neither John Buchan nor his wife had any musical gifts. The smooth running of these events was in no small measure due to Mrs Charlett, the cook, of whom Susan Buchan speaks very highly. She says, "On Sundays we sometimes. had twenty or more undergraduates to tea. Through it all Mrs Charlett maintained a complete and imperturbable calm, and was always ready to surmount any difficulty which might occur... Such service as she has given us is beyond repayment".

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