John Buchan’s Short Stories of Empire: The Indian Protagonist of ‘A Lucid Interval’ (1910)

Kate Macdonald


John Buchan was a noted novelist of Empire, yet his short stories on Imperial subjects and settings have rarely received critical attention. A careful reading of his shorter fiction reveals an alternative commentary on Empire that has been ignored. The works discussed problematize the common assumption that Buchan’s views on Empire in his fiction are Victorian, by showing that he replaced the nineteenth-century model of Imperial rule by military force with the importance of the administrator and the knowledgeable man on the ground. The first part of this essay will survey Buchan’s trajectory as a writer of Empire, in fiction and journalism, and discuss two key Edwardian short stories, ‘The Kings of Orion’ (1906) and ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ (1910), to illustrate how Buchan used Imperial themes to advocate the benefits of colonial rule.

An extended analysis of Buchan’s short story ‘A Lucid Interval’ (1910) and its publishing, political and social history forms the second part of the essay, since this story offers an unusual insight into the complexity of British imperial ideology in the early twentieth century. Buchan’s political narrative uses the then common assumption of racial superiority to engage with complex ideas about the ethics of state politics and the feudal relationships that Imperialism promoted. It is his only attempt to write from the perspective of a non-white character, deploying the Indian Ram Singh’s legitimate objections to make a party-political point against Liberalism in favour of Imperialist Conservatism. The story associates ‘civilisation’ with Imperial values, making anti- Imperialist thinking a form of anarchism. Its plot enacts anarchist views in the heart of the political establishment, to show their effect on the Imperial project as a whole. ‘A Lucid Interval’ is read as an investigation into the ethics of Imperial politics, and the essentially feudal basis for Imperial power relationships, today one of the principal objections to Imperialism as a system of governance. Buchan’s use of humour undercuts the extremes of ideological arrogance that he assigns to the politicians. They utter expressions of their own power and position without truly comprehending what they are saying.

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