Buchan of the Month: The Half-Hearted by John Buchan

Buchan of the Month

The HalfheartedAbout the Book

The Half-Hearted is a novel in two parts. Part I is a story of manners and romance in upper-class Scotland, while part II is an action tale of adventure and duty in northern India.

The novel is set in the closing years of the 19th century and explores the way in which the social expectations of the main characters shape the paths they must tread. It follows the life of Lewis Haystoun, a young Scottish laird, who finds himself unable to commit wholeheartedly to any course of action.

Format: Paperback (206 pp.)                   Publisher: Tark Classic Fiction
Published: 26th October 2009 [1900]      Genre: Fiction, Adventure

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com ǀ Hive.co.uk (supporting UK bookshops)
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Find The Half-Hearted on Goodreads


My Review

The Half-Hearted is the sixth book in my Buchan of the Month reading project. You can find out more about the project plus my reading list for 2018 here. You can read a spoiler-free introduction to the book here. The Half-Hearted is also one of my 20 Books of Summer and on my Classics Club list.

As I mention in my introduction, David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan, describes The Half-Hearted as ‘an interestingly uneven novel’ but admits that there are some ‘marvellous things’ in the book.  I think this is a fair assessment. One of John Buchan’s early novels, The Half-Hearted provides an indicator of Buchan’s strengths as a writer and the things he would arguably struggle with.

Let’s look at the good things first. In the first part of the book set in the Scottish Highlands, Buchan demonstrates his ability at describing landscape, especially his beloved Scottish countryside. ‘Mists were crowding in the valleys, each bald mountain top shone like a jewel, and far aloft in the heavens were the white streamers of morn. Moorhens were plashing at the loch’s edge, and one tall heron rose from his early meal. The world was astir with life: sounds of the plonk-plonk of rising trout and the endless twitter of woodland birds mingled with the far-away barking of dogs and the lowing of full-uddered cows in the distant meadows.’

The second part of the book, set in Northern India and what is now Afghanistan, is full of ‘derring do’ and the sort of breathless adventure that readers have come to expect from Buchan. Set against the backdrop of the so-called ‘Great Game’ as Britain and Russia vie for territorial advantage in Central Asia and the North-West Frontier of India, Lewis and his friend, George, are sent to the area on an unofficial fact-finding mission and find themselves pitted against the mysterious Marker, thought to be working on behalf of the Russians. Lewis is suspicious of Marker and his motives from the off and suspects his ‘friendly advice’ is deliberate evasion. It’s exciting stuff, very well-described and the story builds to a dramatic conclusion. In the end, Lewis becomes not the ‘half-hearted’ but the ‘stout-hearted’.

Now turning to the less good things… The first part of the book to my mind displays Buchan’s difficulty with depicting romantic relationships that is evident in all his books. The dynamics of the relationship between Lewis and Alice Wishart, the girl to whom he is attracted, never really convince. It’s a story of missed opportunities, true feelings unspoken and misunderstandings that left me rather confused about why it all ends as it does. Lewis has a rival for Alice’s affections and the choice she makes astounds me every time I read the book.  The book also contains some rather scathing remarks about ‘ordinary people’, some rather un-PC generalisations about women and references to Jews that might have been commonplace at the time the book was written but which today we would find distinctly unsavoury, if not bordering on the anti-Semitic.

In The Half-Hearted, Buchan explores themes that he would revisit in other books such as Mr. Standfast and Sick Heart River – honour, self-sacrifice, being prepared to fight for your beliefs, the importance of facing life’s challenges and the value of things hard-won. It’s easy to detect the influence of Buchan’s childhood companion and lifelong vade mecum, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not for the last time, Buchan attributes virtue to physical fitness and the ‘clean, outdoor life’. Lewis is told, ‘Life has been too easy for you, a great deal too easy. You want a little of the salt and iron of the world.’

Having said all this, The Half-Hearted is a book I’ve read a number of times and for me its shortcomings are outweighed by its good points. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a book for readers new to Buchan (he wrote better books) but for aficionados it provides fascinating glimpses of the writer Buchan would become.

Next month’s Buchan of the Month is The Watcher by the Threshold, a collection of short stories.

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In three words: Uneven, interesting, adventure

Try something similar…Kim by Rudyard Kipling

John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man. He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada. In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

Fact in Fiction Friday: 5 Fascinating Facts From My Reading Week

Fact in Fiction

Reading is entertainment but, for me, it can also be an education – new words, events in history, myths that turns out to be reality and vice versa. Here are just a few of the things I learned from the books I’ve read recently. Click on the title of the book to read my review.

The Mountain Man's BadgeIn The Mountain Man’s Badge by Gary Corbin, set in a small town in Oregon near the Cascade Mountains, the hero, Sheriff Lehigh Carter, visits a diner and orders a ‘Reuben. Extra dressing. Fries.’  I’d never heard of a ‘Reuben’ and wondered what it was. Then, in the way things sometimes occur in life, I happened to be up in London to visit the theatre last week (since you ask, The Moderate Soprano starring the peerless Roger Allam). My husband, who is an aficionado of such establishments, took me to a Dutch bar he knows called Da Hems and there on the menu amongst the list of sandwiches was a ‘Reuben’. Its origins and how it got its name are disputed and there are slight variations in the ingredients however Jamie Oliver describes it as ‘the heavenly piling of hot pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing into two slices of soft rye bread’.  It was delicious.

Source: Jamie Oliver website

TheKing'sDaughterIn The King’s Daughter by Stephanie Churchill, I came across references to an item of women’s clothing that I’ve often seen mentioned in historical fiction but never been entirely sure what it actually is – the kirtle. Luckily, in another piece of serendipity, I saw an article featuring the garment shared on her Facebook page by Catherine Meyrick, author of Forsaking All Other. The article has some great pictures of how a kirtle was constructed and worn in relation to other garments.

Source: Walking Through History Facebook Page

PalanquinKirtle wasn’t the only word that caught my eye in The King’s Daughter. A method of transport mentioned quite a few times in the book is a palanquin: ‘The carriage without wheels…was more or less a wide, cushioned chair with raised sides all around. The seat centred on a platform supported by two stout poles carried on the shoulders of six burly men.’ I knew vaguely that this was some kind of litter (defined as a human-powered, wheel-less vehicle for transport of people) but was curious to find out what it looked like. This was the best (copyright free) image of what I believe is being described I could come up with.  Two burly men missing, sadly.

Source: Wikipedia

The Hidden BonesSet in Wiltshire, Nicola Ford’s debut crime novel, The Hidden Bones, involves both an archaeological excavation and a murder investigation. There’s also the little matter of a missing artefact – a ‘sun disk’.   What a surprise it must be to uncover something like that which has lain undiscovered for so long. (By the way, that’s not dissimilar to the murder mystery at the heart of in the book.) In fact, a Bronze Age sun disc was discovered in Wiltshire back in 1947 but only put on public display for the first time in June 2015 to coincide with the Summer Solstice.  You can read about it and view images of the disc by following the link below.

Source: This Is Wiltshire website

The Devil's Half Mile HBMy final ‘fascinating fact’ comes from a book I’ve just finished and will be reviewing shortly – The Devil’s Half-Mile by Paddy Hirsch (due to be published on 5th July 2018). We’re back to American foodstuffs, this time something referred to as a ‘savory chonkey’.  I’ll let a quote from the book, set in 18th century New York, reveal more plus  give you a taste (pun intended) of the fabulous style and verve of the writing. (Don’t worry; there is a superb glossary as well.) ‘The sidewalks were equally busy. Shoppers and passersby competed for space with a crush of handsellers and their carts: chive fencers selling cutlery, swell fencers touting the sharpness of their sewing needles, flying stationers flogging their penny ballads and histories, crack fencers offering bags of nuts, and everywhere the cakery pannam fencers, whose trolleys were piled with pies, sweet bowlas tarts and savoury chonkeys, the minced-meat pastries that no true New Yorker could resist.’  So, for UK readers, a chonkey is something similar to a Cornish pasty perhaps? Yes, I know, now you want to know what ‘sweet bowlas tarts’ are as well. I’m still searching for definitive information on that one but it’s probably an apple, or other fruit, tart.

What fascinating facts in fiction have you come across this week?