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

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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

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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.

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