The Half-Hearted (1900) is one of Buchan’s early works. He had not yet fully settled to turning out his trademark “dime novel” adventures. In fact, aThe Half-Hearted (1900) is one of Buchan’s early works. He had not yet fully settled to turning out his trademark “dime novel” adventures. In fact, a good portion of the book reads like a light literary novel of manners. His great series novels still lay 15 years or more in the future. The Richard Hannay books did not begin until 1915 with the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the more cerebral Sir Edward Leithen novels began a year later with The Power House, and Dickson McCunn did not rear his retired grocer’s head until Huntingtower came out in 1922. In 1900, Buchan seems still to have been searching for his métier.
Buchan’s main theme in The Half-Hearted is – as the title suggests - the inability to commit whole-heartedly to anything, or more importantly for the story, to any one person. Lewis Haystoun, the novel’s wavering protagonist, gets into trouble during a moorland walk with friends when the object of his affections, the pretty Alice Wishart, falls into a deep rocky pond. Lewis hesitates just long enough to allow his rival to play the gallant by jumping in to rescue her. A minor incident, to be sure, and Alice sees nothing in it. After all, the rival was standing closer. She thinks no less of Lewis and still prefers him.
For Lewis, the incident swiftly takes on sinister proportions thereby revealing a fatal character flaw. He fears that others might see his hesitation as cowardice. The mere thought unnerves him and he begins to suspect he really is a coward. His uncertainty poisons his relationship with Alice. The situation reveals the less visible portion of Buchan’s theme: the inability to commit whole-heartedly to oneself. Unable to stand firm in his own sense of worth, Lewis, quite literally, has turned on himself.
A wise friend recognizes that while Lewis does not in fact lack physical courage, he does lack the bravery to deal with his own doubts about himself. Eager to escape from a psychological dilemma he cannot come to grips with, Lewis agrees to undertake a dangerous mission in Central Asia on behalf of the British Empire. He looks to prove his courage, but fails to see that his shortcomings in that direction are not of the physical kind.
At this point, the novel slips into the familiar Buchan mold. While the theme continues to play out, the last third or so of the novel is also a rousing tale of skirmishes and military maneuvering on the threatened Afghanistan frontier culminating in Lewis’s singular act of heroism.
I have long been a fan of John Buchan’s novels and welcomed the chance to read one I had not seen before. While The Half-Hearted is not entirely an adventure story, it is still a good read. The book reveals a surprisingly sophisticated psychological side to Buchan, one he ultimately chose to abandon in favour of the more straightforward action and adventure yarns for which he is famous. ...more