Imperial fiction: The Half-Hearted

He felt no melancholy. Rather it was the immortal gaiety of the wanderer, to whom the homeland is dearest as a memory, who pitches his camp by waters of Babylon and yet as ever the old word on his lip, the old song in his ear, and the kindly picture in his heart. Strange that it is the little races who wander farthest and yet have the eternal home-sickness!
John Buchan, The Half-Hearted (1900)

Mr Buchan will be heard of again.
Irish Times (1900)

‘This is a tale of love, of politics, and of adventure,’ wrote The Courier, and that sums up the problem with The Half-Hearted, the first John Buchan novel that had a contemporary setting. There’s just too much going on and it doesn’t really gel; despite plenty of interesting stuff, it’s less than the sum of its parts.Half Hearted 3

The story opens in the Borders country and introduces us to Lewis Haystoun, a local land-owner who went to Eton and Oxford but who’s not content to follow the career in politics that’s been laid out for him. ‘I want to travel,’ he says, ‘proper travelling, where you are not coddled with railways and hotels.’ And indeed he’s recently returned from Afghanistan, about which he has written a well-received book. (Buchan evidently liked this back-story, because it turns up again in The Power House.)

His friends are devoted to him, of course, and regard him as the most charismatic member of their circle. ‘He is the best of men, but his tastes are primeval,’ says one. ‘He is a long way too active for these slack modern days.’ That assessment of him being out-of-time is echoed by another of his admirers:

‘He is strong and able, and yet, unless the miracle of miracles happens, he will never do anything. Two hundred years ago he might have led some mad Jacobite plot to success. Three hundred and he might have been another Raleigh. Six hundred, and there would have been a new crusade. But as it is, he is out of harmony with his times; life is too easy and mannered; the field for a man’s courage is in petty and recondite things, and Lewie is not fitted to understand it.’

I love this sort of thing. I’m very fond of the restless hero who doesn’t fit in a modern world that scorns heroism, and presumably I’m not alone, for it’s an enduring archetype. My favourite work of Terry Nation, about whom I once wrote a book, was the TV series Survivors (1975) and my favourite character in that was Jimmy Garland, who’s in exactly the same mould. This is from my book (still available in paperback):

Before the plague, Garland tried to keep himself amused by galloping around the globe, desperately seeking out expeditions up the Amazon or the Zaire, or to the Poles, anywhere that offered him the hope of excitement. Yet he was forever chafing at the bit. ‘Wherever white man had not trod before, I was there. But my kind were rather running out of world,’ he explains. ‘You’d scale some unconquered peak, get to the top and like as not find a television camera. Hack your way through darkest jungle and come face-to-face with a film crew shooting nature pictures. There just wasn’t much left.’

What fascinates me about Lewis Haystoun is that he feels the same way as does Garland, but three generations earlier. He’s out-of-time in both directions.

Anyway, as we join the story, Lewis is just coming home to Etterick, his estate in Scotland (with the inevitable echo of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd). There he meets Alice Wishart, a young woman who’s staying as a guest of his aunt on the next estate.

Alice comes from a different background to Lewis. Her father is a devout but dour self-made man, and this house-visit is a revelation for her, an entrée into the old-money world of John Buchan’s lairded gentry with all its disarming charm. ‘Her education had not included that valuable art, the appreciation of the flippant,’ we’re told, but in this enchanting society, she starts to doubt things that had previously been certainties: ‘For the first time in her life Miss Alice Wishart felt that the use of loud and solemn words could jar upon her feelings. She set it down resignedly to the evil influence of her companion.’

This is all to the good. A strict moral code is essential for a Buchan hero or heroine, but so too is a lightness of tone. Alice’s father is a decent man, but you can see his limitations written in his physiognomy: ‘It was a strong face, but a cold and a stupid one, and his eyes had the glassy hardness of the man without vision.’ Like Harry Feversham’s father in The Four Feathers (and so many other characters in that book), he knows his duty; he just can’t temper it with imagination.

But Alice is emerging from under the parental shadow now, and that means she’s eminently suitable for Lewis. Apart from anything else, we know she’s a good sort because she has the fetish for physical exertion that Buchan rates so highly; she loves hiking across the hills: ‘Like all perfectly healthy people, much exercise was as welcome to her as food and sleep; ten miles were refreshing; fifteen miles in an afternoon an exaltation.’

In a parallel way, we know that Lewis is a decent chap because of what he wears when he goes out fishing: ‘His raiment was disgraceful – an old knickerbocker suit with a ruinous Norfolk jacket, patched at the elbows and with leather at wrist and shoulder.’ (Anyone who wears new clothes when engaged in field sports is instantly suspect in Buchan’s world.)Half Hearted

So Lewis falls in love with Alice. And she falls for him. But, although they spend increasing amounts of time together, neither of them can quite find the right moment to share their feelings. We’re not too concerned about this: the course of true love and so on. In any event, we’re enjoying a meandering narrative that balances the romance with some social comedy and political satire. (In particular, there’s an election meeting played for laughs, just as there will be in The Thirty-Nine Steps.)

All, in short, is going well. And then disaster strikes. At a picnic in the hills, Lewis and Alice are clambering over some rocks, and he’s so lost in the moment that, when she slips and falls into the water below, he hesitates for a split second. And that barely perceptible pause gives his rival for her affection the chance to dive in and save her.

He’s mortified. Humiliated. More than that, it feels like all his illusions about himself have been stripped away and he can see his true self. It’s a moment that – for him, at least – defines his life. ‘I am a coward,’ he decides. ‘God help me! I am a coward.’ He already knew that he’s hopeless with women (‘The ordinary gardener’s boy can beat me at making love’), but now everything is lost: ‘I thought I had kept my bodily courage. I’ve had a good enough training, and I used to have pluck.’ When it came to the crunch, though, he failed.

But surely, his friend Wratlislaw protests, it wasn’t cowardice that stopped him from plunging in to save Alice. ‘How do I know that it wasn’t?’ Lewis replies morosely.

Alice herself doesn’t see cowardice in him; the thought doesn’t even occur to her. Her problem with him is his ‘incurable levity’. She’s still sufficiently serious that she wants him to show some sense of responsibility. What most impresses her – a little oddly, it must be said – is his tale of an incident out East, when he ordered a couple of his bearers to be flogged. As he now sees it, he should have gone further, for ‘it was a clear case where the men should have been put to death. They had deserved it, for they had disobeyed me, and by their disobedience caused the death of several innocent people.’ And, as she listens, she experiences an ‘unwilling respect’.

But by this stage, it’s too late. Lewis, consumed by self-doubt and self-loathing, has vacated the field and allowed his rival to step in. Under pressure of family and duty, she accepts a proposal of marriage, casting aside any thought of her and Lewis. It was, she concludes, their ‘destiny’ to have their love thwarted: ‘The two of them had been set apart by the fates.’

But this simply isn’t true. Lewis’s problem is not with fate or destiny any more than it’s with his cowardice or levity. It’s simply that he can’t tell her that he loves her. Or not, at least, until it’s far too late. It’s only at their final meeting that he gets round to letting her know how he feels: ‘What has happened to us?’ he wails. ‘I love you, I love you, and you have never given me a chance to say it.’

She never gave him the chance? Good grief! He may not be a coward, but he’s certainly a drip.

Having lost the love of his life, what does a chap do? Well, obviously he goes off to ‘the last outpost of the Empire’ in search of ‘uncertainty and difficulty and extreme danger’. And so Part Two of the novel whisks us off to the North-West Frontier. Romance and comedy are abandoned in favour of action and adventure, because the Empire itself is threatened by Russian aggression, and it’s just possible that Lewis might be the man to save India.

I mentioned AEW Mason’s The Four Feathers earlier, a novel that was published (much more successfully) two years later. And I want to return to that book, because I can’t help but think it was heavily influenced by The Half-Hearted. They cover pretty much the same ground. Both Lewis here and Harry Feversham there have to leave the bleak beauty of a Celtic hillside in order to risk their lives overseas; both go on a hazardous undercover mission to atone for what they perceive to be the sin of cowardice; and both leave behind the only woman they will ever worship, certain that their love can never be. They don’t expect recognition for their actions; they just need to satisfy their own consciences.

Admittedly, Harry isn’t quite as diffident about women as Lewis: he has, after all, managed to get engaged to Ethne. But the two men do both struggle to articulate emotion, and not just when in the company of women. It’s drawn to our attention in both novels that there’s something embarrassing and perhaps weak about speaking of male friendship: Harry Feversham and Jack Durrance in The Four Feathers, Lewis and his closest and most important friend Tommy Wratislaw here.

It’s Wratislaw who – as a government minister – gives Lewis his mission, his chance to make amends, and Lewis is for once moved to express his feelings: ‘God bless you, Tommy. I don’t deserve to have a man like you troubling himself about me.’ But that’s all there is. ‘It was his one spoken tribute to their friendship; and both, with the nervousness of honest men in the presence of emotion, hastened to change the subject.’

The point is that the underlying code of honour and behaviour is common to both novels. As is a sense of that code being no longer sufficient, an awareness that the stiff-upper-lipped ideal of the High Victorian era is too constrained, lacking in both imagination and emotion. Both Buchan and Mason are trying to find an alternative morality for men, and both do so by suggesting that the answers can only come not from social norms nor even from peer-pressure, but from within.

Wratislaw asks Lewis where the highest happiness in life can be found, and he replies that it comes from a ‘sense of competence’. Wratislaw then goes on to define the term to the satisfaction of both men:

What do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals. There are a certain number of things in the world to be done, and we have got to do them. We may fail – it doesn’t in the least matter. We may get killed in the attempt – it matters still less. The things may not altogether be worth doing – it is of very little importance. It is ourselves we have got to judge by.

So duty is still at the heart of life, but it’s a duty to oneself. And the expression of this duty can be found only in action. As Wratislaw says: ‘How are you to get happiness? Not by thinking about it. The great things of the world have all been done by men who didn’t stop to reflect on them.’ This, of course, was what went wrong out on the Scottish hillside, when Lewis had his life-changing moment, when he hesitated rather than jump instantly into the water after Alice.

And I think this is the core of The Four Feathers as well. Harry Feversham isn’t a coward any more than Lewis is. He’s obsessed that he might freeze in action, and that that would be cowardice. He’s afraid that he might hesitate. Which is what ‘cowardice’ on the battlefield is. Military action depends on people obeying orders that go against all our natural instincts of survival. Hesitation, doubt, questioning – they might let fear break free of the bonds of army discipline. As a later Buchan hero, Edward Leithen, says: ‘I foresaw that, if I delayed, my nerve would break.’ It’s a lesson that Harry and Lewis, acting individually, have to learn, how to impose this discipline on themselves.Half Hearted 2

They both do so. And, as he awaits his certain death, Lewis reflects on the fact that his heroism will never be acknowledged by anyone: ‘He did not care, nay, he rejoiced in the brave obscurity. He had never sought so vulgar a thing as fame.’

As I said at the outset, there’s a great deal to like about the book. Although it’s not a full-on action adventure, some of the favourite elements are already in place. Lewis’s mission is – in a way that will become a commonplace of the genre – strictly off the record. ‘Your errand will not be official, so in case of failure or trouble we could not support you,’ Wratislaw warns him. ‘We might even have to disclaim all responsibility.’ He then confesses that he wouldn’t himself take on such a desperate enterprise.

In another plot development that will become a cliché, Lewis is subsequently captured by an enemy, Fazir Khan, and finds that his captor is kind enough to reveal all his plans: ‘Because I have a liking for a bold cockerel like thee, I will speak unwisely. The days of your people are numbered. This very night there are those coming from the north who will set their foot on your necks.’ Khan makes the mistake of not killing him, thereby enabling Lewis to foil the evil machinations of which he’s been forewarned.

I know that I should also be impressed by the fact that Buchan is doing something quite bold with this book of two halves. Alice says at one point that ‘it is the old fallacy of man that the domestic excludes the heroic’, and I think Buchan is trying to live up to that promise, to show us the adventurer unable to live like a normal person, and to suggest that the inability to find romance at home is a flaw.

I should be impressed, but actually I’m not. Because I don’t think Lewis works as a character: we’re supposed to believe he’s both the glamorous, restless explorer who inspires the worship of his friends – and also the really annoying lovelorn fool who makes Hamlet look decisive. And it simply doesn’t work. It’s all very well trying to show us a hero with feet of clay, but the adventure hero we subsequently meet is too implausible for us to accept his human failings.

Either way is fine with me. I prefer the later version: make him implausible and give him some Russian agents and native insurgents to fight, I say. But I’d be okay with the doomed romance with the comic touches. That might have worked, because Alice is potentially an interesting character – and it’s rare that one can say that about one of Buchan’s women. If we’re going to have both of these, however, they need to be interwoven; from the same period, both The Four Feathers and The Scarlet Pimpernel, in their differing ways, are successful as action romances because the two elements run alongside each other; they’re not separated out into two halves.

Buchan himself was unconvinced. The book was ‘too ambitious’, he admitted privately; ‘it is pretty much of a failure’. Or alternatively, ‘The Half-Hearted is a stupid book.’ Nonetheless, there’s still good stuff. There’s some fine wit, for example, as with this description of an incidental character named Hoddam:

He was a little shy man, one of the unassuming tribe of students by whom all the minor intellectual work of the world is done, and done well. It is a great class, living in the main in red-brick villas on the outskirts of academic towns, marrying mild blue-stockings, working incessantly, and finally attaining to the fame of mention in prefaces and foot-notes, and a short paragraph in The Times at the last.

There’s a shadowy, mysterious enemy, named Marker, a prototype of others yet to come. He fascinates our hero strangely: ‘to Lewis, Marker was a man of uncanny powers and intelligence beyond others, the iron will of the true adventurer. There must be devilry behind it all.’ Marker is also physically attractive – even to decent chaps – in a way that would become characteristic of Buchan’s villains:

He’s rather tall, very straight, with a sort of military carriage, and he has one of those perfect oval faces that you sometimes see. He has most remarkable black eyes and very neat, thin eyebrows. He is the sort of man you’d turn round to look at if you once passed him in the street; and if you once saw him smile you’d begin to like him. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.

And there’s an old hand from the Colonial Service, a Cassandra figure who can’t persuade anyone that the Empire has become complacent and is in very real danger: ‘Britain is getting sick, and when she is sick enough, some people who are less sick will overwhelm her. My own opinion is that Russia will be the people.’ Lewis, however, thinks that predictions of British decline are exaggerated:

To an outsider we must appear on the brink of incapacity, but then it is not the first time we have produced that impression. You will still find men who in all their spiritual sickness have kept something of that restless, hard-bitten northern energy, and that fierce hunger for righteousness, which is hard to fight with. Scores of people, who can see no truth in the world and are sick with doubt and introspection and all the latter-day devils, have yet something of pride and honour in their souls which will make them show well at the last. If we are going to fall our end will not be quite inglorious.

It’s one of our great national myths, that the true spirit of the British is not dead but only sleeping, that it remains intact and will emerge again should the situation become truly desperate. Cometh the hour, cometh the race. Buchan expresses that myth better than almost anyone – but to be honest, he does it better elsewhere.


The Half-Hearted was serialized in Good Words magazine, starting in January 1900 and running through the whole year, reaching a climax in the December issue, by which time it was also available in volume form. It wasn’t a huge hit in either incarnation, but it attracted some favourable notices, mostly in the Scottish press.

It showed that Buchan was ‘One of the most promising of Scottish authors,’ according to one critic. Another praised his characterisations: ‘This young novelist finds abundance of material for building up his story in the men and women one meets every day.’ A third, who covered the serial publication each month, was initially dubious about the satirical element – ‘interesting enough and very well written, but, as we think, needlessly scornful of politicians and politics’ – but was eventually won over by the drama: ‘more than usually interesting, and has at last become even exciting.’ Altogether, concluded the St James’s Gazette, it was ‘a capital book’, though the Glasgow Herald, talking about Lewis, noted that ‘the reader who hankers after the conventional ending will probably think him a good hero thrown away.’ Maybe Buchan paid attention to this latter comment, because his next action heroes – David Crawfurd, Edward Leithen, Richard Hannay – all survive their first outings and, in the latter two cases, extend out into later novels.

In his wonderful book Clubland Heroes (1953), Richard Usborne cites The Half-Hearted as one of Buchan’s three best adventures, along with Greenmantle and Sick Heart River. But then Usborne doesn’t really like most of Buchan’s work, and he’s simply wrong in this estimation. (He’s right about Sick Heart River, though, which is a masterpiece.)

My own feeling is that those newspaper reviews were probably about right when they talked of the book showing promise. Buchan himself, however, might have been a little irritated by the comments. He was only twenty-four when he began The Half-Hearted, but he was already an established and prolific (if not yet best-selling) writer in a variety of fields, with three historical novels behind him, as well as a couple of non-fiction works, a biography, and some volumes of poetry and short stories.

Even so, he hadn’t yet developed the technique that distinguishes his later stories. Some of the writing here is a little stilted even by the standards of the time: ‘The young man’s brow was furrowed in a deep frown which in no way broke the good-humour of his face.’ And when he goes for one of his set-piece scenes, it doesn’t quite take off. This is a description of a sheep-shearing in the Borders:

The little paddock was crammed with sheep, and more stood huddling in the pens. Within was the liveliest scene, for there a dozen herds sat on clipping-stools each with a struggling ewe between his knees, and the ground beneath him strewn with creamy folds of fleece. From a thing like a gallows in a corner huge bags were suspended which were slowly filling. A cauldron of pitch bubbled over a fire, and the smoke rose blue in the hot hill air. Every minute a bashful animal was led to be branded with a great E on the left shoulder and then with awkward stumbling let loose to join her naked fellow-sufferers. Dogs slept in the sun and wagged their tails in the rear of the paddock. Small children sat on gates and lent willing feet to drive the flocks. In a corner below a little shed was the clippers’ meal of ale and pies, with two glasses of whisky each, laid by under a white cloth. Meantime from all sides rose the continual crying of sheep, the intermittent bark of dogs, and the loud broad converse of the men.

Nothing wrong with that, but compare it to this reprise of the scene in The Island of Sheep, some thirty-six years later:

At dawn the men had assembled – Stoddart and his young shepherd, whose name was Nickson, and the herds from the rest of the Laverlaw estate, many of whom had walked a dozen moorland miles. There were the herds of the Lanely Bield, and Clatteringshaws, and Drygrain, and Upper and Nether Camhope, and the two Lammers, and a man from the remotest corner of Sandy’s land, the Back Hill of the Cludden, who got his letters only once a fortnight, and did not see a neighbour for months. And there were dogs of every colour and age, from Stoddart’s old patriarch Yarrow, who was the doyen of the tribe, to slim, slinking young collies, wild as hawks to a stranger, but exquisitely skilled in their trade and obedient to the slightest nod of their masters. On this occasion there was little for them to do; it was their holiday, and they dozed each in his owner’s shadow, after a stormy morning of greetings with their kind.

You don’t need me to tell you how much better the writing is in that second passage. There’s the off-hand, almost Biblically phrased introduction of Nickson, who we’ll later see get married. There’s the masterful deployment of place names (fictitious, as far as I can tell, though presumably they lie not far distant from the real-life likes of Dryhope, Cappercleuch and Talla Linnfoots), ending with that lovely detail of the loneliness of the long-distance shepherd. There’s the beautiful cadences of the sentence about the ‘slim, slinking young collies, wild as hawks to a stranger’. Most of all, there’s a sense of absolute rightness to it all, every note both necessary and decorative. And it’s not just the technique; the observation feels more convincing: the dogs that had ‘slept in the sun’ the first time round, now sleep ‘each in his owner’s shadow’.

Buchan became a very good writer, but – although he displayed a gift for story early on – the ease of style that was apparent in his later work was largely acquired through application and hard work. Which seems only appropriate for Buchan’s fiction. A combination of duty and imagination, you see.

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2 thoughts on “Imperial fiction: The Half-Hearted

  1. Thank you very much for this – I’ve never read The Half-Hearted but will look out for it.

    – “Like all perfectly healthy people, much exercise was as welcome to her as food and sleep; ten miles were refreshing; fifteen miles in an afternoon an exaltation.”

    Nobody, nobody, writes better than Buchan about going for a walk.

    – “(In particular, there’s an election meeting played for laughs, just as there will be in The Thirty-Nine Steps.)”

    Although this of course appears in the Hitchcock film, the Buchan version of the scene originates at the end of chapter 14 of Castle Gay (where a tabloid newspaper editor, on the run from kidnappers, has to give a speech to a Communist Party by-election meeting):

    “He had often in the View proved with unassailable logic that the principles of Socialism were only halfhearted Communism. He proved it now, but with a difference. For by some strange inspiration he remembered in what company he was, and, whereas in the View he had made it his complaint against Labour that it was on the logical road to an abyss called Communism, his charge now was that Labour had not the courage of its principles to advance the further stage to the Communist paradise. . . ”

    So it’s a scene from a 1930 novel which was added into a 1935 film of a 1915 novel by the same author …


    • There is an election meeting in The Thirty-Nine Steps as well, though, when Hannay gets roped in to speak after Sir Harry, an incompetent Liberal candidate: ‘In a queer way I liked the speech. You could see the niceness of the chap shining out behind the muck with which he had been spoon-fed. Also it took a load off my mind. I mightn’t be much of an orator, but I was a thousand per cent better than Sir Harry.’ – Alwyn


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