Robin Jenkins: The Changeling
For the last few years, I’ve been aware of Robin Jenkins’s books, notably his best known work, The Cone Gatherers, as they were perennials on the Scottish Books shelves of local stores. Of the man, however, I knew nothing and was surprised to find that he died as recently as 2005. Surprised for the silly reason that his books were in the Canongate Classics series, which also featured Scotland’s favourite book, Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who died way back in the 1930s.
Now, with a 21st Century makeover, a number of Jenkins’ books seem destined to light up the aforementioned store shelves, taking their bleak covers and injecting a bit of needed colour. One such title is The Changeling (1958), set around the time of writing that, fifty years on, now seems a world away. But while the world it describes has passed into history, its themes remain as constant as…as…well, Jenkins’ books on store shelves.
The life of Charlie Forbes, a middle-aged English teacher, has amounted to little more than dreams of promotion. Mocked by others for his ability to see the good in everyone, his altruistic nature, like that of the Good Samaritan in the book’s opening sentence, lends itself to the needs of others, even if it brings further disdain:
‘I’ve come to the conclusion, Mr Fisher, that it isn’t enough to draw my salary, and at four o’clock each day turn my back and retreat to my suburban sanctuary.’
‘I’m sure none of us do, Charlie.’
‘I have done so. I speak only for myself. Here, as I see it, is my chance to atone. Mr Fisher, I propose to take Tom Curdie with my family to Towellan this summer. It seems to me the experience might give the boy some support in the battle he has constantly to wage against corruption. I am here to seek your advice.’
Faced with that vast, sanctimonious, aggressive pout, the headmaster grew peeved. Originality of most kinds he distrusted, but original goodness most of all.
Tom Curdie is one of Forbes’ pupils, a “deprived morsel of humanity”, who unlike all the others in his class comes from Donaldson’s Court, “one of the worst slums in one of the worst slum districts in Europe”. While everyone believes Curdie’s smile is that “of a certified delinquent”, Forbes sees it as stoic, the smile of a boy intent on not letting his lot get him down. To give the boy a taste of a better life, and despite much derision, Forbes hits on a plan to take the boy away with his family to their summer retreat at Towellan.
The notion of summer sits bizarrely alongside the novel’s content – where a Glaswegian holiday ‘doon the water’ conjures up images of sandcastles, rock, and pestering rock pools, The Changeling is like a rock pool where turning over stones reveals nastiness in the dark. And each subsequent overturning only adds to events, leading up to the bleak conclusion.
Within the novel there are mentions of the title, referring to young Curdie, likening him to…
…the changeling of Highland legend, that creature introduced by the malevolent folk of the other world into a man’s home, to pollute the joy and faith of family.
Pollute it, he does, though not directly. One incident where Curdie shoplifts, so as not to get to comfortable with this new taste of life, leads the family into a descent that they’ll do well to get out of. While his daughter, Gillian, finds complicity with the boy she initially dislikes, Forbes finds his own prejudices exposed, and his wife grieves over the lack of trust shown to his own children apropos the introduction of the slum child.
To his credit is the way that Jenkins manages to get inside the head of each of his characters, flitting between them unsentimentally, letting us know what they think and how they feel. But, sometimes telling every last detail without leaving hidden depths to the characters, lets the novel down in areas, as does, having dated a bit, the grandfatherly tone:
Tom knew very well that the majority of children were far more fortunate than he, but he had never envied them. Envy, like pity, was not in his creed. What he hoped to do or to become was apart altogether from what others did or became. To have been envious would have been to become involved and so weakened. His success, if ever it came, must owe nothing to anyone.
With Jenkins’ unrelenting grip on his characters in The Changeling, he tugs the narrative’s strings so tight that you wonder how he crams so much in, be it the exploration of the changeling legend by way of myxomatosis or of showing the class differences and attitudes in each direction. But it’s the questions that the novel throws up that make it an interesting read. Having given Curdie a taste of a better life, is it right to return him to the slums of Donaldson’s Court? Where else could he go? And even if Jenkins’ denouement is a tad unconvincing, it certainly feels right.
The overarching theme of The Changeling is that of misplaced charity. Forbes seems to live in a cocoon, safe from everyone else, convinced that his way is right. While others scoff at his big heart, that big heart isn’t always considering appropriate reasons and, as the old adage goes, what goes around comes around, proving you don’t need “malevolent folk of the other world [to] pollute the joy and faith of family.”
June 23, 2008