Jenkins, Robin: The Changeling

We felt that this was a first class novel, which merited wider recognition outside Scotland. Underneath the amiable, laconic style lay a vision of how aspiration and reality could differ widely, and of how character and events could intersect to bring tragedy despite the best of intentions. It was a very Scottish novel, not just in its portrayal of the contrasts of the slums and coastal beauty of Western Scotland, but in the bleak Calvinism of its perspective on life. [Do not read on if you do not want to know the plot]

The novel – involving a schoolteacher, Charlie Forbes, and a schoolboy, Tom Curdie, in the fifties – was set in a period when most of the Group themselves had been at school in Scotland. Some found the apparent lack of previous contact between the well-off Forbes children and the slum children to be implausible; others found it matched their own experience. One ex-teacher found the cynicism of the headmaster plausible but not the altruism of Forbes. However, for another, the plot of a teacher taking a poor child on holiday with his own children replicated his personal experience of what his headmaster father had done.

The suicide at the end of the book came as a shock to us all. There was a lively discussion of whether it was plausible that a boy of this age and with the tough personality portrayed would commit suicide. Some felt that it was out of character, or at least that the novelist had not shown enough of Tom’s character. Others felt the novelist had successfully stressed that Tom’s tough, taciturn independence was a coping mechanism for slum life, and had demonstrated how exposure to the Forbes family had fractured this carapace. One pointed to a contemporary example of a suicide at this age. However, without the intervention of events – the visit of Tom’s friends Chick and Peerie, and then of his family – the tragedy would not have happened. The proposer of the book, reading it for the second time, had picked up several prefigurative uses of hanging imagery.

Tom’s stealing was an important mechanism of the plot, and of the changing attitudes to Tom of members of the Forbes family. The middle-class view that stealing was completely unacceptable was a turning point, even if, it was pointed out, stealing was often common to both rich and poor children. Tom’s use of stealing as a device to keep the Forbes family at bay later developed into an unsuccessful search for forgiveness and acceptance through a confession – could the Forbes really accept him as he was?

There was much debate about Charles and his failed role as good Samaritan (the role set out in the opening two paragraphs). We rejected the possibility that his apparent altruism was motivated simply by hopes of promotion – a more complex set of motives is portrayed. Intriguingly, Charles reaches a stage of apparent self-knowledge, and promises himself and his wife that he will henceforth be less ambitious. But far from leading to a happy resolution, this change of viewpoint helps to precipitate the tragedy.

We also noted the ambiguity of the title “The Changeling” – is Tom indeed the changeling, as cruelly described by Charles, when Charles himself was really the agent of change? – as well as its echo of the Middleton/Rowley Jacobean tragedy.

Although Charles’ wife Mary seems, on the surface, to be portrayed quite affectionately, underneath we felt she was portrayed in a harsh light, lacking empathy for both Tom and her husband. The only character empathising fully with Tom is a child, Gillian – reflecting a theme echoed in The Cone-Gatherers (Jenkins’ masterpiece which some members of the group had been inspired to read as well).

Stylistically we noted the pervasive authorial voice, often explaining characters’ feelings. On balance we felt this was quite a successful technique. Language was used with great economy, but this non-lyrical style made it difficult to evoke the beauty of the West coast. On the other hand, the grimness of the Donaldson’s Court slum was vividly evoked, with one member saying he would never forget the description of it as a place in which even the splendour of a tiger would be extinguished.