‘The Changeling’ by Robin Jenkins

The-Changeling

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 240 pages; 2008.

Robin JenkinsThe Changeling, which was first published in 1958, is a remarkably powerful tale about the class divide — and one man’s attempts to bridge the gap and help someone less fortunate than himself.

That man is Charlie Forbes, a teacher — repeatedly overlooked for promotion — who strives always to see the good in his students, even if they may have bad reputations.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Curdie is one of those students. A product of the Glasgow slums, he is on probation for theft. His headmaster has labelled him as “deep and sly”, another says he’s “a practiced liar”, most regard him as having been “born wicked”, but Forbes recognises the boy’s intelligence and thinks he deserves a second chance. He hits upon the idea to take Tom on holiday with him, and informs his boss of his plans.

“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 which he has constantly to wage against corruption.”

He is warned against the idea and told it is foolish, that his holiday will be ruined, but Forbes goes ahead regardless. His wife reluctantly agrees, and so the Forbes’ — Charlie, Mary, their two children, Gillian and Alistair, and Charlie’s mother-in-law, Mrs Storrocks — take Tom with them to the cottage in the countryside they stay in every summer. It’s perhaps telling that from the outset Tom is forced to sleep in a hut in the garden, because there’s not enough room for him indoors, though Tom doesn’t seem to mind.

But everyone else is on edge. Forbes constantly bickers with his wife, while Mrs Storrocks never keeps her (often prejudiced) thoughts to herself. Gillian, in particular, takes such a strong dislike to Tom she decides to spy on his every move, which leads to a shocking discovery that puts the whole holiday into doubt. There is talk of sending Tom back to whence he came, but Forbes is loath to end his social “experiment”…

A story about being good — and doing good

The Changeling is a fascinating read, as we watch the effect of Tom’s presence on each individual character and how their views and attitudes towards him change over time. Jenkins is particularly good at scene setting — his descriptions of the Scottish countryside are evocative, a kind of love letter to Nature, if you will — and his dialogue is rich and authentic.

Admittedly, some of it feels dated — Mrs Storrocks’ vile views, for instance, are what we’d now call “politically incorrect” but which I assume were probably quite common at the time — and even its depiction of the poor strays into cliché (Tom’s mother, for instance, is a complete caricature, the only character who speaks in dialect).

But its notion of fairness, justice and equality have never been more paramount, particularly in times of austerity. And the ways it explores what it is to be good and to do good, and the importance of social and moral responsibility, are spot on.  Its condemnation of child poverty and its long-lasting effects also make it an important read.

The Changeling isn’t without humour, however: some of the characters behave in ridiculous and comic ways, even if they might not know it, and the author occasionally pokes fun at Forbes, who is often absurdly jolly and has funny notions about nostalgia and romanticism. But on the whole this is a tragic story — and a deeply unsettling read.

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9 thoughts on “‘The Changeling’ by Robin Jenkins

    • Well, it was reissued in 2008, before austerity kicked in and the divisions between rich and poor got wider, but yes, it’s a read that is relevant to today. In Andrew Marr’s afterword he points out that the comfortable middle classes don’t do this kind of thing anymore (try to help the underclass) but at the time it was common. I thought that was interesting…

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      • That is interesting. I imagine that the rise of individualism in the 80s put the kybosh on it although institutions like the venerable Peabody Trust are still in operation, I believe. I suspect that it would be well nigh impossible for a teacher to take a pupil on holiday now.

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        • Oh yes, a teacher couldn’t do that today, and even in this book, the mother suspects he might be a paedophile and his colleagues make little jokes about it. His headmaster suggests the boy could go on a camp for poor children, but Forbes stresses that “institutional solutions” were not real solutions. Sadly, his solution isn’t exactly any better…

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    • It’s worth reading… I do like Jenkins’ exploration of moral and social codes of conduct. He was a Scottish socialist, so perhaps not surprising he wrote books like this. I also recommend A Very Scotch Affair, which I reviewed in 2010.

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  1. I am going to tidy up my TBR during summer and find my copy of this, and when I’ve read it I’ll come back and read your review.

    BTW did you see the way I *didn’t* write summer ‘holidays’? Two weeks to go and then I am free to do all the things I usually do – without work getting in the way!!

    Lisa

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    • I think you will like this book, Lisa. It raises some really important social and moral issues. I chose it for my book group, but alas only two others could make it (and only one had finished the book) so I was disappointed not to have the kind of proper discussion the book deserved.

      I hope you enjoy your summer. I’ve got two weeks off at Christmas and looking forward to it very much!

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