Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2023

The Changeling (1958, reissued 1989), by Robin Jenkins

The Changeling, by Scottish author Robin Jenkins (1912-2005) is an unsettling novel.  I would dearly love to give a copy of it to every politician around the world who is turning a blind eye to poverty.  Without a single sentimental word, Jenkins depicts the soul-destroying misery of childhood privation and dispenses with firm authority any fantasies of well-intentioned but useless help.

Charles Forbes is a middle-aged teacher in Glasgow.  He’s a well-meaning and kindly fool, mocked behind his back and protected at home by his tolerant wife Mary and his children Gillian and Alistair.  And when he takes it into his head to Do a Good Deed for one of the slum children he teaches, he compares himself to the Good Samaritan.

Though no one would belittle the benevolence of the Good Samaritan, in one respect he was lucky: he was alone with his conscience and his neighbour in trouble.

There were, for instance, no business or professional colleagues to warn against the folly of interference, and no wife to cherish him for his altruism but also to shrewdly point out the likely repercussions.  Those voices Charles Forbes had to heed on the occasion when he, too, decided not to pass by on the other side. (p.1)

His benevolent intentions are prompted by an essay by Tom Curdie.  A bright child, whose academic ability transcends the appalling circumstances of his home life in the slums of Donaldson St, Tom has written a beautiful essay about the sea, and Mr Forbes is transfixed when Tom tells him that he has never seen the sea.

And from this scene the reader gets a first intimation of the complexity of this child character.  When he says that he just made up his composition, and the disdainful class sneers at him like so many little Columbuses with the marvels and avarice of oceans in their eyes…he had lied.  And he lied because he knew that they, and the teacher, were greedy for it. (p.2)

Tom is on probation for the theft of some cigarettes, butter and sweets, but though the child is judged by the rest of the staff as destined for the life of a delinquent, Mr Forbes sees his potential.

Tom Curdie, on the contrary, had one of the best intelligences in the school.  Properly fed, clothed, rested, and encouraged, he could go on to the University and have a brilliant career.  As it was, malnourished, in rags, gnawed at daily by corrupting influences, discouraged everywhere, and perpetually tired through sleeping in a room with his brother and sister, where his mother and her horrible paramour also slept, he could still hold his own among the cleverest of his contemporaries, and could excel these in the strange beauty of his imagination. (p.3)

And out of a self-conscious desire to do good, Mr Forbes offers to take Tom with him on the family’s annual holiday to Towellan.

It all goes horribly wrong, and not just in the ways that were predictable.  Tom’s presence in the holiday household which has expanded to include the formidable mother-in-law Mrs Sturrocks, changes every one.  The adults think Tom is a changeling because of the transformation wreaked on their smug, complacent lives, but all that Tim really does is to bring out in them the worst of their own natures: snobbery and disdain; fear and contempt of the other; jealousy and selfishness; indifference to the pain of others; the shallowness of Mr Forbes’ benevolence and the self-righteousness of the women.

Jenkins is too great an author, however, to leave it at that.  Tom is changed too, and not in the way Mr Forbes so naïvely intended.  Tom, exposed to a way of life so different from his own, recognises that he cannot go back.

But he has nowhere else to go.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too. 

Jenkins’ profile at Goodreads tells us that

Author of a number of landmark novels including The Cone GatherersThe ChangelingHappy for the ChildThe Thistle and the Grail and Guests of War, Jenkins is recognised as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. The themes of good and evil, of innocence lost, of fraudulence, cruelty and redemption shine through his work. His novels, shot through with ambiguity, are rarely about what they seem. He published his first book, So Gaily Sings the Lark, at the age of thirty-eight, and by the time of his death in 2005, over thirty of his novels were in print.

Clearly, I need to source some more of them!

Author Robin Jenkins
Title: The Changeling
Cover design: Tim Byrne
Publisher: Canongate, 2008, first published 1958
ISBN: 9781847672384, pbk., 232 pages including an Afterword by Andrew Marr
Source: Personal library, purchased ages ago.


  1. Thanks for link back to mine. I discovered Jenkins when I went to Waterstones in a Edinburgh and they had a whole shelf dedicated to his works, but I’ve never seen them stocked anywhere else (I always look). I highly recommend A Very Scotch Affair, which is a super dark tale about a man who on the day he tells his wife he’s leaving her she springs her own surprise on him: she has cancer. I’ve also read The Peal-Fishers, which was published posthumously, and thought it pretty average. His most acclaimed work is The Cone Gatherers, which I’ve not read. I believe it’s a set text in many UK schools.


    • Well, I’ve already drawn a blank at my libraries, next task is to trawl through the second hand bookshops. So it will take a while.
      I would really like to read The Cone Gatherers because it’s about his time as a conscientious objector…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Of course this resonates for me as I grew up in an environment not that different from your description. If only people who should know better being privileged by their own beneficent circumstances would take heed what a better life there could be for many young people. Even though it’s a long time ago the residue of that deprivation is always there. There is a deficit of working class stories IMHO and all credit to Robin Jenkins one of Scotland’s best.


    • It resonates for me too because my father grew up in the Depression and unlike the child in this book, he was helped by a teacher, who coached him after school and enabled him to win a scholarship that set him on this way to a different life entirely.
      But I strongly believe that no decent society leaves it to individual acts of mercy or kindness to redress the evil of poverty. It makes me so angry that Australia, even under a so-called Labor government with a Prime Minister who was himself brought up in poverty, is indifferent to the poor. Every time I see him in his expensive ties I feel like writing yet another angry letter that receives no response.
      *deep breath*
      And where are the contemporary Australian novelists who care about this? Paddy O’Reilly does, Elliot Perlamn does and so does Wendy Scarfe, and but I can’t think of any others. Out of all the thousands of reviews on this blog, I’ve categorised only 28 of them as social novels, and most of those are from long ago or from overseas.


  3. This sounds like a really great book Lisa … confronting and relevant, and, it sounds, not really dated despite its age. I’m trying to think of contemporary Aussie authors writing such novels besides those you listed but my mind is going to people like Ruth Park, Mena Calthorpe, that is, mid-century authors. I’ll have to think … but most are middle class because that’s what they know.

    Of course some First Nations writers describe lives of economic poverty – Birch, Simpson, and Lucashenko for example.


    • Yes, I did think of First Nations authors, but theirs is a different space, and my objection to current economic policies applies to everyone regardless of personal circumstances. *No one* should be living below the poverty line in Australia.


      • Agreed … they should not be … I’m still holding out hope!


  4. Thanks for the review – this sounds a very powerful book. Abe Books could be useful for you:


  5. Oh dear, I have led you astray! Abe Books is a dangerous website.


  6. Wow, this sounds brilliant – and I am ashamed I had never heard of this countryman of mine. Thanks Lisa!


  7. Definitely one to add to my list. I read The Cone Gatherers a couple of years back on the recommendation of a blogger from Scotland. Tremendous book.

    Liked by 1 person

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