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Robin Jenkins: a centenary celebration

Linden Bicket
ScotLit 42, 2012

SEE ALSO:
Robin Jenkins’s
The Cone-Gatherers
Scotnote
This year marks one hundred years since the birth of one of twentieth-century Scotland’s most prolific and critically acclaimed novelists. Robin Jenkins (1912–2005) is the author of over thirty novels – most famously The Changeling (1958) and The Cone-Gatherers (1955) – the latter of which has often been taught as part of the Higher English syllabus over the years and aptly displays many of his major thematic preoccupations. Prejudice, pomposity, guilt, innocence, judgement, idealism and authentic goodness are the abiding concerns of much of Jenkins’s body of work, and it is for this reason that Roderick Watson has identified his ‘combination of prose realism with an unrelentingly ethical imagination’, while Douglas Gifford notes that ‘matters of moral choice preoccupy Jenkins, with an intensity far beyond any other modern Scottish author’.1 Today, we might see Robin Jenkins as the grand old man of Scotland’s fiction in the latter part of the twentieth century, sitting in judgement over his cast of holy fools, innocents and spiteful, hardened characters, and delivering sentence. As Isobel Murray recognised in her evaluation of his work for the ASLS in 1996, Jenkins himself sums up his individual belief in moralistic terms, declaring: ‘I don’t see myself as a political person. I see myself as a moralist. I judge all political issues from a moral point of view. And in my books I’m pretty sure I sometimes over-steeped them in morality’.2 Nonetheless, for this great predecessor of the existentialist fictions of Kelman and Gray, there are moments of quiet gentleness, sweetness and concern for humanity that temper the didactic impulse felt in his work. This is particularly true in Jenkins’s later fiction, which (along with the rest of his corpus) has yet to receive its proper due in terms of critical attention and appraisal.

In an interview with Isobel Murray and Bob Tait in 1985, Jenkins thought back to his childhood:

I was a sort of sensitive recorder in the background, watching everything. [...] And I know in my heart that I notice everything, or at least the essential things. [...] That being the case, I must as a child have built up a vast reservoir, because I agree with Aldous Huxley and those who say that you never learn anything about human nature after the age of, well, twelve. You may, as you get older, find instances to back up your instinctive knowledge, but your instinctive knowledge is all there, and it’s built up when you’re two, three, four, five and so on.3

Childish Things (2001) deals with just these kinds of formative experiences and the way they shape a life. In the novel we meet Gregor McLeod, a retired and newly widowed schoolteacher, aged seventy-two, who, in terms of his boyhood and early life, is very clearly based on the author himself. The poverty of Gregor’s youth is the childish thing he never grows out of: it determines his whole character, and he has hidden it behind a carefully constructed middle-class facade. Gregor is boastful, conceited and vain, but he is also very much aware of his failings, and he can be startlingly self-aware and self-deprecating. Though he affirms often that he is a socialist, he finds wealth and glamour irresistible, and after the death of his wife, Kate, he travels to LA, ostensibly to live the good life: playing golf with elderly, lesser players, romancing a rich and ageing (but utterly vivacious) retired actress, and basking in sunshine, while the daughter and family he stays with are given barely a mention. But in this new setting, far from the Scottish widows and divorcées who desire him and buy into his own self-made myth, he is newly open to interrogation and is in danger of being exposed as the ‘lad o’ pairts’, rather than a fairly prosperous ex-teacher and (he reminds us frequently) war hero. However, Gregor never loses our sympathy. His vulnerability is more charming than his cultured accent, fine tailoring, or suave good looks, and through his scarcely concealed grief and the never quite forgotten poverty of his childhood, Jenkins subtly plants a familiar seed in his reader’s mind: deprivation is an injury or wound from which the individual can perhaps never recover.

For all its wistful reflection on the human person whose little pretensions and facades have been stripped back by the great leveller of age, Childish Things still manages to be a funny and satirical gaze at Gregor and his pensioner cronies. Ironically, while this book diagnoses the immaturity still present in old age, it is Jenkins’s far darker novel, Matthew and Sheila (1998), which looks into the world of children, ultimately deciding that this is no time of straightforward moral purity and innocence. The dark moral ambiguity of this novel is heightened by the fact that its main protagonists are so young (around ten or so). Matthew and Sheila is an example of a work by Jenkins where, as Gifford notes, characters ‘may be self-deluding and self-justifying sinners, latter-day believers in the modern versions of that older creed which so plagued Scottish writers, the doctrine of the elect’.4 Indeed, the novel’s very first sentence plunges us straight into young Matthew Sowglass’s Calvinistic imagination: ‘Matthew was nine when he discovered, or more accurately, decided, that he was one of the Chosen, those favourites of God who could do no wrong, or rather who, if they did what in others would be called wrong, were immediately absolved and protected from punishment’.5 What unfolds is an often chilling little story, where Matthew’s school-mate Sheila becomes the Gil-Martin to his Robert Wringhim, and, as with Hogg’s original masterpiece, we may never quite decide whether this is a psychological study or a supernatural drama. Under a supernatural reading, although the motherless Matthew believes unrelentingly that he can do no wrong, he does have a conscience, and his natural goodness and grace do not allow him to fall prey to Sheila’s sly words, twisted threats, or malevolent intentions until the very end, where, like Wringhim, he must be free to choose between good and evil. However, instead of a battle for Matthew’s soul, the tale may be read more as a humanistic reflection on the need for forgiveness and compassion. Sheila is either a demon sent to tempt Matthew and drag his soul to Hell, or an orphaned child who has been so psychologically damaged by grief that her outward spite hides a desperate need for love.

In fact, like Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith, Jenkins never commits fully to the religious understanding of a moral situation, but he often uses Christian language to reflect on this. The title of his novel Some Kind of Grace (2004) nods explicitly to his reluctance to put full trust in religious meaning, and he noted that, ‘I can’t think of any single person in my family who ever went to church, so utterly no religion, although certainly from my books you might think I had a strong religious background’.6 Like MacCaig, Jenkins finds consolation in the natural world, and his favourite and recurring features of Scottish landscape are summed up in the description of Ardnave in Poor Angus (2000):

The immense sea-meadow sloped up gently, so that walking on the springy turf was easy and delightful. The air was warm but not enervating, and it was fragrant with the scent of many thousands of little wild flowers. Bees buzzed and small blue butterflies fluttered. In the sky larks sang unceasingly, and from the beach curlews kept calling. Sheep and lambs were everywhere, galloping out of the way with sour bleats.7

However, this connection to Scotland’s landscape never really ties Jenkins in with his late ‘Modern Renaissance’ contemporaries, or his predecessors, Gibbon and Gunn. While others writing novels at the same time as Jenkins, such as George Mackay Brown, read a sacramental or at least a meaningful, tribal significance into rivers, cairns, brochs and standing stones, Jenkins is no inheritor of Celtic twilight, and he has little time for the roots and mythology which sustain the imagination of these writers. In general, Jenkins anticipates the urban realist fictions of Galloway, Kelman and even Welsh. He punctures the potential romance of the description of Ardnave by adding: ‘Janet soon broke into a Gaelic song about a girl herding cattle. Angus at first joined in but had to give up because of the flies. They rose in hordes from cowpats and bumped against his lips; one indeed got in his mouth and had to be spat out’.8

Realism tempers romance again in the posthumously published novel The Pearl-fishers (2007), a tale set in familiar Jenkins territory, as the action takes place in Argyllshire and Ardmore forest, a setting it shares with The Cone-Gatherers (1955). In fact, The Pearl-fishers can be seen as a conflation of this novel with The Changeling (1958) and A Would-be Saint (1978). The hero of A Would-be Saint, Gavin Hamilton, appears again in The Pearl-fishers and offers up his home to an itinerant, ‘tinker’ family, the head of which is the nineteen-year-old Effie Williamson. Effie’s mother is a version of Tom Curdie’s grotesque and grasping mother from The Changeling, and although the setting for the tale is rural Argyllshire rather than the Central Belt, Jenkins is quick to condemn the small community’s distrust of and outright hostility to the travelling family of pearl fishers for being grubby, nasty and beyond the pale – in the same way that he depicts the Forbes family’s horror of the Curdies in The Changeling.

While the title of The Changeling alludes to folklore, The Pearl-fishers also rests on subtle folkloric, ballad and fairy-tale conventions. Gavin Hamilton is quick to fall in love with Effie: by the end of the third chapter he decides to pick for her ‘the most beautiful rose in the garden’, his hands trembling.9 And indeed, Effie is a kind of princess in rags or queen in disguise. The beautiful girl, who fishes for pearls and approaches Gavin with ‘remarkable grace’, is herself a ‘pearl of great price’ in the biblical expression, and her goodness not only matches Gavin’s, but excels it.10 It can be argued that Jenkins plays cleverly with the parable of the pearl found in the Gospel of Matthew throughout the novel, and Gavin, soon to train as a minister, finds the promise of grace in Effie, like the man who sells everything he has for the pearl (or Kingdom of Heaven).

Like her freshwater Scottish pearls, Effie is in no need of extra refinement or improvement. She is a naturally pure and refined beauty, formed through years of suffering and endurance. But is Hamilton’s love for her only a patronising impulse to ‘save’ a social pariah in order to satisfy his own ego? As with The Changeling, this novel follows the travails of a holy fool who notes potential in the figure of the outcast, but unlike Charlie Forbes in Jenkins’s earlier novel, Hamilton knows that ‘there was no virtue in being kind to people if in doing so you humiliated them’.11 Jenkins rarely provides easy answers and comfortable endings, and only on the final page do we discover whether the strain of tragedy that runs through the novel is fulfilled or relinquished.

In 1985 Robin Jenkins claimed, ‘I could have written fifty novels!’12 Perhaps many more remain in manuscript form, awaiting publication, but for the meantime, Jenkins has left us with a substantial published output, which demands greater attention. There could be no better time than one hundred years after his birth to examine his varied, compassionate, angry and righteous body of work.

 

Notes

  1. Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: The Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 162. Douglas Gifford, Sarah Dunnigan and Alan MacGillivray, eds., Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 854.
  2. Robin Jenkins quoted in Isobel Murray, ‘Robin Jenkins’s Fiction’.
  3. Robin Jenkins in ‘Robin Jenkins’, Scottish Writers Talking 3, ed. by Isobel Murray (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2006), p. 106.
  4. Gifford et al, p. 854.
  5. Robin Jenkins, Matthew and Sheila (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998), p. 3.
  6. Scottish Writers Talking 3, p. 105.
  7. Robin Jenkins, Poor Angus (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001), p. 47.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Robin Jenkins, The Pearl-fishers (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007), p. 18.
  10. Ibid., p. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 63.
  12. Scottish Writers Talking 3, p. 106.

 

Copyright © Linden Bicket 2012

 

Last updated 21 January 2013.