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(John) Robin Jenkins Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 1912. Education: Hamilton Academy; Glasgow University, 1931-35, B.A. (honors) in English 1935, M.A. 1936. Career: Teacher at Dunoon Grammar School; Ghazi College, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1957-59; British Institute, Barcelona, 1959-61; and Gaya School, Sabah, Malaysia, 1963-68. Awards: Frederick Niven award, 1956.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

So Gaily Sings the Lark. Glasgow, Maclellan, 1951.

Happy for the Child. London, Lehmann, 1953.

The Thistle and the Grail. London, Macdonald, 1954.

The Cone-Gatherers. London, Macdonald, 1955; New York, Taplinger, 1981.

Guests of War. London, Macdonald, 1956.

The Missionaries. London, Macdonald, 1957.

The Changeling. London, Macdonald, 1958.

Love Is a Fervent Fire. London, Macdonald, 1959.

Some Kind of Grace. London, Macdonald, 1960.

Dust on the Paw. London, Macdonald, and New York, Putnam, 1961.

The Tiger of Gold. London, Macdonald, 1962.

A Love of Innocence. London, Cape, 1963.

The Sardana Dancers. London, Cape, 1964.

A Very Scotch Affair. London, Gollancz, 1968.

The Holy Tree. London, Gollancz, 1969.

The Expatriates. London, Gollancz, 1971.

A Toast to the Lord. London, Gollancz, 1972.

A Figure of Fun. London, Gollancz, 1974.

A Would-Be Saint. London, Gollancz, 1978; New York, Taplinger, 1980.

Fergus Lamont. Edinburgh, Canongate, and New York, Taplinger, 1979.

The Awakening of George Darroch. Edinburgh, Harris, 1985.

Just Duffy. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1988.

Poverty Castle. Nairn, Balnain, 1991.

Leila. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1995.

Matthew and Sheila. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1999.

Short Stories

A Far Cry from Bowmore and Other Stories. London, Gollancz, 1973.

Lunderston Tales. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Exile," in Modern Scottish Short Stories, edited by Fred Urquhart and Giles Gordon. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1978.

* * *

Scotland, Spain, Afghanistan—the countries in which he has lived—have provided the backdrops for much of Robin Jenkins's writing, and it is his uncanny ability to realize those settings and the people who inhabit them which has given so much immediate strength to his fictional output. "You must write about people you know best," Jenkins has written, "and they are the ones you were born and brought up with." His Scottish novels—So Gaily Sings the Lark, Happy for the Child, The Thistle and the Grail, The Cone-Gatherers, Guests of War, The Missionaries, The Changeling, Love Is a Fervent Fire, A Love of Innocence, The Sardana Dancers, A Toast to the Lord, A Would-Be Saint, Fergus Lamont, The Awakening of George Darroch, and Just Duffy—tend to focus on the sterner aspects of Calvinism. The best of the early novels, The Cone-Gatherers, set on the patrician country estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell, follows to its bitter conclusion the enmity between Duror the gamekeeper and Calum, a simple-minded hunchback who gathers pine cones for their seeds. Loss of innocence is also a central theme of The Changeling and Guests of War, and is transformed in Jenkins's later novels to a yearning for the level of grace that transcends human frailty.

In all his work Jenkins's writing is characterized by his probing insights into the paradox that makes human relationships both loving and self-destructive, and by his skillful delineation of character and psychological make-up. Poverty, too, is a central issue, whether it be the spiritual poverty which disfigures men like Mungo Niven, the self-deluding hero of A Very Scotch Affair, or the physical poverty of the slums of Drumsagart in The Thistle and the Grail. Yet, despite his moral stance and his round condemnation of a society which breeds those twin evils, Jenkins is not without mercy. The reader is invited to examine the reasons which make Niven such an unattractive character and to understand how other factors, such as religion, upbringing, and heredity have helped to warp his life. Even when Niven commits adultery, sympathy for his stupidity is never far away from Jenkins's narrative. Similarly, the citizens of the mean town of Drumsagart experience a moment of grace when their football team wins a cup competition. Irony is never far away from Jenkins's literary style.

Nowhere is this virtue seen to better advantage than in The Awakening of George Darroch. Set in 1843, the year of the Disruption (the schism in the Church of Scotland over livings and privileges which led to the foundation of the Free Church of Scotland), it follows the crisis of conscience which affects George Darroch, a minister of the church whose parish is in a typically grim and Jenkinsian small Scottish town. On one level Darroch's dilemma is political in origin. Should he follow the dictates of his conscience and side with the Free Church reformers, or should he allow himself to be tempted into staying with the established church? At that level the arguments for following the first option are his engrained beliefs in the necessity for change, beliefs which he wishes to make manifest; balanced against these is his brother-in-law's promise of a rich living in a decent country area. On another level, Darroch is besieged by a moral problem. To throw in his lot with the reformers means that he will have to sacrifice his family and their well-being.

As time passes and the day of the "Disruption" meeting comes closer, Darroch sways from one direction to the other, much to the dismay of his family who expect him not only to remain constant to the established church but also to have the good sense to accept the offer of a new and more agreeable parish. When he eventually makes the fateful decision to join the reformers it seems, superficially, that Darroch is doing so to expiate past sins, in the full knowledge that he is of the Elect. But Jenkins is too clever a writer and too committed a critic of the effects of extreme Calvinism to allow Darroch such a simple exit. It is not religious faith that carries Darroch forward but simple hypocrisy: the important motive for him is not the action itself but the view which others will have of his part in it.

Despite the maturity of the writing and the sense of culmination which suggested that he had little more to say on the subject, Jenkins returned once more to the matter of sin and betrayal in Just Duffy. This is set in contemporary small-town Scotland, a world which the author obviously detests: Duffy lives in a bleak, urban, and uncaring environment in which achievement and greed are preferred to the more ordinary values of respect and friendship. Never addressed by his Christian name of Thomas—hence the title—Duffy is the only child of an unmarried mother and, considered stupid, he occupies a never-never land between leaving school as a simpleton and entering a world dominated by despair and poverty. Instead of accepting meekly what is offered to him, Duffy declares war on society, indulging in a growing number of meaningless actions until he commits the ultimate crime of murder. Although Jenkins reserves much sympathy for his central character, he also makes clear that Duffy's crimes are born of a frightful innocence which allows him to imagine that he can act with impunity. Eventually, Duffy retreats into the silence of madness, the only justification he can discover for what he has done.

Although Jenkins is capable of ranging easily and fluently over a wide range of social backgrounds, his vision of the demonic state of the world and the salving balm of love remain the central motifs. Anger, sexual disappointments, the betrayal of innocence are emotions never far from the surface, and like Edwin Muir (1887-1959) Jenkins is aware of the fall from grace and the widening gulf between man and Eden.

—Trevor Royle

Paul Jennings (1943–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next]

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