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||A. J. Cronin (1896-1981) - in full Archibald Joseph Cronin|
Scottish novelist, an accomplished storyteller, who practised as a doctor over a decade before devoting himself entirely to writing. Cronin gained his fame initially with Hatter's Castle (1931), the story of the megalomanic James Brodie, a Scottish hatmaker and his foolish dreams of social acceptance. The Citadel (1937), a progressive novel published by Gollancz, had the biggest sales of any book of the 1930s. Cronin produced several bestsellers drawing from his experiences as a doctor – his most famous character was Dr Finlay Hyslop. Some of his works had religious themes, like The Keys of the Kingdom (1942), which was also made into a film, starring Gregory Peck. Cronin continued to write until he was in his eightieth year.
"In the recollections of those who, like myself, have ventured into descriptions of their early years, nothing has bored me more than those long, tedious, and particularized listings of the books the author has read and which led, in the end, to the formation of a literary tastes that was demonstrably excellent. For this reason I refrain from presenting a catalogue and state simply that I read everything." (from A Song of Sixpence, 1964)
Archibald Joseph Cronin was born in Cardross, Strathclyde, the only
child of Jessie (Montgomerie) Cronin, a Protestant, and Patrick Cronin, a Catholic of Irish origin.
Cronin's childhood was shadowed by the death of his father and poverty; his mother tried to struggle forward alone. After two years she returned to her parents' home. His talent for writing was recognized early, and he won many writing competition at Dumberton Academy, where he was sent at his uncle's expense, and St. Aloysius' College. In 1914 he entered the Glasgow University Medical School, graduating in 1919. During World War I Cronin served as a surgeon in the Royal Navy, becoming a sub-lieutenant.
After the war he worked as a ship's surgeon on a liner bound for
India, and then served in various hospitals. In 1921 Cronin married his
early love, Agnes Mary Gibson, whom he had met at Glasgow Medical
School. Cronin left Scotland and moved with his wife, who was also a
doctor, to Tregenny, a small mining town in South Wales, and then to
Tredegar, where they spent three years, and where their first child was
born. Cronin was awarded his D.Ph. in 1923 and the next year he was
appointed Medical Inspector of Mines. At this time, he continued his
studies, researching occupational diseases in the coal industry.
These experiences formed the basis of the novels The Stars Look Down (1935) and The Citadel (1937), which made Cronin famous in the United States, and inspired the director King Vidor's film version of the book. Robert Donat was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film. According to a Gallup Poll, The Citadel 'impressed' more people than any other book except the Bible. The book sold 40,083 copies in nine days. It has been claimed that Cronin's arguments for social justice and a better health system contributed to the victory of the Labour Party in 1945.
In 1925 Cronin was awarded his M.D. by the University of Glasgow and subsequently he started to practise in Wales and in London. Cronin's heath broke down in 1930 and he sold his practice. Whilst convalescing from gastric ulcers in the West Highlands of Scotland, he started to write his 250,000-word novel, Hatter's Castle. Much of its material derived from his frustration with the medical system and bureaucracy in England, though the story tells of a hatter in a Small Scottish town, who destroys himself and a number of others in his struggle to regain his lost strature. Cronin once threw the manuscript away, believing it would not be good. It was found by a local farmer, digging a ditch which his father had dug without finishing the work. Eventually Cronin completed his own effort.
The book was an immediate success in Britain and was filmed in 1941. After its publication accusations were made, that Cronin had plagiarized George Douglas's novel The House With the Green Shutters (1901). However, the book allowed Cronin to give up practicing medicine in favour of writing. The Stars Look Down was a socially charged novel, which examined injustices in a North England mining community. Carol Reed's film adaptation, starring Michael Redgrave, was praised by the writer Graham Greene: "Dr Cronin's mining novel has produced a very good film – I doubt whether in England we have ever produced a better." Generally it was regarded as the first British film with social relevance. Vigil in the Night, first published in Good Housekeeping in 1939, was filmed by George Stevens in 1940, starring Carole Lombard, Anne Shirley, and Brian Aherne. In this romantic melodrama Lombard played a dedicated nurse in a provincial hospital in England, who sacrifices herself for her sister, but then finds work in a large hospital. Cronin's stories inspired also such directors as Victor Saville (The Green Years), Philip Leacock (The Spanish Gardener), and Jack Cardiff (Beyond This Place).
In 1939 Cronin moved to the United States with his family. He wrote The Keys of the Kingdom, a story of a Roman Catholic priest, Father Francis Chisholm, who spends years as a missionary in China. Father Chisholm becomes familiar with the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, adopts a simple way of life, and advocates ecumenical cooperation between all Christians. His tolerance is viewed with suspicion within the institutional Church by his superiors. David O. Selznick had bought the screen rights to the novel in 1941 for $100,000, but he did not want to do the film with Gregory Peck. However, Darryl F. Zanuck, production chief at 20th Century-Fox, was convinced that Peck was right for the Father Chisholm role. Nunnally Johnson had written earlier the screenplay and it was revised by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The film was shot entirely on the Fox studio lot, but with its $3 million budget it was one of the most expensive pictures of the year.
Critical reaction to the film was mixed. In the New York Post Irene Thirer called the picture "a lengthy, highly dramatic, entrancingly photographed production... Stahl had captured a delicate spiritual quality, and at the same time managed to give the action sequences a biting tang; also he has preserved the wit and subtlety of the manuscript, with each and every performer expertly cast." Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune saw that Mankiewicz and Johnson did not "succeed in packing a rambling literary narrative into the exigent outlines of a satisfactory film entertainment." Cronin himself was satisfied with the result and praised both adaptation and Peck's performance – the actor later said that he had been helped by a Catholic missionary, Father O'Hara, who had lived eight years in China. Peck was voted for an Oscar nomination for best actor. "I remember particularly in one scene, where I had to preach in Chinese, how Father O'Hara was persuaded to act out the scene for me. I hadn't been able to catch the feeling of it somehow. I couldn't feel natural. So we asked him to try it. And he did, walking through that crowd of Chinese extras, ringing a little silver bell and talking to each one, in Chinese, after first bowing with the greatest courtesy. He did it as he must have done a thousand times in real life. Then I realized what I had missed in the scene: that grave courtesy and respect for each person as an individual." (from The Films of Gregory Peck by John Griggs, 1984)
Catholic faith was also the central subject in The Minstrel Boy (1975). The narrator is Alec, who follows through decades of disasters and triumphs of his friend, Desmonde Fitzgerald, a young priest. Alec becomes a doctor and a successful writer. Desmonde wins a singing competition and his marvelous voice opens the doors to music for him, and later to Hollywood films. But he also must solve his relationship with the beautiful and wretched Claire, whom he has married, leaving his career within the organization of the Church. Again Cronin's hero must find his true calling in life. Desmonde rejects fame and glory, and also the golf club at Bel Air and the Racquet Club at Palm Springs. During his long walks on Malibu Beach he realizes the emptiness of his life: "Few people use this stretch, far from the swimming beach and bathing huts, and I encounter only the regulars: Charles Chaplin, too enwrapped in his own genius to be conscious of anyone but himself, and a tall, strongly built man who walks slowly, reading, but who occasionally nods and smiles to me as we pass. These apart, one can fond solitude, and here I walk, struggling with myself and with my own unhappy thoughts." Eventually Desmonde goes to Madras to work amongst the neglected and homeless children of the Untouchables.
Although English books were forbidden in Germany during World War II, Cronin's works dealing with mining communities were in 1943 on display in Dresden's bookstores for propaganda reasons. After the war Cronin travelled with his family in Europe. In the autobiographical book Adventures in Two Worlds (1952) Cronin returned to his experiences as a doctor in Scotland and South Wales, and examined his religious beliefs in the last chapters. Cronin tells how he rediscovered his Catholic background in the 1930s. His father had been Catholic and his mother was from a strongly Protestant family. At school Cronin grew away from religion – he had been teased because of his Catholic faith, and he started to feel disgust for bigotry. Cronin's own dream was brotherhood between people and ecumenical understanding between different churches, not tearing rivalry. This spirit of conciliation marked all his books dealing with questions of faith.
"Now he perceived how illusory his hopes had been, how all his imaginings had been falsely based on a romantic re-creation of the past. Had he actually expected, after thirty years, to find Mary as on the day he had abandoned her, sweet with the freshness of youth, tenderly passionate, still virginal? God knows he would have wished it so. But the miracle had not occurred and now, having heard the history of a woman who wept for him late and long, who married, though not for love, lost an invalid husband, who suffered hardships, ill-fortune, perhaps even poverty, yet sacrificed herself to bring up her daughter to a worthy profession – knowing all this, he had returned to reality, to the calm awareness that the Mary he would find at Markinch would be a middle-aged woman, with work-worn hands and tired, gentle eyes, bruised and defeated by the battle of live..." (from The Judas Tree, 1961)
By 1958 the sales of Cronin's novels amounted to seven million in the United States, but his Dickensian humanism and social realism made him popular in the Soviet Union, too. A Song of Sixpence (1964) and A Pocketful of Rye (1969) drew on his own experiences, and juxtaposed the early years of poverty of the hero, Laurence Carroll, with the posh live he has at a clinic in Switzerland. Many of Cronin's books were adapted for films or television programs. The television series Dr Finlay's Casebook (1959-66, new adaptation 1993) was based on his stories. In the 1960s it was one of the most popular series on British television. For the last 25 years of his life Cronin lived in Switzerland. He resided in Lucerne near the actress Audrey Hepburn, and became the godfather of her first son. His other friends included Laurence Olivier and Charles Chaplin. Cronin died of bronchitis on January 9, 1981, in Glion, Switzerland, a clinic near Montreux.
For further reading: Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Fiction: From C.S. Lewis to Left Behind by Nancy M. Tischler (2009): 'Politics and the Medical Hero' by Ross McKibbin, in English Historical Review Vol. CXXIII No. 502 (2008); A.J. Cronin: The Man Who Created Dr Finlay by lan Davies (2001); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); A.J. Cronin by D. Salwalk (1985); A.J. Cronin: A Reference Guide by D. Salwalk (1984); Adventures in Two Worlds by A.J. Cronin (1952); Catholic Authors, ed. by M. Hoehn (1947). Medical doctors as writers: Arthur Conan Doyle, Anton Chekhov, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Frank G. Slaughter, Lloyd C. Douglas, Richard Gordon, James Herriot (veterinarian), Michael Crichton, Robin Cook. Other films based on Cronin's stories (not listed below): Once to Every Woman (1934), dir. by Lambert Hillyer, starring Walter Connolly, Ralph Bellamy, Fay Wray.