Literature – A. J. Cronin

A. J. Cronin – One of the most renowned story tellers of the 20th Century

Archibald Joseph Cronin, best known as the author of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, was born on the 19th July 1896 in Cardross, the only child of a Protestant mother, Jessie Montgomerie Cronin, and a Catholic father, Patrick Cronin.

At an early age, A.J Cronin moved with his family to 7 Prince Albert Terrace, Victoria Road, Helensburgh where they lived until Patrick Cronin, a commercial traveller, passed away when A.J was only 7 years old.

On his Father’s passing, Archibald and his Mother moved to his Grandparents house in Dumbarton. The house was known as ‘Willowbrook’ next to Miller’s Farm in what is now Roudriding Road. In order to support Archibald, Jessie took a job as a travelling saleswoman and eventually became a health visitor. It was a difficult time for A.J as he was had to cope with the conflict of his Father’s traditional Catholic teachings whilst living in a staunch Presbyterian household.

It was an experience that was to feature prominently in his later writings, with his stories continually grappling with the idealistic integration of religious faith and the world of modern science and medicine.

This would be best demonstrated in his book The Green Years, which tells the story of an Irish boy, Robert Shannon, orphaned at a very young age and forced to return to his mother’s family in the tiny Scottish village of Langford, where his father’s Catholicism becomes problematic. As an impoverished orphan, he is caught between the anti-Catholic prejudices of the majority Protestant culture and the poverty of his mother’s family. After a difficult start in his new school, Robert adjusts and is befriended by two pupils, Gavin and Allison, whom he grows to love as the years pass. Whilst at school, Robert develops an aptitude for science and struggles, supported by all family with the exception of his Grandfather, to better himself and avoid a working life in the coal mines. He eventually succeeds in his efforts to keep both his Catholic faith and his desire to become a doctor.

Cronin proved a precocious student at Dumbarton Academy and St. Aloysius’ College, winning many writing competitions, before being awarded a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Glasgow.

At the time he matriculated, in October 1914, just months after the First World War had begun; he was 18 and living at his family home at 29 Esmond Street, Yorkhill. It would not be long before he felt torn between his studies and war service.

He was a very good student and his name appeared frequently on the prize-list as the recipient of merit certificates. Thus he accumulated merits in Zoology and Physiology in his first two years, and after an absence during the session 1916-1917 for naval service, where he served as served as a probationary surgeon in the Naval Reserve, he returned to the winning academic prizes, with a commendation in Clinical Surgery, and second-class certificates in Systematic Surgery, Materia Medica, the Practice of Medicine, Midwifery and Psychological Medicine.

It was there that he met his future wife, Agnes Mary Gibson, also known as May, who was also a medical student. It is claimed in some quarters that Cronin felt duped into his marriage. According to an unfinished memoir that he was penning six years before his death, A.J is supposed to have believed that May first plied him with champagne, lobster and strawberries, then tempted him – a devout Catholic – into her bedroom. A day later her father called Cronin to congratulate him on their forthcoming marriage, which was news to him, with May claiming that she was pregnant, which later transpired to be a false alarm. The couple were to have three sons, the eldest Vincent Archibald would become a distinguished author of non fiction in his own right.

He graduated with highest honours, a commendation, from the University of Glasgow in 1919, being awarded an M.B. and a Ch.B., and would eventually earn additional degrees, including a Diploma in Public Health (London) (1923) and his Member Royal College Physicians (1924).

After the war, Cronin trained at various hospitals before taking up his first practice in Tredegar, a mining town in South Wales, an experience which, together with his own childhood in Helensburgh and Dumbarton, furnished him with the gritty social realism from which he drew in his fiction.

In 1924, he was appointed Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain with his work leading to two reports on dust inhalation and first aid in mines

Between 1926 and 1930 he practised in London, but his medical career was about to end. He suffered poor health, a duodenal ulcer, and went off to Dulchenna Farm near Inverary, West Highlands to convalesce and do some writing. From here to travelled to Dumbarton Library to undertake research for his first novel. The result was Hatter’s Castle written in three months and published in 1931, a portrait of a megalomaniac Dundee hat maker. (Cronin’s grandfather had owned a hat shop on the High Street in Dumbarton). It launched A.J Cronin on a new and highly lucrative career as a novelist. The book success allowed him to give up his practise.

The 1942 film version of this book would also have a Helensburgh connection, as it starred a young leading actress in one of her first major film roles, Deborah Kerr.

Whist literary critics were rather dismissive of his books; they proved massively popular with the public, and his story telling was much admired by Hollywood. The Film Industry was quick to spot Cronin’s potential and signed the rights to many of his books, with The Stars Looked Down, The Citadel, The Spanish Gardener, and The Keys of the Kingdom proving huge hits.

The Citadel in particular, was hugely influential at the time. The story centres on a young Scottish doctor Andrew Manson who single handed tackles an outbreak of typhoid in South Wales.

The film version garnered 4 Oscar nominations and the book all records in America for publisher Little Brown – outselling its previous blockbuster All Quiet on the Western Front. The film was even re-issued in 1948 to celebrate the formation of the UK’s National Health Service.

In the late 1930s Cronin moved to the United States with his wife and three sons, living in Bel Air, California and Greenwich, Connecticut before eventually settling in New Canaan. His books would continue to flourish with American sales alone topping seven million copies in 1958. Cronin would later return to Europe, residing in Lucerne and Montreux, Switzerland for the last twenty-five years of his life. He returned to Europe as a multi millionaire and it is thought that Switzerland proved a compelling country residence due in the main to its favourable tax regime.

Cronin became a household name in his native Britain during the 1960’s when the BBC aired the drama series Dr. Finlay’s Casebook from 1962 until 1971. Based on Cronin’s novella entitled Country Doctor, the storylines centred on a general medical practice in the fictional Scottish town of Tannochbrae during the late 1920s. The series regularly drew audiences of 12 million.

Cronin was the primary writer for the show between 1962 and 1964. It was in 1964 that Cronin, having handed over the writing of the show to BBC script writers, caused national outrage. He wrote a strong letter to the series’ script editor in 1964, expressing his dissatisfaction with the progression of the show. The media picked up on the story and went to press stating that Cronin wanted the series to end, causing a huge public outcry. Viewers wrote in their thousands to Cronin at his Switzerland home, demanding that the show be allowed to continue. Cronin was forced to issue a statement that he merely wanted the BBC to improve the scripts and not cancel the show.

The book experienced a new lease of life when Dr Finlay was transferred to BBC Radio 4 from 1970 until 1978.

Archibald Joseph Cronin continued to write until his eventual death from acute bronchitis in Switzerland, on 6th January 1981.

Sources University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records
Sheila Hodges, Cronin, Archibald Joseph (1896-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1984)