Skip to Content

Books

A far cry from Dr Finlay

If he is remembered at all, A.J. Cronin is known now for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for many years on both BBC television and radio, and today resonates with the glow of a gentler past — when a GP happily made house calls, delivered babies, and served as shaman, shrink and confessor to his rural community.

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

A.J.Cronin Alan Davies

Alma Books, pp.384, 20

If he is remembered at all, A.J. Cronin is known now for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for many years on both BBC television and radio, and today resonates with the glow of a gentler past — when a GP happily made house calls, delivered babies, and served as shaman, shrink and confessor to his rural community.

If he is remembered at all, A.J. Cronin is known now for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for many years on both BBC television and radio, and today resonates with the glow of a gentler past — when a GP happily made house calls, delivered babies, and served as shaman, shrink and confessor to his rural community.

Cronin’s association with these programmes was actually relatively loose. They were based on an early collection of stories, and most of the broadcasts were original commissioned scripts. His own best-selling novels had made him a household name, but they were moral melodramas, not the gentler stuff of Dr Finlay, and lay in a tradition of English middlebrow fiction exemplified by Arnold Bennett.


There was also ample drama in Cronin’s own life, though it was well disguised from public eyes. He was born the mixed product of a Presbyterian-Catholic marriage which was happy but short-lived: his father died when Cronin was eight years old. He grew up in resultingly straitened circumstances, but had the solace of his Catholic mother’s full (and almost suffocating) attention. This helped instill a relentless self-confidence in her son, who excelled at sport and school, and rapidly qualified as a doctor. Soon after, he married May Gibson, a rash decision made after her declaration of a non-existent pregnancy. Despite protestations of devotion, Cronin clearly never loved her, and soon grew close to a young woman named Mary. Only Mary’s Catholic piety seems to have kept Cronin from leaving his wife, and the young woman eventually entered the Carmelites in despair.

Interestingly, considering Dr Finlay’s setting in the fictional town of Tannochbrae, Cronin never practised in Scotland. He worked first in a mining district of Wales, then left for the affluence of a private practice in Bayswater. He quit to write his first novel, and in a scenario as implausible as any of his plot contrivances, hit gold immediately: Hatter’s Castle was a best- seller for the fledgling Gollancz firm, and made Cronin a millionaire. Other bestsellers followed, most notably Keys of the Kingdom, The Stars Look Down and The Citadel.

At the height of his fame, Cronin moved to America and spent the war years there — which caused resentment among British readers eating rationed food while he lived high on the hog. A return to the UK proved abortive, as he was put off by the persisting austerity of post-war Britain. He settled in Switzerland instead, where he found privacy and tax relief.

Throughout these years the unhappiness of his marriage was alleviated by the addition to his household of Margaret Jennings, known as Nan, whose role evolved from governess to ‘personal assistant’ as the Cronin children grew up. Unsurprisingly, Cronin’s wife resented the usurper, but Nan was made of sterner stuff than the earlier girlfriend — no nunnery for her —and saw off May in the end: at the first faint signs of dementia, Cronin packed his wife off to a care home 5,000 miles away, in Montreal, where one of his grown-up sons lived.

In writing Cronin’s life, Alan Davies has had little primary material to work with —some notebooks of Cronin and an unpublished autobiography are the chief evidence for his exploration of the writer’s inner life. Yet in establishing the facts, Davies has been painstaking in his labours; this has its down side, since his genealogical discoveries mean we are 40 pages in before the baby Cronin even arrives. The correspondence cited is almost exclusively professional, chiefly the letters Cronin wrote to Victor Gollancz in the UK and his publisher in the States. Letters between writers and their publishers are rarely very interesting, even when both parties are equally besotted with themselves, and these are not exceptions.

Davies provides concise accounts of most of Cronin’s books, but deliberately refrains from making this a critical biography, focusing instead, almost obsessively so, on showing how other writers have erroneously conflated Cronin’s work and his life. This gives his book an undeniable authority, but it is a weird authority for a biography to have, since the result is a definitive account of what we don’t rather than do know about the immensely successful, utterly ruthless and largely forgotten A.J. Cronin.


Show comments
Close