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Sunday, 24 July 2011

A.J. Cronin - The Man who Created Dr Finlay


AJ Cronin

I doubt the name A.J. Cronin is well known today unless you are of a certain age. The same, I suspect, goes for Dr Finlay’s Casebook with its memorable theme tune, the March from A Little Square, by the composer Trevor Duncan. Being a man of a certain age, however, I have to say I am very well-acquainted with the famous BBC television series – it was broadcast from 1962 until 1971 (8 seasons, 191 episodes) – but I must confess to never having listened to the radio version (9 seasons, 143 episodes, although over 100 were adaptations of the TV scripts) which ran from 1970 until 1978, nor did I watch the revamped series that ran for a further 27 episodes in the mid-nineties. In the original series Alec Finlay (originally named ‘Finlay Hyslop’ by Cronin), a hard-up, young, idealistic medical student, was played by Bill Simpson, already well-known in Scotland as a newsreader; his mentor, the crusty, old Dr Cameron, was played by Andrew Cruickshank and their ever-efficient housekeeper, Janet, by Barbara Mullen, who, much to my surprise, I’ve just learned was actually an American actress.

But what of Dr. A.J.Cronin, the man who created Dr Finlay? Archibald Joseph Cronin was born in 1896 at Rosebank Cottage in Cardross, Dunbartonshire, the only child of a Protestant mother, Jessie Cronin (née Montgomerie), and a Catholic father of Irish extraction, Patrick Cronin. This would mean by the time Dr Finlay’s Casebook appeared on the small screen he would have been sixty-six and reaching the end of a long and . . . spectacular would not be an inappropriate superlative to use here . . . a long and spectacularly-successful career as a writer. And yet, apart from what the dust jacket said about him – that he was the creator of Dr Finlay – I found I couldn’t think of another single work by him. Once I looked down the list of his novels a few jumped out at me –The Citadel, The Stars Look Down and The Spanish Gardener – but in each case it’s more likely I was remembering film and television adaptations and the only one I have a clear picture in my head is of Dirk Bogarde in The Spanish Gardener and I would have been frankly surprised if you’ve told me that the story had been penned by the same man who brought us Dr Finlay of Tannochbrae.

As I started to work my way through this book I found myself, as I do, mentally preparing for the review I knew I was going to have to write at the end. At first, particularly because, as many biographers do, Davies had chosen to devote the opening chapter to Cronin’s parents, I found the work a little dry. The professionalism of the author and his commitment to providing as accurate a history as possible was clearly obvious; you really get the feeling that every fact he quotes has been checked and double-checked, but what soon became apparent is that despite his best efforts to uncover the truth he had very little concrete evidence to go on, something he bemoans in his introduction:

For a man who enjoyed such a high profile during his lifetime there is precious little original material to help a biographer. […] He was a man without vanity who tended to shun publicity, which might account for the paucity of archived material, such as private letters, articles or newspaper cuttings. It is even possible that, unlike other personalities who assiduously hoard for posterity’s sake, he deliberately destroyed papers.

This hasn’t, of course, stopped journalists writing about Cronin in the past, though often they get their facts mixed up with his fictions, and a great deal of Davies’ time, at least in the opening chapters of the book, is devoted to saying what didn’t happen even if he hasn’t always been able to confirm what did. An example: in the Wikipedia entry it says of his mother that, on seeking employment after the death of her husband, “she soon became the first female public health inspector in Scotland" whereas Davies points out that there were nine other inspectors who were women “indicating that she was not the first female public health inspector.” The reason for the error is that researchers have “casually accepted the fictional version of her appointment in A Song of Sixpence,” Cronin’s 1964 novel, and didn’t check the official records.

This is not the first biography to be written on Cronin – “a 1985 American publication, A.J. Cronin, written by Dale Salwak, a professor of English literature in southern California’s Citrus College” exists but it is a work “heavily weighted towards a literary critique of Cronin’s work rather than an account of the man and his times.” The only other work, which one might have thought would have been a godsend, is an unpublished autobiography which Cronin himself wrote in 1976, but which turned out to be “a barren account of one aspect of his life – his courtship and marriage to May Gibson and part of their subsequent life together” in which many of the facts are misremembered, perhaps due to old age or deliberately rewritten to justify, if only to himself, his behaviour later in the marriage. What is especially noteworthy is that Cronin’s eldest son, Vincent, is an accomplished biographer and if, due to advancing years and declining health, Cronin didn’t feel up to the task himself then why not take advantage of such an excellent resource? What did he have to hide? And probably the bigger question is now, thirty years after his death, who would be left to help Davies in his quest? If Cronin’s account is to be taken at face value then his wife was showing signs of mental instability right from the very start of their marriage and yet their children were resolute when they talked to Davies that until the onset of Alzheimer’s there was absolutely no evidence of this. Today only Cronin’s youngest son is still with us: Vincent, the eldest, passed away in January 2011 and Patrick, the second son, died in January 2007. Numerous grandchildren are still alive of course, who remember their grandparents and were happy to talk to Davies. Needless to say their stories do not always agree and so there is some speculation over what might have happened on some occasions.

Faced with such a mountain one might have understood if Davies had given up. Needless to say he didn’t and because he didn’t he has produced a rather fine piece of historical writing that coheres around the relationship between A.J. Cronin and his victor-gollanczBritish publisher, Victor Gollancz. At a time when the publishing industry is undergoing unprecedented changes I found it fascinating to witness the decades-long tug-of-war between these two men; it was a very different world back then. Here Davis had access to the records of what is now the Orion Publishing Group and all the correspondence between the two men. Both were strong-willed individuals, both were successful in their own fields and both were well aware how mutually-beneficial their relationship was, if only financially, which some would say is the true measure of any success:

They were both moody, sensitive, tenacious, quick-tempered and capable of extremes – all qualities which endangered peaceful relations. Ruth Dudley Edwards [in her biography of Gollancz] is convinced that “neither man really liked the other and despite their ostensibly sincere exchanges, they had good reason for mutual distrust. They stayed together for decades for commercial reasons; Victor in particular could not afford a rupture…”

Although there is evidence to come to that conclusion, Davies also provides data to suggest that nothing was as clear cut as that:

Cronin and Gollancz were both great men in their chosen professions, endowed with all the strengths and weaknesses that characterise greatness. A fight can draw the contestants together in mutual respect. The contention that they stayed together purely for commercial reasons may be true to some extent, but it is hardly the whole truth. […] [T]here is personal warmth in many of the letters between them which suggests a genuine regard for one another.

Having read through a great many of these excerpts two things become clear about Cronin: he believed himself to be a great writer and he believed that quality was something one should be willing to pay for; he resisted the rise of the paperback for years before reluctantly realising that it was here to stay and there was money to be made from it. If there is a side to him that I can’t say I always liked about Cronin from these exchanges is the fact that he does, on occasion, come across as a bit of a money-grubber; even when he was at the peak of his success – a multi-millionaire by today’s standards – he was still every bit the canny Scot:

Bearing all the circumstances in mind, which I will not bore you by enumerating, I feel very strongly that, in the case of the Digest Condensed Books, a 50–50 division is not equitable to me as the author, and I propose (using the mildest word possible) a 60–40 split. … [I]t’s not the cash, which is inconsequential, but the principle that matters…

As regards his merit as a writer, as far as he was concerned everything new was the best thing he’d written. For example, of The Stars Look Down he wrote, “Oh boy, this is going to be a whale of a novel…” and of The Green Years, “I have a truly striking theme, quite the finest and most original that has ever come my way… I am quite carried away by what I have done of it.” Of Crusader’s Tomb he wrote, “I’m completely thrilled with the book … I consider it far and away ahead of anything I have done in years…” and of The Minstrel Boy, “I know always when I have written a good novel and when an indifferent one. The Minstrel Boy I regard as probably the best I have ever written."

Davies, undoubtedly a fan, does a decent job of sticking up for Cronin comparing Cronin's literary reputation to that of D.H. Lawrence and Graham Greene but the blunt truth is that neither Lawrence nor Greene have been forgotten and their works are still readily available in bookshops across the land, unlike Cronin who is mainly remembered these days though Hollywoodised adaptations of his work regularly shown in the afternoons on Turner Classic Movies. And even those of us who remember Dr Finlay’s Casebook need to remember that the bulk of the stories were the product of BBC scriptwriters and not Cronin himself.

So was A.J. Cronin a truly great writer who has simply slipped through the cracks? Despite his popularity with the masses, “Vincent, his oldest son, felt that his father, late in life, finally accepted his peers’ judgement of him as a middlebrow writer.” Yet when one objectively looks at his early novels it is clear that the seeds of greatness were there. He was not merely an accomplished storyteller, his books tackled sensitive and emotive subjects:

The CitadelThe Citadel is a novel by A. J. Cronin, first published in 1937, which was groundbreaking with its treatment of the contentious theme of medical ethics. It is credited with laying the foundation in Great Britain for the introduction of the NHS a decade later. For his fifth book, Dr Cronin again (having written The Stars Look Down) drew on his experiences practising medicine in the coal mining communities of the South Wales Valleys, specifically the town of Tredegar, where he had researched and published reports on the correlation between coal dust inhalation and lung disease. – Wikipedia

Davies admits that “Cronin’s views on medicine and the health of the nation were ahead of his time, more in line with Nye Bevan, the eventual architect of the National Health Service in Britain” but he also acknowledges that “there was nothing startling in the message of the book. Most doctors of the day would probably have agreed with Cronin … There is a campaigning zeal in the pages of The Citadel, but Cronin was not a political animal, and so the greatest medical scandal of the day, the lack of a universal system of affordable health care, was ignored.”

So it’s wrong to think of the book as some kind of game-changer but that didn’t bother the man in the street who ensured that with the publication of this, his fifth book, “Cronin became one of Gollancz’s biggest sellers … [t]ogether with Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy L. Sayers. … It sold a hundred thousand copies in about three months, and was subsequently reprinted at the rate of about ten thousand copies a week.” In that respect it did change one thing for Cronin, he could now give up his day job as a doctor, and he could, as he put it, “leave my practice which I hated and take up the job of writing which I love.”

This was Cronin at the peak of his success. And then, in 1939, he did an odd thing. He uprooted his family and moved to the United States; this was just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The ‘reason’ was given by his wife, May, in a speech to a ladies’ society in America, probably penned by Cronin himself:

[H]e wanted to go fishing in Maine, sit in a drugstore in the Middle West, wander through the old missions of California. Besides, he suspected that we were getting into a rut at Sullington [an old Rectory in Sussex he bought from the actor John Le Mesurier’s father] – fatal mistake for an author for whom travel and experience are as necessary as meat and drink.

Davies argues that this was “a watershed in his life. Rejecting his homeland, he possibly turned his back on greatness. In Britain he tapped a rich vein of literary inspiration that left a legacy of considerable distinction, but was never recaptured.” The war changed everything and Cronin – essentially a Victorian when you think about it – never managed to march to the beat of the drums upstart writers like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were banging.

By the late fifties Cronin had left America, the States never having infected his consciousness or affected his writing excepted detrimentally, and had moved to Switzerland where he would live out the rest of his life. He was still a player though – “with British sales of around 43,000, added to 25,000 from Australasia – there was a total of 68,000 in Commonwealth sales alone, placing Crusader’s Tomb [his fourteenth novel] in the top six of eighteen thousand published books.” He had now taken paperbacks on board, if not exactly embraced them, and he’d also seen the initial effects that television would have on the incomes of all authors. But the fact has to be acknowledged: he was no longer producing “the incisive and thought-provoking social commentaries of the 1930s” and had moved on to “smug reminiscences.” His sales were down and he was well aware of that, as he wrote in a letter to Gollancz:

[I]t seems obvious that the present day literary climate in Britain, which is so favourable to books of the type of Lucky Jim… is highly unfavourable to the Cronin novels. In brief, I am getting a little tired of being expectorated on by these ex-barrow boys and angry young men…

Although he kept on writing he never recovered. That said, in 1957 something happened that would ensure that A.J. Cronin would be remembered for a very long time:

ITV began screening a twice-weekly hospital-based drama, Emergency – Ward 10. It soon became obvious to all programme-makers that medical dramas captivated viewers’ imaginations and guaranteed faithful audiences. In 1962, therefore, the BBC followed suit with its own version, though with a different format. Dr Finlay’s Casebook was initially based on Adventures in Two Worlds and later on short stories which had been published in magazines and eventually brought together in a paperback form under the title Adventures of a Black Bag, published by the New England Library in 1969.

We’ve now reached Chapter Seven of the book, page 225 of 262, and while for many this might have been the selling point of the book, especially the fact that much was made at the time of the supposedly autobiographical nature of Adventures in Two Worlds, by this point I was more caught up with Cronin the man and, although this was interesting in its own right, it is not quite the standout chapter I might have expected and I think that’s a good thing; Davies had already won me over by this point.

Cronin never saw any of the early episodes of the programme – no DVDs or video-on-demand back then – and depended on news from his Scottish relatives as to the quality of the programmes. Certainly this was never going to be a big money earner for him but it did his reputation no harm whatsoever. I might have missed it but I suspect he never actually saw any episode of the programme.

But I’ve skipped over something, or rather someone: Nan.

No, Cronin was no womaniser. He was, from all accounts, a fairly devout Catholic all his life. That doesn’t mean he was a saint in fact the only reason he married May in the first place was that he thought she might have been pregnant. Although they stayed married for the rest of her life and from all accounts Cronin was faithful (in that, to be crude, he kept it in his pants), he did develop deep affections for two other women, one called Mary, “the attractive Company Medical Secretary” connected to the practice in Wales where he and May moved as soon as they were married (until Mary joined an order of Carmelites which put paid to that), and ‘Nan’ as she was know – Margaret Jennings – a qualified nurse who was employed by the family as a nanny after the Cronin’s third son, Andrew, was born in 1937. When, in 1939, they moved to the States, she accompanied them and she stayed with them for the rest of her life. When the children grew up she became Cronin’s secretary and eventually, once May was confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s disease, Nan slipped seamlessly into the role of constant companion. Surprisingly, they never married.

The exact nature of the relationship is wide open to conjecture. It is more than clear that Cronin stayed with May out of a sense of duty but exactly what went on between him and Nan is something no one was able – or willing – to shed any light on. That May loved him more than he cared for her is fairly obvious when, even though he had the money to ensure she was cared for at home, he had her ‘shipped off’ to a nursing home leaving him free to live out the rest of his life with Nan. That she was an integral part of the family and was also loved by the children is clear, so much so that, after his father’s death, “Andrew and his wife, Anne, invited Nan to share their home and lives together.” She was well-provided for in Cronin’s will – he left her “the sum of two million Swiss francs free of tax” and Cronin also took the extraordinary step of including a clause that said if any other beneficiary of the will contested any other’s share, they would forfeit their own share.

In some respects it’s hard to feel sorry for Cronin although I was tempted. As Davies put it, “[h]e possessed the Midas touch” – but I’m not sure that money did the literary establishment any favours. Great literature rarely arises out of great comfort. His books – even the mediocre ones – were invariably adapted for the screen and this ensured even more money flooded in. He admitted several times in his life that he found writing a difficult business, the physical act of writing, and he was a terrible procrastinator; he could afford to be. I suspect that, certainly in the early years, he did aspire to being a novelist of the likes of J.B. Priestley or Robert Louis Stevenson, both of whom he admired, and one can only wonder what might have happened if financial success hadn’t clouded his judgement.

This was a far more interesting book that it had any right to be, given the source material. One of the things that did keep running through my mind as I read it was: Who is this book aimed at? To a certain extent Davies answers that question when, in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, he says:

I owe most to my publisher for his vision in looking beyond mere commercial gain in publishing this book.

Ironic, eh, that a book about one of the most commercially successful of writers might be a hard sell. And I suspect it was. This book is not going to make Alan Davies a millionaire but I doubt he wrote it with that kind of success in mind. What he has written is, however, very much a success. He has done wonders with what he had to work with. It will never be a best-seller but it was a book that needed to be written.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.


Alan DaviesBorn in Pontnewydd in South Wales, Alan Davies read Anthropology at University College London. After a career in industry, he turned to writing and the study of the life and works of A.J. Cronin, one of his lifelong passions. He has two children and lives in Shropshire with his wife.


Kat Mortensen said...

Although I never saw the original t.v. version of "Dr. Finlay", I did see the 90s version and thought it was quite good. Then again, we generally felt most British imports were better than anything we had here, at home in Canada (at least in the 70s and 80s.

There was also an adaptation of "The Citadel" with Ben Cross (of Chariots of Fire fame) that was really good as well.

I must look for the books and see about reading them.

Thanks for this post, Jim.


J. M. P. said...

The Citadel and the TV adaptation were also successful in Spain, I have the book somewhere at home but never read it because I wasn't sure it was written before the TV series. The publisher made sure there were many references to the adaptation all over the cover and the back. I'll look for it and add it to the books to read in august. Last summer, instead of buying books I took some old ones at home I never opened before, and it turned out to be a good idea.

Danish dog said...

Just ordered this for my dad, as he's a big Cronin fan. He's 88, which confirms your theory about Cronin's readership.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think from what I can gather about Cronin, Kat, although I’ve never read him, is that he was, first and foremost, a good storyteller which is why so many of his books were adaptable for both the big and small screens. And good stories never go out of date. I never especially avoided the nineties version of Dr Finlay – it was just a time of my life where TV wasn’t a huge part of it – and if the BBC adapted one of his novels I’d probably watch it. Would make a change to Austin and Dickens.

Never quite sure whether it’s better to read the source material before or after seeing a film adaptation, Josep. I’ve done it both ways and been equally pleased and disappointed both ways. I see you’re like me too, books lying all over the place that you bought thinking you’d get round to them an never quite did. I’ve enough to last me for about a year I would reckon.

And, Danish dog, glad you managed to find a book for your dad. My wife’s father is getting on in years – he’s 87 – and buying presents is not easy.

Dave King said...

I must be of the certain age you had in mind, for I knew at once who Cronin was and could certainly have rattled off all the T.V. programmes with which he was associated - though not the films, alas.

I enjoyed the review, but don't think I shall buy the book.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Dave, I did wonder a little when I received this book who exactly the intended market was. That said, I did enjoy it – more than I expected actually – and my heart did go out to the biographer who clearly had his work cut out for him but I can’t think of anyone I know who might appreciate it. Carrie’s dad is a fan of All Creatures Great and Small but I’m not sure how much British TV he might have seen prior to that. He might remember the films.

Anonymous said...

I'm 59, my mother had several AJ Cronin books which I read while growing up. Such good stories.
I just discovered "Hatter's Castle" and bought the Kindle version. Can't wait to read it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Grammasheila. You know, as I travel through the Internet I’m always coming across writers I’ve never heard of many of whom have had long—and often quite illustrious careers—but who are barely known nowadays and who are in danger of being completely forgotten. And I think it’s a terrible shame. Yes, by all means bring out new books if you have something new to say. I have a long list of books I want to get through before I die and most of them are by old men or dead men (and a few women although not as many as I would’ve liked). Books don’t go off. Yes, some of them get dated but since when was that a bad thing?

Monocacy Cemetery said...

Could this possibly be Nan's grave? The site was purchased by Andrew J. Cronin in 2000.

Please contact me at

Glenn Wallace
Monocacy Cemetery, Registrar & Historian

Jim Murdoch said...

That was really interesting to learn that. Thanks for leaving the comment, Glenn.

GerryMac said...

I have just been reading Davies' book, and although he did a tremendous amount of researching, I find his book not good. It is confusing. I cannot find references to Cronin's priest brother or uncle or son? Did Cronin marry in the Catholic Church? I would like a better biography! GKM

Jim Murdoch said...

It's been a while since I read this, GerryMac, and although I did do research at the time it's all been forgotten now. I might suggest, however, that your time might be better spent researching some other half-forgotten author rather than trying to pitch a new-and-imporved bio of Cronin. I think the market will be about saturated by now. Thanks for your comment though. Nice to see my old posts are still being read.

Unknown said...

You have written a terrific article, which sheds a lot of light about Cronin's life.

I have read all Cronin's books, although I discovered him when he was already dead. This is kind of unusual, but for me he remains one of the greatest writers of all times.

I just finished reading A.J. Cronin by Dale Salwak and got kind of disappointed about the lack of biographical elements. But I did not know about this book from Davies, which I will certainly try to buy soon.

While Dr. Salwak dedicated a lot to review some of Cronin's works, he only dedicated two paragraphs to Desmonde, and I had been always intrigued by this book, of how many things of his personal life Cronin slipped through. The references to Nan sounded odd to me. Now, after reading your article, it makes all sense. It is kind of disappointing, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Il Garofalo II. Biographies are not something I read a lot of but as a fan of Beckett I have read the three by Anthony Cronin (not a relative as far as I’m aware), Deirdre Bair and James Knowlson. The Bair’s is often criticised. She did have access to Beckett but, typical Beckett, he said while he was not prepared to help her, he wouldn't hinder her either. As things went he actually did assist her but nowhere near as much as he helped Knowlson who had the added advantage of knowing Beckett for years, being his friend and writing his book at the end of the author’s life when he didn’t care about being nearly as guarded.

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