A. J. Cronin was one of the most popular international best-selling novelists of the twentieth century and yet he is largely forgotten today and has never quite achieved the critical attention that the seriousness and the cultural impact of his writings has merited. In his day the popularity of his novels meant that several were made into highly successful films, featuring the great stars of the time like Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr.
He was born at Rosebank Cottage near Cardross in 1896. His father was a Catholic from Ireland and his mother was from a strong Presbyterian background. His father died when Cronin was seven and he had some challenges with both family and school because of his religion. His mother converted to Catholicism and was determined to give her son the best possible education. His last two years at school were completed at St Aloysius College where he won many prizes and a Carnegie Scholarship to study Medicine at The University of Glasgow. Cronin continued his excellent academic progress there and graduated after just 4 years as the second most distinguished student in his year. He worked as a doctor for eleven years in Glasgow, South Wales and London before becoming an author. His early life experiences of medicine, religion, and family were all interwoven into his novels. These themes together with Cronin’s talent as a master storyteller ensured his success.
His first novel Hatter’s Castle(1931) was a bestseller and this ensured that Cronin would never return to medicine. The Stars Look Down(1935) which was set in the mining communities of north-east England was also a great success. The Green Years(1944) follows the travails of a young orphaned Catholic child living with Presbyterian grandparents in Dumbarton. It is a captivating read as is The Keys of the Kingdom(1942) which follows the career of a priest who becomes a missionary in China. Cronin’s uncle Fr. Francis Cronin was a priest in the Archdiocese of Glasgow. The BBC series Dr Finlay’s Casebook was based on the novella Adventures of a Black Bag(1942). This series was immensely popular in it’s time.
However he continues to be remembered principally for The Citadel (1937) which is still regularly cited as having an instrumental role in the founding of the NHS. The novel traces the medical career of a young doctor who experiences the challenges of health care delivery among the mining communities of South Wales and in the contrasting-affluent setting of private practice in London, where some doctors were charging for unproven medications and participating in corrupt practices. The climax of the novel is when the principal character is summoned to a disciplinary hearing of the General Medical Council (GMC) for supporting an unproven treatment for tuberculosis. He is exonerated and uses the platform of the GMC to highlight the inequalities in health care provision and the non-existent postgraduate teaching programmes and evidence-based research. The principal character considers the option of some form of state-funded and controlled of health care only to express concern about it because of his antipathy towards bureaucracy and inefficiency in Government run agencies. Cronin himself in an article entitled Socialised Medicine(1937) rejects Government run health care favouring an insurance based system.
The Citadel proved to be a spectacular triumph for Cronin, lauded internationally, and being immensely popular with the general public. It was also successfully adapted to cinema and television. However, it was deeply unpopular with the medical establishment which resented its critical tone and its exposure of defects within health care delivery. In later years it was to become a must read for aspiring doctors. The novel graphically draws attention to the deficiencies in health care and postgraduate medical education and this undoubtedly led to improvements in these areas. Although it would appear that Cronin was not a supporter of nationalisation of health, The Citadel captured and helped channel the public mood and provoked discussion about the need to address the social inequalities in health delivery and the need to improve the standards of practice within the medical profession that lead to the creation of the NHS.
Cronin continued to write novels well into his 70s. His storytelling talent did not diminish. He retired to Switzerland and continued to profess his Catholic beliefs. Despite not achieving prominence in the canon of great Scottish novelists, Cronin’s exceptional narrative skills and his massive popularity argue strongly for his place as an exceptional twentieth-century Scottish novelist.