Our reading groups started again in September after an August break, and the first novelist to report back on is A J Cronin.
Archibald Joseph Cronin (1896 – 1981) was born in Scotland, and trained as a doctor at the University of Glasgow. He served as a surgeon with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during World War 1, and then in the 1920s became Medical Inspector for Mines in Great Britain. In 1930 he became ill and was instructed to take complete rest; in this time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was published by Gollancz.
He quickly became a prolific and high popular novelist. Reviews of two of his most famous novels, The Citadel and The Stars Look Down, will follow. (His novel Country Doctor would later be adapted as Dr Finlay’s Casebook.)
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry concludes, ‘Though labeled a successful middlebrow novelist, he managed to create in The Stars Look Down a classic work of 20th-century British fiction’.
I should think many novels labelled middlebrow are also classic works of fiction! Is he much read now? He is certainly easily available in ebook form.
Review of Three Loves by George Simmers
This is the story of a lower-middle class woman in Scotland at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is ambitious, but the society in which she lives means that she can only realise her ambition through the men in her life.
She starts the novel married to Frank, an unambitious commercial traveller. She pushes him to advance himself, and becomes unreasonably jealous when he takes pleasure in the less stressful company of Anna, his cousin. The scene that first made me see that this is a better-than-average novel is an excruciatingly embarrassing one where Lucy invites Frank’s employer to a meal, and then publicly asks him to give her husband promotion. All the guests cringe, and the reader cringes with them.
After Frank’s death (in an accident partly caused by Lucy) she devotes herself to the upbringing of their son, Peter, with the ambition that he should become a doctor. She bravely goes to her late husband’s employer, and asks to take over his job, even though it is not one considered suitable for a woman. She is given her chance, and makes a success of it.
When that firm is shut down, she takes a more degrading job, as a rent-collector, and makes a success of that, too. Her tireless self-sacrifice enables Peter to go to medical school.
Peter is self-centred and shallow, with little recognition of the price his mother has paid to ensure his future – or maybe he just wants to live his own life, not have it lived for him by a possessive mother. He marries a young woman from a rich family, against his mother’s wishes, and moves to London, to be free of her.
Lucy then devotes herself to her third love – God. She becomes a nun in Belgium, but revolts against the humiliations imposed by the strict order.
The book is an absorbing character study of a woman whose forceful character is thwarted because she can only express her ambitions through a male – and who ends up being rejected by the males that she tries to control.
The long central section, where she is scrimping and saving for her son’s education, sustained by her ambition that he should become a doctor, reminded me of Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son. But this book is an anti-Sorrell and Son, or at least a corrective to it. In Deeping’s novel, the boy Kit always fits in with his father’s plans and ambitions. He has no ambitions,needs or desires of his own, and is little more than a blank on which his father’s ideas are projected. (Deeping writes : ‘As for the so-called “oedipus complex,” it did not appear to exist in Kit.’) Here Peter is a person (and not a very attractive one) with ideas and needs quite distinct from those of his mother, with whom he is at odds. Her wish to live her life through him leads, not as in Deeping’s book to perfect harmony, but to disaster.
This is a novel of precise observation. You can tell that Cronin is a doctor; his descriptions of symptoms and ailments are always clear and accurate. Also the book gives glimpses of aspects of life that a doctor would have seen – slum dwellings, a madhouse. He is good too on money – he lets us know what things cost, and makes us very aware of the value of a halfpenny to someone on a tight budget.
I gather from other members of the group that some of Cronin’s later books are ‘novels with a purpose’ where the purpose swamps the story and the characters. Themes about which he later campaigned, such as the price of medicine, are present in Three Loves (in one rather gruelling scene Lucy, decides to have her teeth extracted without anaesthetic, rather than pay out money destined to help her son) but they are subordinate to the characters. This is a well-written and gripping novel, of the kind that makes you understand and sympathise with the heroine, even when you see how disastrously she is going wrong.