In order to appreciate Archibald Joseph Cronin’s novels fully, one must have a reasonable acquaintance with the author’s life. This is not necessarily true in the case of many writers, whose private lives are less clearly reflected in their work than are those of writers such as Dickens and Maugham, to whom Cronin bears a resemblance in this matter. Throughout his career as a novelist, Cronin drew heavily on his memories of what he had actually observed. Henry James’s argument that the writer of fiction should be “one upon whom nothing is lost” received an emphatic embodiment in the life of Cronin, whose experiences as a child, a medical student, and a physician are woven inextricably into the fabric of his novels.
As is the case with so many of his fictional characters, life for young Cronin was by no means idyllic. Archibald Joseph Cronin was born in Cardross (Dumbartonshire), Scotland, on July 19, 1896, the only child of a middle-class family whose fortunes were soon to decline rapidly. His mother, Jessie Montgomerie, was a Scottish Protestant woman who had defied her family—and a host of ancestors—by marrying an Irishman and turning Catholic. His father, Patrick Cronin, was a mercantile agent who until his death was able to offer his family a fairly comfortable existence. After the death of his father, however, Cronin was forced to retreat with his penniless mother to the bitter and poverty-stricken home of her parents.
To most neighbors and relatives in the small, strictly moral, and sternly Protestant town of Cardross, Jessie Montgomerie’s marriage and conversion were considered a disgrace, and on young Cronin they inflicted the inevitable ridicule and persecution. On one hand there was sectarian antagonism, not far short of the kind that erupted in the late twentieth century in Northern Ireland as violence. On the other hand was the stern Protestant morality. Cronin was permanently marked by an environment that was noisy, quarrelsome, profoundly unhappy, and emotionally dramatic—a source of endless tension and grief for the growing boy and of endless material for the future novelist.
Cronin’s delight in reading and learning perhaps compensated for his frustrations. Among the authors he read were Robert Louis Stevenson (an only child like himself and a firm favorite right to the end of his life), Sir Walter Scott, Guy de Maupassant, Dickens, Maugham, and Samuel Butler—whose The Way of All Flesh (1903) Cronin cited as his favorite book. At Cardross Village School and later at the Dumbarton Academy—where literature was his best subject—the boy became something of a prodigy, repeatedly winning prizes and discovering in himself the love for learning that would be a source of stability all his life. Both as a student and, later in life, as a physician-writer, he spent enormous stretches of time at his desk, wrestling with his work. This compulsiveness, combined with his intelligence and his eagerness, won Cronin the approbation of his uncle—a poor, kindly Catholic priest who helped secure for him his education and who later became the model for Father Chisholm in The Keys of the Kingdom—and of his great-grandfather, who later became the model for Alexander Gow in The Green Years.
Cronin’s talent also meant, however, that he would suffer the emotions of premature loneliness that so often afflict unusually bright boys. He was highly regarded by his teachers, but other students—and their parents—sometimes resented his abilities. One father whose young hopeful was beaten by Cronin in an important...
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