Up until now my series on clergy in British fiction has concentrated exclusively on the Church of England. There is of course no shortage of clergy of the other denominations to be found in novels of the twentieth century, and perhaps most frequently Roman Catholic. But scholars who have been interested in the ‘Catholic novel’ have tended to focus their attention on Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, or (a little later) David Lodge.
This is not surprising, since here are novelists of the first rank engaging with religious themes in an apparently secular time. Novels like The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair have entered the canon, works of art that transcend any merely moralizing or didactic purpose. However, there is another ‘Catholic novel’ of a similar time, the readership of which may well have been equal to if not greater than anything for Greene or Waugh: The Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin, first published in 1942 by Victor Gollancz.
Cronin is now known, if he is known at all, for the stories that became the popular television drama Dr Finlay’s Casebook in the 1970s. But his debut novel The Hatter’s Castle (1931) was sufficiently successful to allow him to give up the practice of medicine to be a full-time writer. According to Ross McKibbin, his 1937 novel The Citadel sold more copies and faster than any hardback novel of the time: Cronin was ‘perhaps the most successful novelist of the 1930s’. Rather less attention has been paid to the reception history of The Keys of the Kingdom, but it was sufficiently successful, at least in the USA, to be made into a 1944 film starring Gregory Peck. Sales in the USA passed half a million. It is perhaps among this kind of ‘middlebrow’ fiction that we might look to find the most important instruments in shaping public attitudes.
There is not space here to do justice to Father Francis Chisholm as he passes from childhood and youth in the Scottish Borders through seminary in Spain and a curacy in a stricken village in the north of England to the mission field in China. One feels that Cronin rarely captures the depth of religious experience, despite the many stylised representations of its outward signs. The reviewer from the TLS, in an otherwise positive review, thought also that ‘too many of the strong and deep emotions of a secular nature that he brings into play turn out to be cliches.’ However, there is a theme that persists, most clearly seen in the interplay of Chisholm and the other clerical characters: a contrast between his sincere religious individualism and the cramped subservience of the others to the imperatives of the institution.
The tone is set is the opening chapter, in which the decrepit Chisholm, returned from China at the age of 70 to his native parish, meets Monsignor Sleeth, flinty and fastidious, despatched by the bishop to see that Chisholm retires to the Aged Priests’ Home. Reports from among the more easily scandalised of Chisholm’s flock have reached the authorities: reports of ‘hopeless muddle’ in the conduct of the quotidian business of the parish, and of ‘dangerously peculiar’ points of doctrine in sermons (p.10). Such untidiness and irregularity are not to be tolerated. Yet Chisholm’s unaffected humility discomfits Sleeth, as does his gentle but unmistakeable rejection of the yardsticks by which Sleeth wishes to measure the worth of his work:
‘I think nothing strange from you, Father… your reputation, even before you went to China.. your whole life has been peculiar!
‘I shall render an account of my life to God.’
Cronin’s critique of the institutional church is all the more the effective for being delivered by one whose obedience to the institution is so complete.
The bishop, of course, is Anselm Mealy, a childhood contemporary of Chisholm from Tweedside. Mealy was the pious child that Chisholm and his friends teased and tormented, and it is in the parallel careers of the two that Cronin makes his case. As Chisholm endures material hardship and periodic calamity in China, the pink and bumptious Mealy eases into the highest circles of society and the wider machinery of the Church. As Chisholm encounters plague, civil war and torture, Mealy monitors the numbers of conversions on charts on his wall, and finds Chisholm wanting. On Chisholm’s return (part V) the two meet, as bishop and priest, the haggard and indeed injured Chisholm is set beside the fleshy and suave bishop, with his balanced diet and Swedish masseur. Just as Mealy refused Chisholm more resources while in China, he now baulks at honouring a promise of his predecessor to give Chisholm a parish when he returned. It is in the shadow of Mealy’s new cathedral, a million pounds spent in the building, that Chisholm is left to contemplate his apparent failure as Mealy is swept away in a fleet of limousines to a civic function: ‘the old priest had a vision of a purple face beneath a beaver hat, of more faces, hard and bloated, of miniver, gold chains of office.’ In The Keys of the Kingdom Cronin exposes the venality and worldliness of the institution as effectively as The Citadel had for the medical profession.
There is of course no shortage of novels in which odious clergy characters are a means of discrediting Christianity as a system of belief, such as in the case of Robert Tressell. A Catholic himself, this is not Cronin’s purpose. Instead, Chisholm stands as an exemplar of a certain way of living religiously: ethical heroism and individual integrity accompanied by a theological reticence and an unwillingness to dogmatise. Ready to risk his life for the safety of others, and to deny himself to an extreme, our hero is nonetheless unwilling to make a window into men’s souls. In the same scene, Sleeth says:
‘Your notion of God is a strange one.’
‘Which of us has any notion of God?’ Father Chisholm smiled. ‘Our word “God” is a human word.. expressing reverence of our Creator. If we have that reverence, we shall see God… never fear.’
‘You seem to have a very slight regard for Holy Church.
‘On the contrary.. all my life I have rejoiced to feel her arms about me. The Church is our great mother, leading us forward… a band of pilgrims through the night. But perhaps there are other mothers. And perhaps even some poor solitary pilgrims who stumble home alone.’
So far I know of no research on Cronin’s reputation and the ways in which his work was read and understood. But The Keys of the Kingdom is a story of courage and integrity in extreme situations combined with a tenacious and costly commitment to one’s own faith that does not deprecate others. It is likely to have found many English readers in wartime conditions.
‘A.J. Cronin, author of “Citadel” and “Keys of the Kingdom” dies’, New York Times, 10 January 1981
R.D. Charques, ‘Saint’s Progress [review]’, Times Literary Supplement, 2 May 1942, p.221.
Ross McKibbin, ‘Politics and the Medical Hero: A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel‘, English Historical Review 123 (n.502), 2008, 651-78