Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Dr Finlay's copybook

As you may already know, A J Cronin, the writer of Dr Finlay's Casebook trained as a doctor before a serious illness led to him taking up a career as a writer. 

From Wikipedia:-

Archibald Joseph Cronin, MB, ChB, MD, DPH, MRCP (19 July 1896 – 6 January 1981) was a Scottish physician and novelist. His best-known works are Hatter's Castle, The Stars Look Down, The Citadel, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years, all of which were adapted to film. He also created the Dr. Finlay character, the hero of a series of stories that served as the basis for the popular BBC television and radio series entitled Dr. Finlay's Casebook. 

His first novel, Hatter’s Castle was published in 1931, but although it was an immediate success, his writing career was tested early by accusations of plagiarism.

In 1901, a writer called George Douglas Brown had written a similar novel called The House With the Green Shutters. However, Brown's writing career was short - he contracted pneumonia and died a year later in 1902, at the age of 33.

Both novels are set in Scotland and revolve around the ambitions and pretensions of an unattractive central character, hatter James Brodie in Cronin's novel and carrier John Gourlay in Brown's. In each case, their success and supposed business acumen owes more to a bullying personality and lack of local competition than any genuine business sense.

Brodie and Gourlay eventually come to grief over their own wooden-headed stubbornness and exposure to competition from more astute business rivals.

I’ve read both novels, having sought out Brown’s novel after reading about the plagiarism allegations against Cronin. Certainly Cronin’s novel has some remarkable parallels to Brown's, but on the whole that’s because Cronin and Brown chose similar and unusually unsympathetic central characters.

Cronin's maternal grandfather, Archibald Montgomerie, was a hatter who owned a shop in Dumbarton. So that’s where the idea of a hatter came from, but even so, the similarities are striking and it is easy enough to believe that Cronin was at least influenced by the earlier novel.

So was Hatter’s Castle plagiarised? Nobody knows and it doesn’t seem to have affected Cronin’s career. All I take away from this long-forgotten incident is how easy it may be to use another person’s idea, either too closely or without realising, especially for those of us who read widely.

After all, we avid readers are supposed to seek out and be influenced by good ideas and good writing.


James Higham said...

Wonder if there is something after all to the madness of hatters and that chemical they use.

A K Haart said...

James - it was mercury and I'm sure there were problems.