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Books: Bull Brodie

4 minute read

HATTER’S CASTLE—A. J. Cronin—Little, Brown ($2.50).

Except that it soon mentions things unmentionable in the 1870’s, Hatter’s Castle starts off like a midmost Victorian novel. Before you reach its final (605th) page you will probably have ceased to notice its old-fashionedness, will have surrendered yourself to what is undoubtedly a Big Novel.

In the Scotch town of Levenford, James Brodie, hatter, independent as a hog on ice, was considered an outstanding citizen, considered himself preeminent. That he was merely a hatter was a source of amusement to him; his business had brought him comfort but he thought it far beneath him. Brodie had built himself a house the town wondered at: too small for a castle, too grand for a small house. But no one laughed at Brodie to his face. A bull of a man. he had a bull’s temper, a bull’s disregard of neighbors’ china-shops. Brutal autocrat in his own home and shop, he carried his domineering into every presence but Aristocrat Sir James Latta’s (whose blood he secretly thought ran in his own veins).

His wife, worn out in his service, Brodie treated like a hated slave. Even when she collapsed from hopelessly advanced cancer he sneered at her for a softy. His old hag of a mother, who lived only for food, he pleasured in plaguing; once got her drunk for a joke, yelled with delight when she broke her only means of communication with life, her false teeth. Brodie forbade his eldest daughter Mary to keep company with a decent young Irishman; when the first throes of child-birth showed she had disobeyed him he literally kicked her out of the house into a howling night of storm. His son Matt was a cowardly, priggish hypocrite; when Sir James Latta gave him a job in India Brodie said good riddance. Only his youngest daughter Nessie found favor in his eyes: that was because she was bright in school. Brodie drove her to study every spare minute, deviled her into a learning automaton to win the famed Latta Prize, do the town one in the eye.

But few can act like Brodie and get away with it forever. A big men’s-furnish-ing company from Edinburgh opened a branch shop next to Brodie’s, undersold him, drove him gradually out of business. He welcomed his wife’s death because it let him engage buxom young Barmaid Nancy as “housekeeper”; whiskey and Nancy became his crutches. Then Son Matt came whining home from India, hung around the house till one fine day he and Nancy went off to South America. Brodie leaned more heavily on the bottle, pinned all his hopes on Nessie’s winning the Latta. But somebody else won it. When Nessie got the news she hanged herself in the kitchen. Brodie was left alone in his desolate house, with his old hag of a mother, his pride, that would not bend, broken. What the Greeks called hybris (insolence) had done for him.

The Author. Literary England is excited about Dr. Archibald Joseph Cronin. A Scottish medico of 34, his writing apprenticeship was served in concocting such unlikely sellers as A History of Aneurism, Dust-Inhalation by Haematite Miners, First Aid in Coal Mines. He took a vacation last summer, wrote Hatter’s Castle in some three strenuous months. Gollancz, first English publisher to see the MS, accepted it with cheers. So did the Book Society of London. Though Dr. Cronin served in the surgical corps during the War, has traveled widely, has been down 500 coal mines in the course of research work, he thinks his most exciting experience was the news that Hatter’s Castle had been accepted. Its sales will tell him whether to go on doctoring or write professionally; he will not do both. Married (his wife is also M.D.), he has two sons, likes to golf at St. Andrews, fish for salmon on the Tweed.

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