The growing political and economic gloom of the late 1920 and 1930s were already making themselves felt on this decade’s fiction, and titles such as Dot Allan’s novel Hunger March (1934), George Blake’s The Shipbuilders (1935) and H. Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur’s No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums (1935), need no explanation, while James Barke’s The Land of the Leal (1939) moves from the Victorian countryside to Depression-era Glasgow. Both the choices for this decade, however, are set in earlier eras, the first from around the time of the Tay Bridge disaster, the second from the turn of the century and including World War One. It is likely, nevertheless, that the gathering darkness across Europe influenced the imaginations of these two novelists as much as those who wrote on more current affairs.
Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor / Columnist The Herald
Hatter’s Castle was the debut of doctor A J Cronin. The story of the ulcer’s role in the history of Scottish fiction has still to be written, but its part is substantial for Cronin, like John Buchan before him, wrote his life-changing novel while recuperating from this ailment. Hatter’s Castle was so successful, he never lifted a stethoscope again.
No claims can be made for this novel’s subtlety. A piece of gothic misery that makes the Greek tragedians look cheerful, it might be dismissed as pure melodrama were it not so powerfully and believably executed. Cronin’s professional life, one suspects, furnished more than a few details of the trapped characters he portrays. Once read, it is never forgotten, though with a shudder at the memory of Cronin’s portrait of a monstrously cruel father who one by one destroys the lives of his two daughters and wife.
Read an extract from Hatter's Castle
James Leslie Mitchell, who wrote under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was a very different kind of novelist. Sunset Song, the first of his A Scots’ Quair trilogy, which continues with Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934), was written in a frantic burst of energy in less than two months. The pressure Grassic Gibbon put himself under to write all three novels, and four other books beside in the space of only two years is considered by some as the reason for his most untimely death in 1935 at the age of 34, following a perforated ulcer.
Set in Grassic Gibbon’s native heath of the Mearns, in the north-east, Sunset Song is the tale of young Chris Guthrie, a crofter’s daughter who experiences the full brutality of life when her mother commits suicide rather than face another pregnancy. Thereafter her father grows increasingly aggressive towards his children. Chris is one of the finest literary characters to come out of Scotland, and her story is followed through the trilogy to its bitter end. In this novel, Grassic Gibbon is more lyrical and elegaic than in his later books, which may explain its huge popularity. His heroine’s bone-deep love of her native heath is a mirror of the author’s. As she reflects, in a typically heart-felt moment: “the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you. And she had thought to leave it all!”