The Citadel and The Stars Look Down are novels by A. J. Cronin, a Scottish writer who was born in 1896 and died in 1984. The works were a resounding success in the interwar years and both inspired cinema adaptations in the late 1930s. The Citadel offers an unconventional perspective on the mining industry, focusing not on working conditions and discord but on the illnesses, particularly lung disease, that affect underground workers. The Stars Look Down is also set in a coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... mining village, but centers on the choices made by individual characters to escape the path their community has drawn out for them.
The Citadel: A Broadly Autobiographical Work
Born in Scotland, A. J. Cronin trained as a physician before becoming a successful novelist. As a doctor, he began his career treatingTreating is all of the refining processes intended to remove unwanted compounds (contaminants)... working-class people in Wales. His literary works are largely based on his own life. Cronin’s experience living among Welsh miners inspired two of his most famous novels: The Stars Look Down in 1935 and The Citadel two years later. The Citadel is broadly autobiographical, recounting the story of a young graduate plunged into the rough-and-ready world of miners, their industry and their values.
The main character is Andrew Manson, a young doctor who, in October 1924, arrives in a “strange, disfigured country” in South Wales, the landscape scarred by mines, with “great heaps of slag on which a few dirty sheep wandered in vain hope of pasture.” Although idealistic in his eagerness to help the poorest members of society, Andrew is held back by entrenched habits and unsanitary conditions. At the same time, he meets a sweet schoolteacher, whom he then marries. They both move to a different town, the more modern Aberalaw: “No more oil lamps, darling. There’s the gasworks.” Hired directly by the Miners’ Committee, the newly qualified Andrew is surprised by the way he is seen as “a doctor who hands out certificates like cigarette coupons”, particularly for “’stagmus” (the way the miners pronounce nystagmus, an eye condition). Later, disaster strikes when a nurse treats a straightforward injury without heeding his advice. But Dr. Manson’s dedication and bravery gradually win him the trust and support of the miners.
In particular, Andrew’s interest is piqued by an anthraciteA type of coal that is 95% pure carbon. It is an excellent fuel. driller with a type of pneumonia, calling it a “genuine chance for charting and scientific recording.” It seems to him that anthracite miners are more prone to lung infections than other underground workers, with a lot of drillers complaining of coughs. The doctor suspects that there is a link between the work they do and the lung problems they report: “These men are working in dust all day, bad stone dust in the hard headings – their lungs get choked with it. The drillers [...] seem to develop trouble more frequently than, say, the hauliers” (hauliers are the men who load the carts). However, no research has been done in this field and the miners unable to work receive no compensation. So Andrew throws himself wholeheartedly into a statistical study of the affected population (as well as an unaffected group for comparison purposes) and plans to carry out clinical experiments. At the time, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, had been observed for many years but was often considered relatively harmless. It also affected stone workers, such as stone sharpeners and cutters. But even though the graphs and figures suggested that dust was causing the illness, it was still yet to be clinically proven through experiments on guinea pigs. So, in the novel, Manson builds a “dust chamber” in which he places the animals. He concludes that silica dust has a chemical action, and writes a thesis on the topic. However, a group of others then join forces against him, asking if he had a license for such experiments and confiscating the animals from his laboratory. The thesis falls rather flat, and Manson receives only three letters in response. Disappointed to say the least, he decides to leave with his wife Christine for London, where a job as Medical Officer is open for him. There, his life takes a thoroughly different path.
Silicosis, a Long-Overlooked Occupational Illness
It turns out that The Citadel’s Dr. Manson was actually something of a pioneer in his interest in silicosis. Industrialized extraction techniques had heightened the risk of occupational illnesses, with all stone workers from the 1920s onward exposed to a continuous flow of dust. It took a long time for mindsets and legislation to change. The 1927 law in Belgium on occupational illnesses excluded conditions affecting miners, based on the assumption that hookworm and nystagmus would soon be cured anyway. There were not as yet scientific results for other lung diseases. In addition, coal companies had long been opposed to compensation schemes, and a number of English and French doctors thought that miners’ illnesses were actually caused by tuberculosis. Nevertheless, the English were the first to link lung disease with soil that was at least 50% free silica, which is the case in overburden where the underlying coal seamTerm for a coal bed in a sedimentary series. is mined. Some headway was made in 1934 at the International Labor Conference in Geneva, but there was still a long way to go before silicosis was recognized as an occupational illness (in 1963 for Belgium, for example). Other works continued to discuss the devastating effects of silicosis well after the publication of The Citadel, including Pierre Bachelet’s famous French song “Les Corons”, which has become something of an anthem in mining regions and is often sung at RC Lens football matches. Two lines in particular speak of the terrible illness, roughly translated as:
“And each glass of wine was a pink diamond
On a background of silicosis.”
Two Novels, Two Films
The mining industry is also the backdrop for Cronin’s novel The Stars Look Down. It is permeated with themes of danger and accidents in a mine known to be risky but which a stubborn owner insists on reopening. The two protagonists, David Fenwick and Joe Gowlan, are two young men who want to escape their seemingly inevitable futures as poor miners trapped in a single-industry region. David pursues higher education studies to able to defend his community to management bodies, while Joe, finding himself caring less and less about his former peers, schemes to escape the working class as soon as possible. The two men – already complete opposites in their values and actions – are also in competition over their love for Jenny. Another character, Hughie, dreams of becoming a professional footballer (incidentally, football often has working class roots, such as the RC Lens, AS Saint-Etienne and FC Sochaux teams in France). Cronin’s description of these different paths, where the good are not always rewarded, underlines the difficulty of upward mobility and the bitter conflicts that can arise between owners and workers. The novel centers around a tragedy in the Neptune pit and the uneasy consciences of various characters, including the son of an owner who opens his eyes to the miners’ cause.
Cronin had the honor of seeing both these mining novels adapted by renowned filmmakers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Citadel, directed by King Vidor, was released in 1938 in Britain and a little later in France. The feature-length movie portrays Dr. Manson as a heroic figure who fights disease and prejudice to help the poorest members of society, adding a sweeter note with the story of his love for Christine. It does not quite follow the novel’s conclusion, opting instead for a traditional happy ending. The main roles are played by Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell, supported by a young Rex Harrison. The film was partly filmed in Wales. It was very well received in the United States, winning two critics’ awards and nominated in several categories in the 1939 Oscars. Then, in 1940, Carol Reed – another leading director – adapted The Stars Look Down, with Michael Redgrave taking on the role of Davey Fenwick and Margaret Lockwood playing Jenny. In France, the movie’s release was delayed due to the Second World War, but was a great commercial success. Mining has always fascinated readers and viewers alike, inspiring both dread and admiration.
Find out more
Both novels by Cronin, The Citadel and The Stars Look Down, which are both easily accessible.
Both films inspired by Cronin’s writing on mines (in addition, an Italian film broadly based on The Citadel was released recently).
A recent social science work taking a comprehensive and comparative look at silicosis: Silicosis, a World History, edited by Prof. Paul-André Rosental (John Hopkins University Press).
A Belgian historical view of the period described by Cronin (in French): Eric Geerkens, “Quand la silicose n’était pas une maladie professionnelle”, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 2009, 56-1.
A number of historical documents (in French) on occupational mining illnesses and accidents dating from the 19th century to the end of the 20th century in France: