Vincent Cronin was a British historical, cultural, and biographical writer whose works have been widely translated into European languages. He is known for his biographies of Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon, as well as for his books on the Renaissance. He died on Januray the 25th, 2011 aged 86.
Cronin viewed history in terms of men rather than movements, and by giving a human scale to great events he won a wide popular readership. Though regarded as somewhat lightweight by many academic historians, Cronin often put them to shame with the extent and depth of his research, and his biographies of great French figures such as Napoleon and Louis XIV influenced subsequent interpretations.
He inherited his gift for story telling from his father, the writer AJ Cronin, author of The Citadel and The Keys to the Kingdom. Like his father, Vincent Cronin was fascinated by the lives of Catholic missionaries in far-flung regions and wrote two notable accounts of the lives of early Italian Jesuits, which explored how they overcame cultural barriers to spread the faith. But the book that won widest public acclaim was his biography of Napoleon, Napoleon, published in 1971.
Controversially, Cronin depicted Napoleon as a modern hero, a man who “cared more about social improvements at home than conquests abroad”. As a military leader Cronin’s Napoleon was portrayed as a victim of circumstances, and a man who, even when busy conquering Europe, was still mainly concerned with social justice.
“In the Papal city of Ancona, for example,” Cronin wrote, “Napoleon found with dismay that Jews had to wear a yellow hat and the Star of David, and to live in a ghetto that was locked at night; Muslims from Albania and Greece were also treated as second-class citizens. Both these injustices Napoleon immediately ended.
”Cronin’s objective was to “find a Napoleon I could picture as a living, breathing man”, and in doing so he drew on a wealth of new material unearthed in the previous 20 years. Among this was the long-lost central section of an autobiographical short story, Clisson et Eugenie, written by Napoleon when he was 25, whose heroine was modelled on Desirée Clary, the first girl to whom Napoleon formed a romantic attachment. Cronin himself unearthed the manuscript in the vault of Coutts bank in the Strand.
Vincent Archibald Patrick Cronin was born on May 24 1924 in the Rhondda Valley where his father was then in private practice as a doctor. The family moved to London when Vincent was two years old and, a few years later, his father gave up his medical practice to become a full-time writer.
Vincent was educated at Ampleforth before moving, at the astonishing age of 16, to Harvard. He then completed his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, before moving to London to begin his life as an author.
Later he moved to Dragey in France, the family home of his wife, Chantal, the daughter of Comte Jean de Rolland; during much of his career as a writer he concentrated on books about France and French life.
His first book, The Golden Honeycomb (1954), was a romantic tour through the history, philosophy and landscape of Sicily, the title of the book deriving from a tradition on the island that Daedalus wrought for the Venus of Erice a honeycomb in gold. Cronin spent five months in Sicily in 1952 collecting material for the book, which is still regarded as an indispensable guide to the island.
In his next book, The Wise Man from the West (1955), Cronin told the story of an early recruit to the Jesuit order, Matteo Ricci, who in 1582 was sent as a missionary to Mandarin China. Ricci was not just a man of God, but also a talented geographer, mathematician, clockmaker and Chinese scholar.
Drawing on Ricci’s own letters and reports from Peking, Cronin explored how he succeeded in overcoming Chinese suspicions by mastering the language and becoming fully-versed in the culture, laws and system of government of the country, an achievement which enabled him to spread the message of Christianity and become a high-ranking adviser to the Chinese imperial court.
In A Pearl to India: the life of Roberto de Nobili (1959), Cronin examined the life of a 17th-century recruit to the order sent out to spread the faith in south India. Unusually for his time, de Nobili doubted the wisdom of supplanting one religion with another and instead attempted to emulate the early fathers of the Church by assimilating Hinduism into Christianity.
Cronin began his series of biographies of French historical figures with a sympathetic portrait of Louis XIV (1964) set within an evocative account of the culture exemplified by figures such as Racine, Molière, Lully and Mansart, (the architect of Versailles), politicians such as Mazarin and Fouquet and courtiers such as the King’s mistress, Louise de la Vallière.
Cronin argued that Louis was not the credulous, callous and power-crazed king of Saint-Simon, but was far-sighted and humane; Louis’s Code Noir (1685) improved conditions for slaves in the West Indies and he never said “l’etat c’est moi”; the phrase, Cronin suggested, may have been lifted from a phrase of Bousset’s: “Tout l’etat est en lui.”
Cronin was equally sympathetic to Louis XVI in Louis and Antoinette (1974). Using previously ignored original sources (including 227 notebooks of the Abbé de Veri found rat-gnawed behind a chimney), Cronin found Louis to be a man of the Enlightenment, a conscientious reformer who would have made a “good King of England” and whose interest in the arts and sciences would have fitted him to be an academic.
His wife Marie Antoinette, far from being the frivolous and extravagant creature of popular legend, was a supportive queen with considerable influence over the arts and foreign policy.
Their misfortune, Cronin concluded, was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In his two books about the Renaissance, The Florentine Renaissance (1967) and The Flowering of the Renaissance (1970), Cronin analysed the cultural and economic trends that made possible what we know as the Renaissance. The Florentine Renaissance, described at the time it was written as “the best book that has ever been written on the Renaissance”, dissected the character of 15th-century Florence and described how our inheritance of Christianity, our learning, literature and art, our civic liberties and even our conception of what constitutes a gentleman, are all the result of ancient thought and practice re-moulded by the Florentine mind. The second book in the series looked at the Renaissance in Venice and the Papal States.
During his researches, Cronin had become fascinated by the clash between scientific thought and the absolute claims of religion. In The View from Planet Earth: Man Looks at the Cosmos (1981), he explored the history of astronomy from the ancient Greeks to the present day through the lives of famous astronomers.
Cronin returned to French history with Paris on the Eve (1989), an account of the artistic and intellectual life of Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and before the First World War. Parisian society, he suggested, was rediscovering the pleasures of life, but its leaders were enjoying themselves so much they forgot their duty to their citizens and took no interest in politics or foreign affairs, with disastrous consequences
.In Paris: City of Light 1919-1939 (1995), Cronin extended his study to the explosion of intellectual and artistic activity that occurred in the aftermath of the First World War, brilliantly evoking the exuberant and frivolous atmosphere of a city which became the cultural centre of the world and to which artists and writers flocked from all over the globe.
Cronin wrote a number of other books about French life and letters, including Four Women in Pursuit of an Ideal (1965), a portmanteau book about the lives of four 19th-century Parisiennes, and the original Companion Guide to Paris (1963); he also translated several books from French into English, including Towards a New Democracy, by the former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. In 1978 he published a biography of Catherine, Empress of all the Russias.
Cronin was a man who guarded his privacy and avoided the limelight. In a rare sortie into the letter columns of the national papers, he wrote, in 1975, to congratulate The Daily Telegraph on a leader supporting family values: “Just because its value cannot be measured in quantitative terms,” he wrote, “a man’s right to build a continuous family through generations of time must be spoken of often and defended with as much fervour as the right to vote. The family with its traditions is the only sure 'resistance movement’ in a society of pornography, abortion and perhaps soon euthanasia.
”In his last years he completed two further books – one travel book about Chile and the second, a novel, about Seneca’s relationship with the Emperor Nero.
Vincent Cronin married, in 1949, Chantal de Rolland, who survives him with their two sons and three daughters.