Vincent Cronin was born on May 24 1924. He died on January 25 2011, aged 86.
Vincent Archibald Patrick Cronin was a biographer, travel writer and historian, and the son of the Scottish doctor and novelist, A J Cronin, whose autobiography, Adventures in Two Worlds, inspired the popular BBC television series of the 1960s, Dr Finlay’s Casebook.
Vincent was educated at Ampleforth, Harvard and Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated in history and philosophy. He served as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade from 1943-45 and then settled in London, following his father into a writing career. In 1949 he married Chantal, daughter of Comte Jean de Rolland.
This proved a devoted partnership; thereafter, summer holidays were always spent, along with their five children, at her parents’ family estate, the Manoir de Brion near Avranches, Normandy. Cronin was a prolific author. Though not regarded highly in some academic circles, his historical research was meticulous.
He would invariably choose an unfashionable perspective on his subjects and wrote in an elegant narrative style. The book of which he was most proud, and which gained the most publicity, was his Napoleon (1971). Instead of depicting him simply as a conqueror and warlord, Cronin chose to emphasise the Emperor’s enlightened attitude towards the Jews and the range and depth of his reading. His Catherine, Empress of All the Russias (1978) was given similar treatment; her ruthless qualities were balanced by consideration of her social reforms. His Louis XIV (1964) again showed his independent streak; the portrait of the vainglorious “Sun King” was muted in favour of a humane, wise and cultured monarch.
Interested in different historical periods and fascinated by individuals of exceptional ability, Cronin included among his books biographies of the Jesuit scholars and missionaries, Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili. Ricci had been sent to China in 1582, where he won the respect of the Mandarin elite with his mastery of the Chinese language and culture at the same time as he attempted to reconcile their Confucian philosophy with Christian teaching. De Nobili, sent to south India in 1605, learnt the local languages and lived as a Christian ascetic in the manner of a Hindu holy man.
Although in these studies sympathetic to the idea of inculturation, Cronin remained a devoutly orthodox Catholic all his days something that, as a friend observed, was uncommon in the tough environment of the London literary world. Ampleforth played a large part in the formation of his faith. In London he was a regular parishioner at St James, Spanish Place, and when on holiday in Normandy he would pray every morning in the family chapel.
To celebrate the religious significance of the millennium he treated his whole family – children, their spouses, grandchildren and other relatives – to a 10-day private pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000. More than his literary achievements, this sensitive, private and courteous man would have been much moved by his daughter’s testimony: “He was the best father you could ever hope for.” Despite the money and awards earned by his pen, Cronin had no interest in luxuries (though he did introduce his children to fine French wines) and was enormously generous; indeed, he financed the building of a church in India. His working day was structured around writing in his spartan study, forays to the London Library and the British Museum, walking with his wife in Hyde Park and leek and potato soup for supper. The day before his death at his house in Marbella he was observed to have a seraphic smile on his face all day – perhaps in anticipation of going home.