Hatter's Castle (1931) is the first novel of author A.J. Cronin. The story is set in 1879, in the fictional town of Levenford, on the Clyde estuary. The plot revolves around many characters and has many subplots, all of which relate to the life of the hatter, James Brodie, whose narcissism and cruelty gradually destroy his family and life. The book was made into a successful film in 1941 starring Robert Newton, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason.
The main characters are James Brodie (the hatter and tyrannical patriarch of the Brodie family), Mary Brodie (James' eldest daughter, also one of the central characters, appearing throughout the first and last section of the novel), Matthew Brodie (James' only son and oldest child in the family who also plays a significant role in the novel), Nessie Brodie (James' youngest daughter and favourite, who remains one of the background characters until the end of the story), Mrs. Brodie (James' fragile wife who is never treated as anything more than a servant by her husband), Grandma Brodie (James' mother who is being looked after by the Brodie family), Dennis (A young Irishman who has a relationship with Mary), Nancy (James' mistress) and Dr. Renwick (a character who becomes more involved in the Brodie family life towards the end of the novel).
The novel Hatter's Castle should not be confused with the movie which was loosely based on the book. In the film version, there have been many severe plot alterations and character exclusions which have stripped most of its fundamental themes, thus hindering it from functioning as Cronin had originally intended.
The novel begins with some insight into the life of the Brodie household, where James Brodie seems to have everyone under his thumb. The main event that triggers the series of unfortunate events in the novel is that of Mary Brodie's relationship with her Irish beau, Dennis. Early in the story, Mary (who has occasionally met Dennis at the library) is invited by Dennis to go to the fair in the town. She sneaks out without her family's knowledge and during the course of the evening makes many decisions which change her life forever. She not only goes to the fair, but later on that night kisses and eventually makes love to Dennis (the first man she's ever loved), which, we later learn, results in pregnancy.
This event of her unwanted pregnancy is the main plot in the first third of the novel, titled "Section One". We realise that Mary is pregnant, and when she is six months pregnant she makes a plan with Dennis to run away and get married without her parents noticing. Even though Mary was only 17, there would have been no legal problem with her marriage since the English law which, until 1970, generally required people under 21 to have parental consent to marry, did not apply in Scotland. But one misfortune leads to the next, and three days before Dennis is due to whisk Mary away from her brutal father, there is a massive storm, and she begins to go into labour whilst carrying the child. Mrs. Brodie stumbles into Mary's room and begins to scream at the fact that her daughter is with child, and calls James himself to sort it out. After being kicked in the stomach repeatedly by her father and thrown out on her face into the pouring rain (whilst in labour), she tries to reach safety. Mary nearly drowns in a river before finding a barn where she gives birth to her premature child, which dies due to these appalling circumstances. To put the arsenic icing on the cake, the moment the baby utters his first cry, Dennis, who was, ironically, travelling on a train to rescue Mary, is killed when the train derails and plunges into the River Tay below. The collapse of the bridge is a dramatic retelling of the actual Tay Bridge disaster of 1879.
In the second part of the book, James Brodie's business as a hatter is destroyed. A rival company moves next door and attracts all his customers. However, part of this is due to Brodie's pride, as the customers are driven away by his delusions of superiority. As his profits decrease, so does the weekly salary, so Mamma is left to deal with making the most of what little they have left for the family. Her illness, cancer of the womb, and the chronic stress of living with such a monstrous man hasten her death.
After her death, Brodie's mistress, Nancy, moves in. Later she goes off abroad with Brodie's son Matt, and Brodie is left on his own with his youngest daughter, Nessie, and his aged mother, Grandma Brodie.
In the third part of the book, Brodie forces Nessie to study hard so as to win "the Latta," a special scholarship. He wants this not so much to provide a good future for his daughter, as to show that she is better than his rival's son, who is also going in for it. Under his threats and the dreadful fear of failure, she labours on with it, making herself mentally and physically ill. Nessie secretly writes to Mary asking her to come back, so she will have her company and comfort. Under pretext of coming to help with housework, Mary writes to her father, who initially refuses her return. After discovering that Nancy has deserted him, he writes again permitting Mary to come back, so she does.
Nessie contrives to obtain advance notice of the "Latta" result before her father sees it. Finding that her rival has won it and fearing her father, she sends Mary out to the chemist on the pretext of getting some medicine, then dresses up and hangs herself.
The story concludes with Dr. Renwick, who has been seeing Mary, taking her away with him to marry her.