You don’t hear much about C. P. Snow these days. When I was young he was an important figure, both in the literary world and in the world of policy. Born in 1905, the same year as my father, he came from a poor family, and made his way through excelling at school and university to become a fellow of a Cambridge college, then a senior civil servant, and at last a famous writer. I think I first heard of him in connection with his Rede lecture ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’, a lament from the 1950s about the separation of the arts and the sciences. How many serious scholars in the humanities, he wondered, could state what the second law of thermodynamics was. He might have gone on to wonder if they could say why it was important. Maybe some of today’s young literati could answer his question. I’m not sure my lot could have done it in the 1950s; they would have got it wrong had they tried. There was, and remains, such a division, though Goethe and James Mill, two centuries ago, were at home in both domains. Snow felt that the future belonged to science, and so far he has been proved right.
Snow fascinated me as a novelist because he was interested in power, how people got it and what they did with it. He was also interested in the compromises they made in order to possess that elusive and uncertain attribute. Snow did a Galsworthy-like thing in his eleven Strangers and Brothers novels, following the lives and careers of a small group of people from the 1920s to the 1960s. I was hooked on Corridors of Power when I was in the UK in 1964, and then was steered by my mentors into reading his earlier novels. In time I read them all, and also his wonderful non-fiction biographical sketches, in particular The Realists (novelists) and Varieties of Men (chaps he had met or would like to have met). He was extremely well read, well connected and well informed. He was first distinguished as Sir Charles, and then later as Lord Snow. I envied him and all he had been able to do.
The Strangers and Brothers novels are all written in the first person, by Lewis Eliot, in the last books honoured as Sir Lewis. Eliot, like Snow himself, came from a poor family, had an indifferent father and an adoring mother, and wins through because of innate intelligence, hard work and some useful mentoring. On the way he falls for Sheila, the beautiful but schizoid daughter of a wealthy vicar, marries her when he is at last a successful lawyer, and lives a life of marital misery thereafter. Sheila does not love him, but feels as safe as she will ever be in his care. She finally kills herself, which he has been expecting for a long time. During the war he meets another woman, Margaret, to whom he is instantly attracted, and she to him. They become lovers, but the weight of his first marriage hangs over their relationship, and she finally gives up, believing that she is no use to him. She marries another man, a doctor, and has a son by him. Eliot never stops loving her, and in time becomes free of his gloom. They meet again, the attraction is still strong, and they agree to marry. This takes time, since she has to divorce her husband, in the days before easy divorce. They too have a child, and Margaret’s first husband is important in saving their child from meningitis.
Much of that, my favourite element of the whole story, is from one novel, Homecomings. While all the novels are self-contained, you meet many of the same characters at different stages and ages, they become familiar to you. Charles March, the wealthy son of an Anglo-Jewish banking family (who renounces wealth for medicine), George Passant, Eliot’s first mentor, who never rises to the level that his abilities predict, Sir Hector Rose, the Permanent Secretary of the un-named Department in which Eliot works during the war and afterwards, Lord Lufkin, the tycoon, Francis Getliffe, the scientist, Eliot’s brother Martin, another scientist, Herbert Getliffe, the scientist’s lawyer half-brother to whom Eliot is apprenticed as a young man — they are all alive and visible, old friends almost.
And as you read you learn some of the big stories of the period — the despair of the thoughtful rich in the 1930s, and their conversion (some of them, anyway ) to Communism, the development of Britain’s own nuclear weapon, the dropping of the bomb and scientists’ reactions to that event, the treachery involved in acquainting the Russians with Western nuclear secrets, the movement away from Britain’s being a nuclear power, the Moors murders. Snow was there, and his judgments seem to me, anyway, to have been understandable, fair and sensible.
Snow seems to have some expectations that he might get the Nobel prize for Literature, but it was never going to be his. In one of his most celebrated novels, The Masters, an account of the election of a head of house in Cambridge in 1937, one of the Fellows of the un-named College, Nightingale, is eternally waiting for his election to the Royal Society. It never comes. Snow’s interest in the Nobel came a long time later, but I wondered if he ever reflected on the irony. F. R. Leavis, the fearsome Eng. Lit. critic, wrote an extraordinary denunciation of Snow, describing him as as intellectually undistinguished as it is possible to be… portentously ignorant… as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is… And more of the same. All this is unsustainable, and diminished Leavis much more than it did Snow.
I’m not a Leavis fan, though it is fair to say that I was never taught by anyone who had come under his influence and talked to us about him. Later in my life I met Eng. Lit. people who had sat in his lectures and thought the world of him, but Leavis’s position was not mine. For him, the best novels showed authors who were deeply concerned with the morality of life. Maybe they are. I like novels to be accessible, offering stories that people can read with satisfaction — and return to. What they make of the stories is up to them. I can enjoy page-turners, like Dan Brown, but I don’t return to them; once was enough. Leavis liked Jane Austen, and so do I. He didn’t think much of Dickens (though he recanted later in life). I thought Dickens was a great storyteller, as was Anthony Trollope, who was left out of Leavis’s ‘great tradition’.
I’m re-reading Snow’s novels, and while they are well-remembered and rather like familiar clothes, I can now see elements that don’t appeal. Lewis Eliot seems to know far too much about the psyche of people whom he cannot know well. How can he have gained such knowledge? It is fair to say in his defence that, in all the novels, the narrator Eliot is looking back, and that may be part of the explanation, though it is never offered. Snow likes unusual words, which he uses again and again — ‘sadic’ (a version of ‘sadistic’) and ‘nepenthe’ (a drink for oblivion) come to mind. I don’t think I ought to have to go to a dictionary to find out what the author is saying. Often the pace of the novels is slow, or great chunks of time pass without much explanation. His protagonist is often too conveniently available to witness the interaction of others. There is not a lot of action in the usual sense, and the tension can flag. One of my knowledgeable English friends thought Snow was over-fond of recreating real events in the lives of real people known to him. I am not in a position to comment.
Nonetheless, I am finding the re-reading enjoyable and profitable. If you haven’t read any of the novels, The Masters is a good yarn if you are acquainted with and interested in higher eduction, and Homecomings is a love story of power and elegance. The world of 20th century England, especially its universities and politics, was fruitfully and fictionally caught by him, no matter what Leavis thought.