The Significance of Snow

Strangers & Brothers Volume 2, C. P. Snow (Macmillan 1972, Penguin 1984)

The Masters (1937)

The New Men (1939 – 47)

Homecomings (1938 – 51)

The Affair (1953 – 54)

I read these four C. P. Snow novels last week in quick succession.  I found them to be compelling, and the last of them, The Affair, unputdownable.  They are a part of a series of eleven novels concerning the life and times of one Lewis Eliot, born 1905 (the same year as Snow), trained as a lawyer, an academic and fellow of an unnamed Cambridge college, later a civil servant influential in the world of affairs, and the corridors of power.  Eliot is also an author.  These books clearly have a strong autobiographical element, for Snow himself was an academic and an advisor to government.  But he himself trained as a physicist.  He was something of a polymath, then, but he didn’t cast Lewis Eliot as a Renaissance Man.  Eliot is rather ignorant of science.  It is his brother, Martin, who is the scientist. 

The BBC dramatized Strangers & Brothers and I have a vague recollection of seeing snatches of it, the way you pick up on something on the TV as you pass through a room.  Shaughan Seymour played Lewis, and Cherie Lunghi Margaret Eliot. 

These books capture an age, now gone.  I find them in some ways reminiscent of the novels of Nevil Shute, born 1899, who trained at Oxford and became an aeronautical engineer.  Politically, Shute wrote from the right, Snow from the left.  Both are profoundly English, though Shute became disillusioned with the way he saw Great Britain moving after the Second World War, and took himself off to Australia.  For both, science is a constant preoccupation in their fiction.  They would each have instantly recognised the manners and mores of the world they both describe.     

Yet for all these books are of a period, I don’t believe Snow is dated.  He is concerned about politics, and the motivations, the psychological undercurrents, the ambitions, passions, and jealousies of men aspiring to high office.  And it is mostly men who bestride the corridors of power.  Women fulfil a prominent role, but the role is supportive, domestic and subsidiary.  That too is of its time.  But the way Snow delves into the minds of high flying academicians, scientists, politicians and civil servants, I find to be entirely convincing. 

The Masters concerns the canvassing for support for two Cambridge men vying to be the next Master of their college.  The incumbent is terminally ill, but his doctors have withheld this information from their patient.  (That, too, is of its time.  The idea of wheeling and dealing to fill the shoes of a man who does not know he is on the way out strikes us now as being positively macabre.)  The contest is close, the outcome never predictable until it comes about.  This study of internal academic politics is revisited in The Affair, in which another closely contested college matter hangs in the balance until the last page. 

The New Men are the scientists, and their struggle throughout the war is the attempt to build a fission bomb.  The next novel, Homecomings, covers broadly the same period, but is concerned with marriage, family, and childhood illness.  Interestingly, the fictions of The New Men and Homecomings hardly overlap.  These books hardly touch one another.  Is this a literary device, or do we really thus compartmentalise our lives?  I don’t recall reading another dynastic saga, a long chronological account, which separates areas of life off in this way.  Yet that too is of its time, a time when you might strive neither to bring your private life into work, nor to take your work home with you.   

In The Affair, a young research scientist is accused of faking his results, as a result of which he is stripped of his fellowship.  There is a minority opinion that this man has been unjustly treated.  Eliot is approached to champion his cause.  He is at first dismissive, but then, convinced of the man’s innocence, takes the case on.  It’s a bit reminiscent of the Dreyfus affair – one of the characters says as much.  The accused man, and his wife, are not sympathetic characters.  I won’t say whether Eliot manages to get his man off, but I don’t think it is a plot spoiler to say we never really find out if he, or anybody else in the matter, is innocent or guilty.  But, throughout the book, I found myself on tenterhooks to know.

I’ve always enjoyed reading C. P. Snow.  The ability to make you willingly turn the page has to be admired.  Of his non-fiction, I highly recommend Variety of Men (Macmillan, 1967).  Variety indeed – Rutherford, G. H. Hardy, H. G. Wells, Einstein, Lloyd George, Churchill, Robert Frost, Stalin, Dag Hammarskjöld – Snow had met most of them.  Also The Physicists (1981), a celebration of the giants of twentieth century science, which Snow wrote from memory. 

Of course, I must mention The Two Cultures, Snow’s Rede Lecture of 1959, in which he posited that scientists and artists didn’t understand one another and couldn’t communicate with one another.  Famously, the distinguished Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis took exception to this and set out to carry out a hatchet job, a demolition, not just of The Two Cultures, but of Snow himself.          

“Snow is, of course, a – no, I can’t say that; he isn’t; Snow thinks of himself as a novelist…  Snow not only hasn’t in him the beginnings of a novelist; he is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters.”     

I guess Dr Leavis didn’t care for Strangers & Brothers.  He called The Affair “that feeble exercise”.  But then, Dr Leavis had fairly restrictive ideas about what constituted a novel.  Hard Times apart, he didn’t think much of Dickens as a novelist.  Sometimes I think that the most compelling piece of evidence that Snow was right, that the faculty of science and the faculty of arts don’t impinge on one another, is F. R. Leavis’ Richmond Lecture of 1962, Two Cultures?  The Significance of C. P. Snow.  Could Dr Leavis conceivably have been something of a literary snob?  He would say that he saw through The Affair, but maybe he just didn’t get it.   

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