Header overlay
David Wemyss on C. P. Snow, the Strangers and Brothers series

Snow in the Quad

Share this

I began reading C. P. Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series of novels in 1980. I had just started my first serious job in local government and, although I didn’t know it, I was about to live through a brief golden age. The managerial future was on its way but hadn’t arrived yet. I’d never even heard of a performance indicator. Still in my twenties, I emerged quickly as a bit of a legal expert (most of it bluff ) and a policy adviser (most of that calculated charm). In other words, I was enjoying myself and, rather foolishly, I fancied myself as a miniature version of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s largely autobiographical narrator.

I loved those books. Admittedly, there was something portentous about their sense that Eliot’s endless conversations in Cambridge and Whitehall were supposed to be holding up a mirror to European history in the middle part of the twentieth century. And people certainly didn’t speak like that any more, not in any circles I moved in. But of course I wished that they did.

The Masters (1951) – the fourth book in the series, and surely the quintessential tale of academic politics – was always my favourite. Rereading it during the summer (which wasn’t ideal because, to begin with at least, it’s definitely a winter novel, full of quadrangle lights falling on snow and panelled walls glowing softly in firelight), I was reminded how, in the course of all the talking, Eliot goes in for observations about his interlocutors (and himself ) that are so compositionally rounded that you wonder if anyone could really accomplish such nuanced understanding in the midst of what is often some sort of conversational miasma. First time round I had doubts about this. But now I think it’s one of Snow’s finest achievements. He persuades us that these fleeting understandings do happen – even if they could never be as elegant as his portrayals of them.

I said it was a winter novel. Here’s what I mean:

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I began reading C. P. Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series of novels in 1980. I had just started my first serious job in local government and, although I didn’t know it, I was about to live through a brief golden age. The managerial future was on its way but hadn’t arrived yet. I’d never even heard of a performance indicator. Still in my twenties, I emerged quickly as a bit of a legal expert (most of it bluff ) and a policy adviser (most of that calculated charm). In other words, I was enjoying myself and, rather foolishly, I fancied myself as a miniature version of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s largely autobiographical narrator.

I loved those books. Admittedly, there was something portentous about their sense that Eliot’s endless conversations in Cambridge and Whitehall were supposed to be holding up a mirror to European history in the middle part of the twentieth century. And people certainly didn’t speak like that any more, not in any circles I moved in. But of course I wished that they did. The Masters (1951) – the fourth book in the series, and surely the quintessential tale of academic politics – was always my favourite. Rereading it during the summer (which wasn’t ideal because, to begin with at least, it’s definitely a winter novel, full of quadrangle lights falling on snow and panelled walls glowing softly in firelight), I was reminded how, in the course of all the talking, Eliot goes in for observations about his interlocutors (and himself ) that are so compositionally rounded that you wonder if anyone could really accomplish such nuanced understanding in the midst of what is often some sort of conversational miasma. First time round I had doubts about this. But now I think it’s one of Snow’s finest achievements. He persuades us that these fleeting understandings do happen – even if they could never be as elegant as his portrayals of them. I said it was a winter novel. Here’s what I mean:
The snow had only just stopped, and in the court below my rooms all sounds were dulled. There were few sounds to hear, for it was early in January, and the college was empty and quiet; I could just make out the footsteps of the porter, as he passed beneath the window on his last round of the night. Now and again his keys clinked, and the clink reached me after the pad of his footsteps had been lost in the snow. I had drawn my curtains early that evening and not moved out. The kitchens had sent up a meal, and I had eaten it as I read by the fire.
The Master of an unnamed Cambridge college is dying, and a new Master will have to be elected. The stylish tiptoeing begins at once.
‘In a few weeks, in a few months at most, the college will have to elect a new Master.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘When the time arrives, we shall have to do it in a hurry,’ said Jago. ‘I suppose before then we shall have made up our minds whom we are going to elect.’ I had known, for minutes past, that this was coming. I had not wanted to talk of it that night. Jago was longing for me to say that he ought to be the next Master, that my own mind was made up, that I should vote for him. He had longed for me to say it without prompting; he had not wanted even to mention the election. It was anguish for him to make the faintest hint without response. Yet he was impelled to go on, he could not stop. It harassed me to see this proud man humiliating himself.
‘It was anguish for him to make the faintest hint without response.’ That’s what I mean about nuanced understanding in the midst of conversational miasma. Eliot sees that his interlocutor wants to be the author of felicitous remarks and the author of their reception. It’s like fishing for compliments, but it veers between spontaneity and manipulation. All in all, quite a deep observation. However, Snow isn’t supposed to be deep; in fact he’s often called mediocre and formulaic, and all that stuff about footsteps in quadrangle snow and panelled walls bathed in firelight does sometimes look as if it’s been put there almost lazily, to elicit the most predictable of responses. Yet most of the time he gets away with it – even if you do occasionally feel that you’re enjoying literary comfort food. But no one ever said that this was going to be a modernist stream-of-consciousness evocation. It’s a middlebrow yarn, full of dialogue, not exactly fast-moving but strangely gripping. And there’s something deceptively memorable about those predictable responses. People say you’re not happy if you’re noticing it, but then again there are moments when you feel you’re definitely alive, and those you do notice. Or the memory of such a moment can make you wonder if you’ll ever feel that alive again. The muffled sounds of Snow’s wintry colleges, the sheets of rain blowing across his Whitehall streetscapes, do somehow catch the pathos of noticing. And, in the end, what’s so bad about comfort food? He may be cheating a bit – and we’re not working very hard – but we’re moved anyway. Any ambivalence disappears when you get into the real momentum of the story, which I suppose you have to characterize in terms of psychological observation. The election is going to be close, and two rival camps quickly emerge. Then misgivings and doubts begin to set in. These are subtly shaded and wordy, but the story is never heavy going. The setting is rarefied, but the fluctuations of the human heart remain the same. Nowadays, though, Snow is probably best remembered not for his novels but for the lecture ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’ which he delivered at Cambridge in 1959. A physicist and chemist as well as a civil servant and novelist, he argued that intellectual life in Western society was damagingly split between scientists and literary types, and that the latter were more culpable. Some scientists couldn’t cope with Dickens, which was nothing to be proud of, but others had embraced literature. Humanities scholars, on the other hand, were unlikely to have even the remotest idea about the second law of thermodynamics, and didn’t see why they should. Warming to his theme, Snow even claimed that scientists had ‘the future in their bones’, whereas ‘the traditional culture responded by wishing the future did not exist’. He also emphasized the importance of scientifically literate politicians, and the danger of overly literary ones. A lifelong socialist, he was suspicious of fascist tendencies in the likes of Yeats and Ezra Pound, although, in his lecture, he attributed the suspicion to ‘a scientist of distinction’ as a smokescreen for airing the idea that Yeats and Pound bore some sort of responsibility for Auschwitz. Otherwise he was unequivocal. Science was the only viable solution to narrowing the catastrophic gaps in wealth that were emerging all over the world. If the democracies didn’t modernize undeveloped countries, Snow argued, the Communist countries would do it instead – leaving the West stranded as an enclave in a different world. Only by asserting science (over and against the quietism or élitism of literary inclinations) could disaster be averted. But, at their best, the humanities still exuded a unique hospitality of spirit – although that now sounds a bit outmoded. In a way, the lecture was a symptom of the Cold War. It claimed that technologically progressive (but humane) socialism was the only way to seize the moral high ground from totalitarian Marxism. To that extent, it was off the mark. I suppose you have to say that capitalism won the moral and economic arguments. But, then again, many think that Marxism sneaked the cultural one without anyone noticing. Nowadays, many humanities scholars know their thermodynamics but think the Western literary canon is out-of-date and élitist. I don’t think Snow saw that one coming. Anyway, whatever you think of them, these themes are also the themes of the ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series. In The Masters, the rivalry is between a traditionalist and a politically progressive scientist. Lewis Eliot is a man of the Left, but he will not let that blind him to the greater human breadth of the more reactionary of the two candidates. The New Men (1954) is about the emergence of the atomic bomb. Corridors of Power (1963) sees Eliot helping a Conservative MP who is disquieted by this threat. The Affair (1959) isn’t about a love affair but scientific fraud, and the ethical atmosphere of the tale is another reminder that Snow was never just crudely pro-science. Scientific fraud is seen as a terrible breach of faith in a very old-fashioned way. And this is strangely apposite to the public policy conundrums of our own time. Today, our politicians have become more scientifically literate as they wrestle with things like climate change, but the public has become suspicious of politicized science – something else Snow didn’t see coming. And he took for granted something we now find very noticeable. As I’ve already hinted, one of the distinctive things about the ‘Strangers and Brothers’ books is how the characters regularly extemporize and surprise themselves in everyday talk. It’s an arresting quality because you rarely encounter it any more. But isn’t it what the humanities at their best can bring to scientific culture, and to public policy across the board? Perhaps those outmoded ideals of shared enjoyment in conversation – ideals that no doubt seemed to be of diminishing importance in 1959 – might yet make a comeback. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. And, one way or another, it won’t turn Snow into a great novelist. But, as readers of Slightly Foxed know, there are a lot of readable and lovable novels out there that are never going to be called great but which still punch above their weight. Snow, I think, is in this category. His storytelling doesn’t succeed in spite of his political agenda; it succeeds because the agenda is so fluid and understated.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © David Wemyss 2014


About the contributor

David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011. He continues to live there with his wife and son.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.