C. P. Snow’s STRANGERS AND BROTHERS sequence tells the traditional story of a young man’s rise in the world and his concurrent education in the ways of that world. Snow follows Lewis Eliot, the hero and narrator of the series, from working class origins to a place in the Establishment. In THE AFFAIR, Eliot has gained this position, and his special status as narrator of the novel and the fact that he came into the Establishment from the outside give the reader a special perspective on the workings of the men of power with whom Eliot associates. This perspective is important, for the novel is less concerned with Donald Howard, the rather foolish young man on trial, than with those who are judging him; the Establishment, its way of running things, and its morality are themselves on trial. Specifically, Snow examines the somewhat ponderous way in which officialdom struggles with its conscience, tries to avoid deciding how to reconcile its own best interest with the demands of justice, and finally strikes a balance.
The Establishment is not, of course, an institution, and it is not a group of men of unanimously shared values and goals. Rather, it is composed of men of many types, brought together primarily by their desire to possess power and by their sense of responsibility, grasped in a variety of ways and to varying degrees, for using their power wisely. The obstacles to this task, both internal and external, are numerous; they are also a major object of Snow’s attention. Power, the reader would imagine Snow to say, may well corrupt, but it does so many other interesting things and brings out such strange latencies in those who possess it, that any blanket statement about its possessors and effects would be ridiculous. A minute study of its agents and their actions, however, can be enlightening.
As he did in THE MASTERS, Snow studies power microcosmically, focusing on the closed society of a Cambridge College. Lewis Eliot, once a Fellow of the College, but now a high-ranking civil servant and established lawyer, is approached in London by Tom Orbell, a young political scientist, and Laura Howard, whose husband, a physicist and a Communist, has been dismissed by the college for using a fake photograph in a research publication. They appeal to Eliot as having influence with older Fellows, particularly with his brother Martin and Sir Francis Getliffe, both physicists, the latter a probable choice as next Master of the College. After Lewis asks some questions of his friends in the college and, at Mrs. Howard’s insistence, confers with Donald Howard, he is completely convinced that Howard has been dealt with fairly.
Several weeks later, when Lewis is at Cambridge to spend Christmas with his brother, Julian Skeffington, a young physics Fellow, tells Martin and Lewis that he has evidence that Howard is innocent. Skeffington, a Conservative, strict, and absolutely correct, is co-executor of the estate of his wife’s late uncle, Cecil Palairet, under whom Howard did his doctoral work. Going through Palairet’s notebooks as they arrive at the college bursary, Skeffington discovers that a photograph is missing from one of them: the accompanying notation suggests that it was probably a copy of the photograph Howard had used in his research. From this discovery, Skeffington infers that old Palairet, for some unknown reason, gave Howard the photograph as a bona fide piece of scientific evidence on which Howard, then in all good faith if not in good judgment, based his subsequent work. Skeffington is now absolutely convinced of Howard’s innocence, but Lewis and Martin are much less so, though they ultimately come around to the view that Howard’s case should be reopened.
Skeffington and Martin try to form a majority of the Fellows to demand the reopening of the case. This attempt allows Snow to explore the power structure of the college and the changes in it, since Lewis was personally involved in its politics. As Snow is fond of pointing out, politics obeys strange rules. Martin and Getliffe are liberals, Orbell and Skeffington...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)