Charles Percy (C. P.) Snow was born on October 15, 1905, in the Midland city of Leicester, the second of four sons. His background was similar to that of his fictional persona, Lewis Eliot. Snow’s family had risen to the lower levels of the middle class; his father worked as a clerk in a shoe factory. Like Eliot’s father, who led a choir, Snow’s father played the organ in church; when he was no longer able to do so, he died soon after, at the age of eighty-four.
In school, Snow specialized in science; after graduation he worked as a laboratory assistant while he prepared for the examination that won him a scholarship, in 1925, at the University College of Leicester. He graduated in 1927 with first class honors in chemistry and received a grant that allowed him to proceed to a master of science degree in physics in 1928. Subsequently, he gained a scholarship to Cambridge, where he entered Christ’s College as a research student in physics, published a paper on the infrared investigation of molecular structure, and, in 1930, received a doctorate and was elected a fellow of Christ’s College, a post he held until 1950; he served there as a tutor from 1935 until 1945.
Like the fictional Lewis Eliot, whose law career hinged on his doing well in examinations and receiving scholarships, Snow must have worked hard (as did the hero of The Search) and must have been driven by ambition. His lifelong friend, William Cooper (H. S. Hoff; 1910-2002) wrote novels about the life of the young people in Leicester in which the young Snow appears in fictional form; this work helps confirm the autobiographical quality of Snow’s Time of Hope. Snow himself suggests the autobiographical aspect of The Conscience of the Rich, writing that when he was “very poor and very young,” he “was taken up by one of the rich patrician Anglo-Jewish families.”
Just as Lewis Eliot changes careers, and as the narrator of The Search turns from science to writing, Snow also did not rest in the comfort of being a rising young scientific don. He later wrote that since age eighteen or so he knew that he wanted to be a writer, and while an undergraduate he wrote a novel, never published, called “Youth Searching.” He had gone into science because it offered a practical possibility for a poor boy. Although he did good scientific work at Cambridge and published some significant papers, according to Cooper in C. P. Snow (1959), when some of Snow’s scientific research went wrong through oversight, he abandoned scientific experimentation and turned more to his writing.
Snow had already published his first novel, Death Under Sail, a detective story, in 1932; he looked on it as practice for his later, more serious fiction. The next year he published New Lives for Old, combining his interest in science and...
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