The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers is a roman fleuve comprising eleven novels and covering a period of more than fifty years. The entire sequence is narrated by Lewis Eliot, an intelligent, sensitive, and decent man whose life progresses against the backdrop of some of the critical events of twentieth century history. The sequence is divided into novels of “direct experience” and “observed experience.” Although Lewis Eliot is present in the novels of “observed experience,” his personal life is given a secondary role, as he concentrates on several figures who have played crucial roles in his life. Snow carefully establishes his narrator’s emotional makeup in Time of Hope (which, though Snow’s third book in the series, precedes George Passant and The Light and the Dark in the narrative chronology). Set primarily in an unnamed provincial town in the Midlands of England, the novel depicts Lewis’ early years, characterized by a sense of insecurity stemming from the Eliot family’s genteel poverty following the bankruptcy of his father during World War I.

Although Lewis’ proud, strong-willed mother, Lena, dies when he is only a teenager, her influence upon him proves critical. Married to a kindly but ineffectual man, Lena is forced to transfer her dreams of nower and status to her son. At the same time, she smothers they boy with a possessive love that he cannot return, causing deep-seated emotional problems which will affect his personal relationships for years to come:

Somehow I was so made that . . . I had to reject my mother’s love and its successors. Some secret caution born of a kind of vanity made me bar my heart to any who forced their way within. I had only been able to lose caution and vanity. . . in the torment of loving someone. . . who . . . made me crave for a spark of feeling....

Thus, Lewis is led to pursue the frigid, emotionally unresponsive Sheila Knight, and ultimately to marry her, knowing that she will only cause him pain.

In addition to suggesting the seeds of Lewis’ emotional discontent, Time of Hope chronicles the progress of his professional career, establishing his considerable talent for legal and administrative work. Bearing in mind his mother’s dreams, Lewis makes a risky bid to become a barrister, using his life’s savings to finance his studies and period of apprenticeship. His dedication and hard work result in a measure of success hindered only by a sudden bout of near-fatal illness and his masochistic marriage. Lewis cannot help feeling disillusioned: “I had longed for fame: and I was a second-rate lawyer. I had longed for love: and I was bound for life to a woman who never had love for me and who had exhausted mine.” Though Lewis is tempted to leave Sheila, having fought so hard to win her, he feels responsible for her and stays by her side. Despite the nightmare of his marriage, he remains hopeful about the future.

Sharing Lewis’ optimism is his friend and mentor, George Passant, whose lectures at the local technical college encouraged him to become a barrister. Though George’s own story is outlined in Time of Hope, it is rendered more explicitly in the first volume of “observed experience,” George Passant. George is the first of several key figures who significantly influence Lewis’ life and thinking, men of brilliant potential, whose flaws of character prevent their achieving true success. Only slightly older than Lewis, George Passant seems extraordinarily gifted; a solicitor’s clerk, he is intelligent, energetic, and eloquent. He gathers around him a number of devoted young men and women, whom he dubs “the group.” An idealist, George enjoys speaking against the town’s conservative establishment, calling such people “sunkets” and “bellwethers,” and hurts his own career chances when he successfully defends his friend Jack Cotery against charges of having corrupted a fifteen-year-old boy.

George’s blind idealism is dramatically revealed through the central crisis of the novel, a scandal involving George and Jack Cotery, partners in an advertising weekly, culminating in a trial which not only suggests unethical business dealings but also hints at immorality concerning “the group.” Although George stoutly maintains his innocence of any fraudulent actions, Lewis later learns that his friend had indeed been aware of his partner Jack’s unscrupulous practices. Yet George.has convinced himself that Jack’s dubious business ethics were ultimately justified in that financial security protected the sanctity of “the group.” While George preaches the gospel of freedom, it becomes disturbingly apparent that his idea of freedom signifies license, particularly in the sexual sense, and George, overly sensual by nature, has apparently exploited “the group” as a source of willing young women. George’s lawyer ascribes such behavior to the spirit of the time, but it is obviously something in George’s own makeup, abetted by a strong capacity for self-deception, which causes him to live as he does. Although he is declared innocent of fraud, George’s reputation is ruined. He maintains faith in his abilities to overcome obstacles, but, despite his abundant gifts, this enigmatic figure will never realize his early promise.

In The Conscience of the Rich, Lewis recounts the dilemma of another close friend, Charles March, who, like George Passant, appears to have everything going for him. While George’s background is lower-middle-class, Charles comes from a wealthy, influential Anglo-Jewish family; he struggles, however, against problems of identity, social conscience, and possessive parental love. While not ashamed of being Jewish, Charles resents being regarded as different. Although, like Lewis, he makes a promising start as a barrister, Charles thinks that law is not a “useful” career and renounces it to go into medicine as a general practitioner, a decision which enrages his affectionate but domineering father, Leonard March. Like Lena Eliot, Leonard hoped to achieve vicarious fame through his son. Charles loves his father but yearns to be independent of him. He further antagonizes his father by marrying a Communist sympathizer, Ann Simon, who, for political reasons, precipitates a scandal involving Charles’s uncle, Sir Philip March, a Parliamentary Secretary. Realizing that her actions are aggravating the rift between Charles and his father, she offers him the means to stop the scandal. Charles, however, remaining true to both his wife and his principles, lets the affair run its course, ruining his uncle and alienating the rest of his family. Disinherited by his father, Charles assumes the life of a family doctor; he claims to be happy, but the novel ends on a bitter note, as he and his father remain unreconciled.

The Light and the Dark is the third case study of a gifted but...

(The entire section is 2862 words.)