Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2862
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 profoundly troubled young man, whose tragic, self-destructive existence will haunt Lewis Eliot all of his life. The novel’s title refers in part to the field of study of the protagonist, Roy Calvert, an Oriental scholar at Cambridge, whose speciality is the Manichaean sect, which maintained that man is made up of conflicting elements, the soul (light) and the body (darkness). The title also reflects Roy’s own conflict between the cerebral and the sensual, and his frequent shifts from great happiness to numbing despair; his is a classic case of manic-depressive neurosis. As the husband of Sheila, Lewis is no stranger to neurosis and is deeply moved by the plight of his friend, who is unable to base his life on any faith, religious or-otherwise. In his desperation, Roy, while studying in Germany during the 1930’s, even supports the Nazi movement as a “feeble simulacrum of his search for God.” For several years, Lewis stands helplessly by while Roy makes dreadful scenes, antagonizing and hurting his fellow academics as well as the women who pursue him. Roy’s deep knowledge of his uncontrollable nature makes his condition particularly terrifying and evokes in him a death wish which leads him to volunteer for bomber-pilot duty. Despite his agony, however, Roy ultimately finds a measure of peace in marriage and in a daughter he truly loves. Ironically, when he finally has something to live for, he is killed on a bombing mission.
The role of college politics, only peripheral to The Light and the Dark, is central to The Masters, in which Lewis, who has substantially reduced his legal work in London to become a lecturer in law and Fellow of a Cambridge college, recounts the bitter struggle of his colleagues as they prepare to elect a new Master. The election has split the college into two factions. Lewis supports Paul Jago, a solid literary scholar whose politics are right of center—a significant issue in view of the approaching war—but who is widely respected as a humane, if oversensitive, individual. Jago’s wife, Alice, whom he deeply loves, proves to be a major liability; a pathologically insecure woman, she alienates her husband’s supporters and adversaries alike by her unpredictable behavior. Jago’s opponent for the Mastership is R. T. A. Crawford, a distinguished biologist. More liberal, politically, than Jago, Crawford is personally cold and aloof. The main action of the novel concerns the outwardly decorous but nevertheless severe infighting which characterizes the election campaign. Snow suggests the subtle attempts of the college power brokers, such as Lewis’ friend Arthur Brown, to swing votes, as well as the shifting alliances which form under such pressures. In the end, the last-minute desertion of Jago’s supporter C. P. Chrystal loses the election for him. The rest of his backers reluctantly accept the outcome, but Jago is crushed, and he never again plays a prominent role in college affairs. The election serves as a watershed in Lewis’ life as well, and he refers to it often in successive novels of the series.
The threat of war present in The Masters, set in 1937, has become a reality in The New Men, which concerns the efforts of British scientists, Walter Luke and Lewis’ younger brother Martin among them, to develop the atom bomb; it also examines the moral implications of the use of atomic weapons. Paralleling the suspense-filled account of the scientists’ progress is Lewis’ pained observation of his brother’s Machiavellian maneuvers to consolidate his own political support and ultimately head the atomic project, while his superior Luke recuperates from radiation sickness. Although Lewis himself, now a high-ranking civil servant working in defense, has engaged in political wire-pulling to further his brother’s career, he finds it difficult to accept Martin’s ruthless behavior. After successfully “breaking” Luke’s associate, Eric Sawbridge, a Communist sympathizer who has leaked secrets to the Russians, and having displayed keen administrative abilities, Martin is ultimately offered the position he has craved; in a surprising volte face, however, he rejects it, preferring to return to Cambridge as a research scientist. While aware that he lacks the talent to become a first-rate scientist, Martin, having proved that he can achieve worldly success without his brother’s help, makes his renunciation with equanimity.
Lewis’ troubled personal life, hitherto largely eclipsed by the case studies of his brother and his closest friends, is the subject of Homecoming, the most candid and moving among the novels of “direct experience.” Going back to 1938, Snow portrays once again Lewis coping stoically with his neurotic wife, Sheila, who, having failed in a publishing venture, has withdrawn further into herself. Though she hints at the possibility of suicide, when it comes several months later, Lewis is devastated. Tormented by guilt, he avoids serious commitment for two years until he meets Margaret Davidson, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury art critic. As their relationship progresses, Lewis speaks of marriage, but Margaret remains skeptical about Lewis’ ability to free himself of Sheila’s memory and to give himself fully to another. Margaret ultimately breaks off the affair to marry Geoffrey Hollis, a successful physician, and has a son by him. Two years later, however, Margaret and Lewis meet again, and, following a clandestine relationship, Margaret divorces Hollis to marry Lewis. In 1947, at the age of forty-two, Lewis becomes a father. Margaret is still insecure about Lewis’ true feelings, until their son’s near-fatal case of meningitis cements their relationship; evidently, Lewis can now fully give as well as receive love.
In The Affair, Snow returns to the issue of college politics which dominated The Masters. It is 1953, and more than fifteen years have passed since the bitter struggle which culminated in Crawford’s election as Master. Many of the participants in that election are dead, and Crawford himself is on the verge of retirement. Though a new election is imminent, this novel is really a study of justice, as a committee of Senior Fellows reexamines the case of Donald Howard, a Research Fellow who has been forced to resign following an accusation that he has faked evidence to support his thesis. Complicating the committee’s task is the fact that Howard is both an outspoken Communist and an unusually truculent man. Snow closely observes the committee members as they strive to be fair despite their personal antipathy toward Howard. Though no longer a Fellow, Lewis is asked to defend Howard before the committee and ultimately establishes Howard’s possible innocence; in the end, Howard is reinstated with back pay, but his career in the college is effectively over, as his contract will not be renewed. The result is, thus, a bitter compromise. Howard accepts his Pyrrhic victory, however, and Crawford suggests that justice has been served, remarking complacently that “sensible men usually reach sensible conclusions.”
Having examined in two novels how decision making works in the arena of college politics, Snow moves to full-scale parliamentary affairs in Corridors of Power, which chronicles a politician’s quest to take his country out of the arms race, an unpopular notion which ultimately proves disastrous to his career.
Roger Quaife, holder of a safe seat in Parliament and husband of a titled socialite, seems to need only to wait for political success to Gome to him. Though a middle-of-the-road program would help to ensure such success, Quaife is passionately opposed to Great Britain’s role in the nuclear arms race. Utilizing Lewis as a gray eminence, Quaife assembles a committee of distinguished scientists to examine the issue. The Suez crisis of 1956 intervenes, and Quaife’s supporters are disappointed when he refrains from criticizing a government policy that they find odious. Though he is opposed to the government’s policy, Quaife, out of expediency, fails to protest, maintaining a low profile to carry through his nuclear disarmament policy. In the end, right-wing opposition to Quaife’s plan, combined with gossip surrounding his extramarital affair with Ellen Smith, the wife of a Member of Parliament, reduces his credibility; Quaife’s supporters urge him to back down from his extreme position to salvage his political career, but he refuses. Ultimately, Quaife’s motion is defeated, forcing his resignation. Like so many of Snow’s idealists, however, Quaife accepts his failure with serenity. Bitterly disillusioned himself, Lewis decides to retire from public life.
The penultimate novel of the sequence, The Sleep of Reason, is set primarily in Lewis’ native town and is characterized by an autumnal, valedictory air, which is jolted midway by an unusually disturbing incident. In the four years since the downfall of Quaife, Lewis has maintained his living as a successful writer and sought to keep out of the public eye. A request, however, to represent students on a committee at his alma mater—now a university—lures him back to academic affairs. Following a relatively mild scandal involving student sexual activities, Lewis finds himself in the middle of a shocking case involving the sister of one of the students, Kitty Pateman, and her lesbian lover, Cora Ross, who happens to be George Passant’s niece. The two young women have kidnaped, tortured, and murdered an eight-year-old boy. Lewis endures the sordid trial out of loyalty to his old friend George. Meditating on the nature of pure evil, Lewis is reminded of a visit to Auschwitz after the war and concludes that only the concept of Original Sin can account for such depravity. His darkened views are exacerbated by the death of his father, at the age of eighty-eight, and by a potentially life-threatening illness.
Lewis experiences his most significant intimation of mortality following surgery to repair a detached retina in the concluding volume of the series, Last Things. Though his surgery is routine in nature, Lewis learns, to his horror, that while on the operating table, he inexplicably suffered a cardiac arrest. Having done “a Lazarus,” Lewis meditates on his life, observing that in the nature of personal relations, he has been no saint. Though doctors assure him that he is perfectly healthy, Lewis remains shaken, especially as a number of his contemporaries, such as George, have died. Lewis reflects, too, on the new generation, that of his son Charles Eliot, wondering whether they will be able to “take over.” Himself a liberal of long standing, Lewis has mixed feelings when his son becomes involved in left-wing student affairs but concludes that Charles and his friends will turn out all right in the end. As he takes leave of his readers, Lewis remains guardedly optimistic.
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