Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844

Strangers and Brothers is largely the life story of Lewis Eliot, who, like C. P. Snow, was born in 1905 in a small town (the thinly disguised Leicester). In several significant ways Eliot serves as Snow’s alter ego, though no strict one-to-one correspondence can be set up between the fictional and real persons. For example, Eliot had studied to become a lawyer, and Snow had studied to be a physicist. Many similarities exist as well: both were Labor Party members, had influential government positions, and were knighted. Furthermore, both managed to overcome lower middle-class family backgrounds to ascend to the heights of the British class structure.

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As a sequence of novels, Strangers and Brothers is in the traditional of the roman-fleuve of such French writers as Honoré de Balzac and Marcel Proust, and of such English writers as Anthony Trollope and John Galsworthy. Snow has written that the idea for the series had a specific origin in time and place: New Year’s Day, 1935, in Marseilles, France, where he envisioned a multinovel treatment of a man’s life as a unified whole. At this time, he had started writing one of the novels, though he was unsure about whether it was the first of many more. He also had decided, early on, that each novel had to work on its own, apart from its place in the series. Indeed, the novels were published neither in their order of composition nor in their eventual place in Snow’s overarching design. Snow himself has divided the novels into those of “direct experience,” in which Eliot is the dominant character, and those of “observed experience,” in which Snow tells the stories of other principal characters. Time of Hope, Homecomings, and Last Things are examples of direct experience, and The Masters, The Affair, and Corridors of Power are examples of observed experience.

Some critics have praised Strangers and Brothers as Snow’s greatest achievement, and others have admired his unparalleled use of a first-person narrator in a panoramic novel. The American critic Alfred Kazin found the novels “remarkably intelligent.” Other reviewers have noted that the quality of the novels varies considerably, from the nearly universally praised The Masters and the award-winning Time of Hope and The New Men, to such problematic novels as Homecomings, George Passant, and The Sleep of Reason, the last of which Snow admitted gave him much trouble. Three of the novels, The Masters, The New Men, and The Affair, have been successfully adapted for the stage, and the entire sequence, with considerable simplification of plots and numbers of characters, became an extremely successful television series in England and the United States; it then garnered more critical praise when it appeared as a DVD set.

It is understandable that, for such a massive project written over the course of thirty-five years, inconsistencies, factual errors, and other problems such as jarring differences in language crop up. Snow had attempted to remedy these problems in an omnibus edition of the series published in 1972. Nevertheless, several critics who commented on the entire cycle continued to be bothered by Snow’s style of writing, which they characterized as leaden, boring, prosaic, and unemotional. Others came to Snow’s defense, pointing out that his realistic presentation of facts was in keeping with such classic novelists as Trollope, whom Snow admired. Although Snow was a contemporary of such experimental stylists as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, he was never attracted to modernism, theirs or that of other writers. Some have traced his direct, objective, and honest style to his background as a physicist.

Several scholars have noted that Snow is particularly successful in the novels involving subjects intimately related to his life experiences. As a trained physicist, he is believable and insightful in handling the careers and concerns of scientists. As a “poor boy” from the lower classes who made something of himself, he has an outsider’s sensitivity to the weaknesses and incongruities of the hierarchical British social system. As a highly honored statesman, he has an understanding of the private and public functioning of politics. As the author of the controversial book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), this self-described scientific humanist has been able, through his life and work, to bridge the gap between humanistic and scientific cultures. This book provoked a polemic from the literary critic F. R. Leavis, who, with a small number of like-minded scholars, were unwilling to accept Snow into the family of major novelists.

Complicating Snow’s achievement has been prejudice against his liberal political views, although a growing number of critics accept his adroit management of strongly antagonistic political views in his novels. Young critics tend to think of Snow as old-fashioned, while critics from Snow’s era appreciate that he had the courage and expertise to tackle subjects—such as the interactions among science, technology, and politics—that other novelists neglected. Some even predict that, as the influence of science and technology grows, the appreciation of Snow’s achievement in Strangers and Brothers is also destined to expand and deepen.

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