Strangers and Brothers

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Strangers and Brothers is a series of novels by C. P. Snow, published between 1940 and 1974. They deal with - amongst other things - questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power.

All eleven novels in the series are narrated by 'Lewis Eliot'. The series follows his life and career from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, to reasonably successful London lawyer, to Cambridge don, to wartime service in Whitehall, to senior civil servant and finally retirement.

Viewed solely as literature, the series has not weathered well, and only The Masters is considered outstanding. However, nearly all of the novels have two compensating strengths. The first is that they provide vivid, contemporary pictures of life in mid-twentieth-century England. The New Men deals with the scientific community's involvement in (and reaction to) the development and deployment of nuclear weapons during the Second World War. Conscience of the Rich concerns a wealthy, Anglo-Jewish merchant-banking family. Time of Hope and George Passant show us the price paid by clever, poor young men to escape their provincial origins. All of this is engaging and informative for anyone interested in a contemporary take on the period.

The second - and much greater - strength is that each novel is almost a text-book on the gaining and exercising of political power. The word 'political' here is used in the widest sense, meaning the effective application of influence in any sphere, whether personal, private or public. This was a subject on which C. P. Snow could not help writing readably and fascinatingly.

His gift is seen to best effect in analysing the professional world, scrutinising microscopical shifts of power within the enclosed settings of a Cambridge college, a Whitehall ministry, a law firm. He is not so much at home with the emotional currents of family life, or the complex world of actual politics. In both, there are too many variables. Snow's novelistic world has a curious resemblance to the 'classical' detective story, which needs to exclude as many variables as possible from the problem (a passing stranger cannot be the murderer - it has to be one of the houseguests). The intensity of Snow's fiction similarly derives from containing his characters in the smallest possible area of operation, with no appeal to outside.

For this reason, the strongest novels are those set in the Cambridge college (a thinly-veiled Christ's), where a small, disparate group of men is required to reach a collective decision on an important subject. In The Masters, the dozen or so college members elect a new head (the Master) by majority vote. In The Affair, a small group of dons sets out to correct a possible injustice: they must convince the rest of the college to re-open an investigation into scientific fraud. In both novels, the characters strongly resist letting in the external world, whether it be the press, public opinion, the college "Visitor", or outside experts. They have to decide for themselves.

By contrast, while The New Men and Corridors of Power concern themselves with a much bigger subject - the English debate over nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s - their emotional impact is lessened by too many characters, too many locations and too many different sources of influence. This world is too large for Snow's particular talents to be shown to good advantage. Because the college dons are answerable to no-one except themselves, and have nowhere to hide from each other, the dramatic tension is much greater.

The novels dealing with Lewis Eliot's private life (Time of Hope, Homecomings, Last Things) are generally the weakest of the series.

The books are, in order of the narrative (which differs from publication order):

  • Time of Hope (1949)
  • George Passant (first called Strangers and Brothers) (1940)
  • The Conscience of the Rich (1958)
  • The Light and the Dark (1947)
  • The Masters (1951)
  • The New Men (1954)
  • Homecomings (1956)
  • The Affair (1960)
  • Corridors of Power (1964)
  • The Sleep of Reason (1968)
  • Last Things (1970)

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