Dunfords Travels Everywheres
With his new novel, C. P. Snow has reached the end of Strangers and Brothers, a solemn, Edwardian sequence of eleven books, first conceived in 1935. Last Things. It is characteristic of Snow’s lack of moral or literary tact that he can suggest an eschatological climax when he is merely finishing off a thick slice of middle-class English life. Earlier in the series, in The Affair (1960), he took the Dreyfus case as a model and backdrop for a squabble in a Cambridge college. He is aware of the distance between his small, prosy world and his grand allusions but insists, nevertheless, on comparisons, on suppressing differences. Cambridge, the Vatican, the Politburo: all instances, he says in the new book, of closed politics, “much the same.” Generalizing of this kind has been his idea of what a major novelist ought to be doing. He has set out to be the George Eliot, or at least the Galsworthy, of his generation, to write nineteenth-century novels for a later day—a slightly alarming ambition but not in itself a silly one, since a case can be made for conventional forms so long as there are conventional realities left to be explored.
What goes wrong, then, apart from the failure of tact? The answer is Lewis Eliot, the heavy-footed hero and narrator of these novels. The “inner design” of the whole work, Snow wrote in a note to The Conscience of the Rich (1958), does not lie in the “attempt to give some insights into society,” although that is important. It lies in a “resonance between what Lewis Eliot sees and what he feels.” This is unfortunate, since Eliot doesn’t see half as much as he thinks he sees, and what he feels is severely circumscribed by his complacency.
Indeed, Snow seems to worry that Eliot may appear smug, and shows him beating his breast as often as he can. But this doesn’t help matters. Even the keenest self-accusations turn into subtle self-praise, and only when Eliot’s self-congratulation becomes a theme in its own right do these novels come to life. The books then turn quietly lyrical, quivering with a delight in social success—and why not? Eliot’s description of the House of Lords, for example, in Last Things, does not evoke the House of Lords for us, or even the feeling of what it is like to be there. It does evoke, unintentionally perhaps, the pleasure of being able to talk about the House of Lords in an offhand manner. “It was a Wednesday afternoon, about half-past five, the benches not half-full, but, as peers drifted in from tea….”
Lewis Eliot is a Dick Whittington, a poor boy who has made good and is proud of it, and, paradoxically, his strongest quality as a person dooms him as a narrator. Throughout the series, Snow makes much of the idea of a healthy selfishness, which is what characterizes Eliot. An enviable quality in many ways, no doubt, admirable …