In dark times, I turn back to books that I first read decades ago and have re-read since, often more than once. It’s an eclectic lot: fiction by Robertson Davies, Penelope Fitzgerald, Olivia Manning, John O’Hara, and Dorothy Sayers; non-fiction by Tracy Kidder, Ved Mehta, Goronwy Rees, and Rebecca West; cartoons by Posy Simmonds, and more. I read to enjoy their styles and their skill at telling stores: but also to revisit the worlds they created, to renew my familiarity with them and remind myself of what I have forgotten.
Rather like the legendary couple of whom someone, struggling to understand their mutual attraction, cracked, “Well, they are both carbon-based life forms,” these books seem pretty disparate. But all of them help me find calm at night, particularly now, when the shadows gather and the future looks even darker than the present. And all of them offer something more: something that might be called wisdom — or prudence.
None of my personal classics has given me more rewards than an unfashionable series by an unfashionable writer: 11 books in C. P. Snow’s series Strangers and Brothers, a chronicle of one man’s experience of twentieth-century English history that appeared between 1940 and 1970. They were designed, in scale and in ambition, to rival Balzac and Trollope, and though they don’t reach that high standard of social and historical insight, they do things that matter to me. Like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, or Michael Holroyd’s brick-sized biographies of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, they help me learn in satisfyingly rich detail about parts of the past that I don’t study as a historian — and, I would argue, about myself.
A word about Snow. In his day, he was both a successful, prolific writer and a prominent public figure. His first career, as a scientist, took him to Cambridge. When he realized that he would not become a star, he transformed his failure and change of plans into a novel, The Search (1934). Soon he was writing articles for Nature and the Spectator. During and after the war, he worked successfully in the civil service. Then and later he conceived and executed Strangers and Brothers, and wrote and spoke endlessly on literature, science, and politics. He was a celebrity.
But he is out of fashion, and the society he captured in these novels seems almost quaint. More important, he is best remembered for an intellectual battle that almost everyone thinks he lost. Generations of critics have savaged the theory about “the two cultures,” scientific and literary, that he set out in his 1959 Rede Lecture. The historian Guy Ortolano showed, in a fine study of the ensuing controversy that Snow’s most pertinacious — even vicious — assailant, the literary critic F. R. Leavis, had more sympathy for scientific education than Snow did for the study of literature, and argued powerfully that Snow, who cast himself as the prophet of modernity, had a highly blinkered version of his own time.
Yet Snow — who as a civil servant recruited scientists for military and government work, and eventually served in Harold Wilson’s first Labour government — understood something important about the way that otherwise well-educated, but scientifically under-informed, people, tried to understand the technical and technological changes of the twentieth century. Lisa Jardine, a literary scholar and historian who did important work in medical policy, argued in a 2009 anniversary celebration of the Rede lecture, that Snow worried about the future because he knew so much about the recent past. During World War II, as a civil servant, Snow had seen Churchill and other leaders, men with little knowledge of science, faced with decisions that hinged on scientific arguments. They could not judge the data presented to them, and they did not understand its implications.
As a result, their decisions were hit or miss at best. Radar, which won official backing, played a vital role in the air defense of England. So did code breaking, a story still secret when Snow spoke in 1959. But there were also terrible errors. England’s air campaign against Germany, whose proponents had won support for it with dubious statistical arguments, cost 160,000 of Britain’s finest warriors, killed hundreds of thousands of working-class Germans, and destroyed historic cities and archives, to little or no strategic effect. More broadly, the false memory of air power’s strategic effect in World War II would be as durable as the statue of the main proponent of the British bombing campaign, Arthur Travers Harris, which still stands outside the RAF church in London. It not only shaped U.S. prosecution of the war in Vietnam, but shapes military policy to this day, in the form of selective strikes and drone warfare.
In the future, Snow believed, it would be even more vital for the decision makers to understand technical issues and make decisions based on scientific evidence. As we have seen this year, he wasn’t wrong. Boris Johnson, one of the world leaders to have fumbled the COVID-19 response, held a classical scholarship at Oxford. Most members of his Cabinet studied “the humanities (57%) and social sciences (30%), with seemingly only one minister having studied a STEM subject,” as a think tank noted in 2019. Is it an accident that Angela Merkel, trained as a physicist, dealt so much more successfully than they did with the pandemic? Probably not.
Whatever his powers as a prophet, Snow had a varied and fascinating personal history, and he reflected on it endlessly as he transformed it into fiction. He also reflected endlessly about the history of English society, from the General Strike to Austerity Britain and beyond, into the Swinging London of the sixties. The over 3,000 pages of his series of novels about English life were the work of a lifetime, much rethought and revised. A memoir by Snow’s brother Philip, Stranger and Brother, traces the frequent changes in his authorial plans.
These novels were also the history of a life lived during England’s great social transformation from a society of landed and industrial elites and working masses to the more open, more white-collar world that took shape after the war: that of Snow himself, represented by Lewis Eliot, the narrator. Like Snow, Eliot comes from a family at the border between the upper working- and lower middle-classes. Like Snow, he uses his skills at exam-taking to climb the greasy pole, rising from a civil service job and courses at a provincial college to the Inns of Court, through teaching law at Cambridge and civil service work in World War II and after to success and prosperity as a novelist.
And like Snow, Eliot remains committed to the people he chances upon. He devotes as much space and attention as a narrator to the unknown friends who set him on his way in his native town (based on Snow’s Leicester) as to the brilliant and baroquely eccentric folk he met later in Law Courts, London mansions, Cambridge colleges, and Whitehall offices. Following Lewis Eliot through the years, the reader spends as much time in poor cafes and back streets as in the sunlight, paneled rooms where the good and the great assemble.
Yet Snow is rarely mentioned now. When I first read these books, taking each one out in turn from a public library in Islington, they were still much cited and discussed, in American as well as English journalism. One or two of them — especially The Corridors of Power — were major publishing events. In the seventies, Penguin paperbacks of Snow’s novels with evocative covers by David Gentleman were everywhere. Over time, though, partly thanks to a catastrophic BBC television dramatization, they have largely disappeared, except from second-hand book shops.
Why read them then? And why now? Because Snow thought deeply about what it means to be human in a swiftly changing society. What makes his books so compelling to me, even now, is his ability to conjure up, in vivid detail, world after world; to populate these worlds with vivid personalities; and to teach his reader about what it was like to live and work in them. He brings to life Lewis Eliot’s childhood home; the teashops and pubs where he and his friends lived their time of hope in the twenties; the fellows’ rooms and common spaces of Cambridge colleges; the corridors of power in Whitehall. He draws the details, much of the time, from life, but he doesn’t simply reproduce what he saw.
When I asked a fellow of Christ’s College, where Snow spent his years in Cambridge, if the Cambridge novels depicted real people and events, he answered, “He changed some of the names.” But I don’t read Snow hoping to find the reality behind the fiction. What matters to me are his portraits of institutions and people: portraits so detailed and insightful that they have helped me understand the way people deal with one another in my own world a little better. Charles Allberry, a brilliant specialist on Manichean texts who died in World War II, served as the model for Lewis Eliot’s friend Roy Calvert, the mercurial and melancholic protagonist of the unforgettable The Light and the Dark. Friends of Allberry’s have argued that Snow badly misrepresented the original person. But that doesn’t affect my love for the book or the lessons I learn and re-learn from it. I have known many people of high achievement who suffered as Roy Calvert did: Snow taught me much about how to be a friend to them.
From Snow’s galleries of characters, the con artists and the grand ladies, the Polonian old men and the witty cynics, and from his vivid and convincing recreations of many kinds of working and social life, I have gleaned such practical wisdom as I have about how to be a friend and a colleague. His books have taught me that in a crisis, the single most important thing you can do is simply to be present. They have helped me appreciate the particular kind of speech and writing that most administrators produce, whether in universities or in government; “a curious abstract language, of which the main feature was the taking of meaning out of words.”
In our present moment, when institutions are once again under intense scrutiny for their failures, Snow’s books remind me that ancient universities with stone buildings are not necessarily as marvelous as they look. One of his characters remarks that Cambridge dons are not so much distinguished men as men who give one another distinctions. But they have also made me value one vital quality of older British (and American) institutions, which should not be lost with the haughtiness and exclusivity that are now being challenged everywhere: their tolerance for eccentric and difficult, but talented, people. This tolerance rested on the conviction that “men are as they are.” Snow’s language, and his views on gender, were those of his generation, perhaps another reason that his novels have declined in popularity. But his principles, and those of his characters, deserve consideration nonetheless. In this case, his books made me realize that an institution that has no room for difficult people and critics of conventional wisdom will rapidly dwindle into conformity and worse.
Above all, Lewis Eliot himself teaches us that a life well-lived is also, paradoxically, a series of wrong turns and poor choices, often made with sincere good will. Endlessly observant, increasingly experienced, as discreet as he is curious, he is constantly praised for his understanding of human nature.
Yet Eliot consistently makes wrong choices and backs losing horses. Confronted with two candidates for the mastership of his college, he supports the impossible one who is doomed to lose. Offered the chance to work for a government minister who hopes to lessen the risk of nuclear war, he fails to see until too late that his master is involved in an extramarital affair — or, more important, that he has put forward his policy prematurely, and thus doomed it. Struggling to keep the embattled vice-chancellor of a university in office, he manages to postpone the end only because he suddenly needs surgery. Against his advice, his friend resigns.
Watching Lewis Eliot learn and fail, learn and fail, has helped me understand how endlessly fallible I am. Old as I am, living in another moment when change moves at a breathtaking pace, this is a lesson I can’t learn too often or too well.
Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.