The Masters – C P Snow

6 September 2012
Part 1 – A Light in the Lodge
60-odd years after it was written, this feels like a relic. It must have seemed like that even in 1951: the setting in an ancient Cambridge college and the slow, measured style make it feel like something written in the previous century. If it was funnier it would feel like Trollope. But it isn’t Trollope, it’s C P Snow, and he seems to have only one motive for writing it: to show, step by painstaking step, how decisions are reached. The narrator, who seems to be a version of Snow himself, is an observer respected by other characters for his clear-sightedness. And in his sights is a large group of men and the operation of currents of respect, dislike, and all the other feelings that people have about one another.

The setting might be a mere college, but it’s fairly clear that this is a microcosm of a bigger world of politics. And for the men involved in deciding who is to be the next Master, they are doing the most important work imaginable. Alongside the constant reminders that the college is old and bound by ancient methods of doing everything, there is also a sense that the community has to function in the modern world. How can the wealthy industrialist be persuaded to make an endowment? How can the work of the members put the college n the intellectual map of Europe? And, at another level, how can characters who seem to represent different fields of arts and sciences be reconciled? Snow was a scientist, but knew how to straddle what he later called ‘The Two Cultures’. In The Masters he seems to want to show that there are more similarities than differences between men who happen to work in diverse fields.

The decisions they make are rarely guided by reason alone. This first third of the novel describes how the members of the college emerge, through a combination of personal inclination and careful manoeuvrings by those who are most adept at such things, into two separate factions. There have been four or five key meetings in which Snow is careful to show exactly how it works. Only one of the meetings is formal and open, the ‘First College Meeting of Term’ (Chapter 10). But by then there have been several behind closed doors in which people carefully assess the lie of the land and, in the case of certain movers and shakers, try to nudge their colleagues in one particular direction. Chrystal and, particularly, Brown lead the (at first) unacknowledged campaign for Jago, their moody but sound candidate. This is the side that Eliot, the narrator, eventually comes down on. Against them is the Crawford faction led by Winslow. We don’t like Crawford….

…And why might that be? Don’t ask me. Snow must have been giving us those imperceptible little nudges that Brown is so good at, easing us into the right faction. If it really is the right faction, of course – but I assume it is, because there’s nothing about this narrator to make us suspicious that he isn’t to be trusted. The narrative seems just too plain and uncomplicated for that.

Snow knows what he’s doing, has set up the battle neatly. Crawford’s faction is on the back foot, with four (I think) supporters to Jago’s six or seven. During the latest of those surreptitious sessions Brown tries to remind his man that it isn’t in the bag yet, but that doesn’t stop Jago afterwards wandering around the quadrangle looking as if he’s safe. And Snow doesn’t only show us how things have reached this point. He offers little explanations, like a historian, about how politicians operate differently on individuals and within groups: ’groups, even small groups, act strangely differently from individuals…’. Yep, we’ve seen this, and now Snow is summing it up for us. Groups ‘have less humour and simpler humour, are more easy to frighten, more difficult to charm…’ and so on. Yep.

So I’m loving it, right? Unfortunately not. The self-important world of academia doesn’t do it for me, especially when Snow’s narrator is so solemn about it all. Eliot takes his privileges for granted, can be blithely dismissive of ordinary men like the college servant and his ‘rubicund cunning peasant face’, and of the arid lives of the women unfortunate enough to marry into this little world. Trollope would have made Jago’s wife into a comic grotesque. Snow wants to make her a grotesque – his narrator calls her that, and ‘shrewish’ and a liability to Jago in the leadership contest – but all she is doing is trying to survive in impossible circumstances. It might be a realistic portrayal, but entertaining it isn’t. Entertainment isn’t what this novel is about at all.

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