On re-reading C.P. Snow

I’ve been reading Stefan Collini’s edition of Leavis’s Richmond Lecture, which is terrific (the edition, I mean) because Collini brings out what’s important in the lecture – and what was obscured by Leavis’s vitriolic abuse of Snow. I’m thinking particularly of the passage where he discusses Snow’s literary reputation and says “as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is”.

Given that at the time Snow was regarded as a serious novelist by the chattering classes, this full-on assault shocked people. It led me to dig out my copy of Snow’s novel, The Masters, which is based around the vicious academic (and personal) politics involved in electing a new Master of a supposedly fictional Cambridge college (which is closely modelled on Snow’s own college – Christ’s — in the mid- to late 1930s. I had read the novel as a teenager and been naïvely impressed by it at the time – not least because of the glimpse it purported to give of what went on inside the magic circle of Oxbridge colleges. In the light of Leavis’s assault what, I wondered, would it look like now?

Well, it’s terrible – wooden and stodgy. None of the characters really live – I was reminded of the jibe that someone once made about Snow: that he did not so much create characters as take facsimiles of them out to lunch in his club.

So as a work of fiction, The Masters, fails to make the grade. Where it does succeed, however, is as a piece of amateur anthropology because it presents what I guess is a pretty accurate picture of what Christ’s — and Cambridge — was like in the 1930s. The college then was rather small, and the Fellowship was tiny – 13 fellows and a Master. And dons (i.e. academics) were so much better paid then: in the novel one of the Fellows owns a house on Chaucer Road; and another has a substantial pile on the Madingley Road, near the Observatory. No academic nowadays could afford a house in either location. That privilege is reserved for hedge-fund managers, corporate lawyers and CEOs of tech companies.

Interestingly, after concluding his story, Snow adds a factual appendix which provides a rather good – and very interesting – history of the evolution of the Oxbridge college system. It would provide a usefully concise answer to the tourist’s legendary question (addressed to a Cambridge academic): “Excuse me sir, but where exactly is the University?” (To which the time-honoured answer is: “You know, that’s a very good question.”)

LATER: Sean French emails to say: “That anecdote about the tourist in Cambridge is used (about Oxford) by Gilbert Ryle in ‘The Concept of Mind’ to demonstrate the concept of a category error. There is something very, very donnish about the idea that to understand the mind, you need to have a grasp of the Oxbridge college system. Redbrick philosophers need not apply!”

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