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CP Snow, an overview

· 23 June 2006 |  by Janantoon
· Published in: Engelse literatuur · English texts  |  2 Comments
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CP Snow CP Snow (Charles Percy) was born in 1905, one year before my grandfather. He was to become Lord Snow, a well-known scientist, politician and writer, but his first years were humble enough.
His parents lived in Leicester, where his father was a clerk in a shoe factory. Strangely enough, he acted as a church organist while being a life-long socialist.
They had four sons. Charles (known as Percy until he married in 1950) was the second. The youngest was Philip, who was very close to Charles and wrote a fine biography. Cricket, reading and table tennis were favourite pastimes of the young Snows.

Charles was a bright pupil at a local school where he started as a scientist (a classical education was not available). He became a student at University College, Leicester, and later made it to Cambridge. He went to Christ’s College where he became a Fellow in 1930.
There he became a close friend of the famous older mathematician G.H. Hardy. Snow wrote a biographical introduction to Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s Apology”.

Although he was schooled as a scientist, his hidden agenda was to become a writer. Still at Cambridge he wrote his first novel “Death under Sail” (1932), a whodunnit modelled by the Agatha Christie classics. In 1934 came “The Search”.
But what is really impressive is that Snow conceived in that period the idea for a novel sequence of ten or eleven novels. Many people make big long term plans, but few realize them. Snow really did write eleven novels in the “Strangers and Brothers” sequence. The first one was published in 1940, the last in 1970!
But, before going deeper into the Strangers and Brothers sequence, let’s follow his biography. In 1939 he became a civil servant, a career that lasted nearly twenty years. “During the War he was with the Ministry of Labour, where he was responsible for the allocation of scientific personnel, and after the War he was appointed consultant for the recruitment of scientists to government service. From 1945 to 1960 he served as a Civil Service Commissioner. In 1947, after serving as an adviser for three years, he became a member of the Board of Directors of the English Electric Company. With Labour’s victory in 1964 Snow resumed his official connection with government – as Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Technology and as Lord Snow, of Leicester.” (Jerome Thale) Much of these connections with high civil servants and with government will be found in his novels.
In 1950 he married Pamela Hansford Johnson, who was a novelist herself. They had one son together, Philip.

In the 1950’s he became famous. The publication in 1951 of The Masters made his name as a writer. But apart from this, Snow was something like a pundit. He had been writing for a popular scientific magazine, he wrote for The Times Literary Supplement and when television started he was often asked in talking programs. This culminated when he was asked to give the Rede Lecture in 1959.

Strangers and Brothers

The series traces the career of Lewis Eliot from his boyhood in a provincial town, through law school and years as a fellow at Cambridge, to an important government position; in many respects Eliot’s career parallels that of Snow himself. Although the series has been read as a study of power, or as an analysis of the relationship between science and the community, it is primarily a perceptive and frequently moving delineation of changes in English life during the 20th century. The novels in the series are:
Strangers and Brothers (1940)
The Light and the Dark (1952)
Time of Hope (1949)
The Masters (1951), which is set in an “Oxbridge” college and depicts the closed politics and power struggle between the Fellows when they have to choose a new Master. Two opposing candidates emerge and with them two parties, fighting an ever more fierce election. In this novel we already see the nucleus of the idea of The Two Cultures: Arts versus Sciences.
The New Men (1954), set in the second World War with British scientist working hard to help the military. But they become uneasy when the possibility of a nuclear weapon is hinted at.
Homecomings (1956)
The Conscience of the Rich (1958)
The Affair (1960), again the college of The Masters is the scene. The college dismissed a Fellow for scientific fraud, but the decision is fiercely contested in what looks like a new Dreyfus Affair.
Corridors of Power (1964), a fine view into the machinations of national and international politics.
The sleep of reason (1968), a moving novel about a trial for the killing of a child.
Last Things (1970)

Snow’s other novels include his first novel Death under Sail (1932), The Search (1934), In Their Wisdom (1974), and A Coat of Varnish (1979).
Science and Government (1961), a collection of essays concerning the vocation of the scientist; biographical studies such as A Variety of Men (1967), The Realists (1978), and The Physicists (1981); and Public Affairs (1971), a collection of lectures about the benefits and dangers of technology.
Snow is most remembered for his 1959 Rede Lecture: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, which triggered off a remarkable public discussion. Here he notes that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities is a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.

More on CP Snow



  1. Cressida says:

    Hello, Jan
    I am interested in finding out more about CP Snow’s wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. It would be great if you had any tips for where I might look.
    Your website is an inspiration to readers: fantastic!
    Pablo Neruda’s autobriography was a book which I much enjoyed – despite his tendency to boast!
    best wishes,

  2. L.J Taylor says:

    Firstly, let me say how thrilled I am to find this article about C.P Snow. It presents a perfect introduction to the man and his work.

    He died the year I was born and it would appear (with the exception of occasional references to his Two Cultures lecture) his work has been in eclipse ever since. I discovered him through Anthony Burgess’ 99 Novels list, which includes the entire Strangers and Brothers series as a single entry. I quickly read In Their Widsom, as a kind of taster, and being highly impressed by its subtlety and humanity, decided to collect all eleven volumes of Strangers and Brothers (all old Penguin paperbacks, most of them with covers illustrated by David Gentleman).

    That was in 2006 and now I am looking to read them all through the course of this year. However, I am unsure as to the order in which they should (ideally) be read. Until now I have been torn between reading them in the order they were written in or in the chronology of the narrative (beginning with Time of Hope, according to Wikipedia). I understand that each book is self contained but as I am looking to get the most out of reading all eleven in quick succession I want to be certain there isn’t an ideal order. As I intend to start really soon I am eager to make the right choice and therefore open to suggestions. Can anybody help?