on 12 July 2001
This is one of my all-time favoutite books, and I'm delighted to see it back in publication again. It's undeniably old-fashioned, sometimes even quaint in its style, and the pace of the story is leisurely, but it's none the worse for these qualities.
The storyline is quite simple: in an ancient Cambridge college in the 1930s, the Master lies dying. The 12 fellows have to choose his successor, and of course the real contest starts before the current Master is dead and buried. Without resorting to convoluted thriller cliches and twists, Snow produces a truly gripping novel.
There are many attractions to this book, including a fine range of characters and a quite wonderful evocation of place and period, but perhaps the aspect of it which is most important is the motivations of the characters in their choice of who to support. For some, personal politics is all that matters, for others personal charisma; the question of whether to choose a man of the arts or a man of science concerns some; for others it is a matter of personal loyalties or pure ambition - "what's in it for me?". For some fellows, motives are mixed, and changeable. To add to the complexities, while the electioneering is in process, a rich industrialist is offering a large donation to the college which will change its nature forever - to the benefit of the scientists - how will this affect the "swing voters"?
If you've never read a C.P.Snow novel before, try this one, which (unlike some others in the "Strangers & Brothers" sequence) is fully self-contained. If you like it, the other Cambrudge novels "The Light & the Dark" and "The Affair" are highly recommended too.
on 13 March 2001
It is unlikely that you will find C P Snow's The Masters in Waterstone's (and it is not surprising that until recently the work was unavailable from Amazon). More likely it festers somewhere off the beaten track, amidst charity shop regulars ... at your local 'Help The Aged' where it can usually be picked up for the same few shillings for which it first sold in 1951.
So why did The Masters temporarily fall into oblivion? Well, for one thing its subject matter - the election of a new master in a quasi-fictitious Cambridge college - is hardly what you would call exciting in the modern, Grishamesque sense. There are no cliff-hangers, no sudden revelations and (thankfully) no final twist. The characters themselves - a small group of college fellows with a 700 year old academic tradition behind them - ensure that the pace of events is well within the limits of respectability. Minor outbursts of emotion are the nearest we get to 'action', and these situations are quickly soothed by the more diplomatic members of the college.
Another reason for The Masters' obscurity is its apparent irrelevance to the modern academic mind. Unlike today's university fellows, Snow's characters have no Research Assessment Exercise to worry about. Nor do they to any real extent concern themselves with student matters (fifty years ago learning was considered pretty much the responsibility of the student). Oh, how times have changed! With the academic culture of today's universities subject to exactly the same market forces as those buffeting the under-qualified school leaver, a book about the unadulterated ivory-tower is hardly must-read stuff for those in higher education.
However, knowing only this, the discerning reader ought instinctively to feel a basic attraction to what is the greatest of Snow's 'Strangers & Brothers' novels (which themselves comprise one of the greatest literary sequences of the 20th Century). Knowing, furthermore, that at heart The Masters concerns very much a contemporary social issue the book should be hard to resist.
In The Masters, our protagonist - the semi-biographical Lewis Eliot - is confronted with a choice between two rival candidates in the election of a new college master. On the one side we have Jago, an imaginative, magnanimous and sensitive person, but one who is undistinguished as an English scholar. On the other side we have Crawford - a confident, first-rate biologist but, as a man, somewhat two-dimensional and lacking in the human qualities. Over the course of the novel we learn a lot about the candidates and even more about their colleagues, several of whom transfer support to the 'opposition' when forced to confront properly the issues at stake.
Like Eliot we today face a similar decision between the two branches of thought - the humanities and the sciences - whenever environmental or biological issues are raised in the news. Should science be master of and lead the human values, or should it operate within a humane framework? When we engage in the issue of, say, human cloning we should remember that the science-humanities debate has dominated the academic world for most of the Twentieth Century. In fact, you could say that CP Snow first articulated the debate in The Masters.
Snow himself is ambivalent towards the election result, despite his clear tendency to favour science in his 1959 'Two Cultures' speech. He is wise enough, however, to realise that the debate can never be won conclusively by one side or the other; that an alternative method of resolution must be found. The character Gay - the oldest of the college fellows - at one point expresses Snow's attempt to transcend the difficulties of counterpoising two sides of human knowledge:
"A man can do distinguished work in any [branch of learning], and we ought to have outgrown these arts and science controversies before we leave the school debating society".
In other words, it is the quality of the work (and, more importantly, the qualities of the man or woman behind the work) that counts, irrespective of the field. The Masters is in essence a study of human qualities, and of the political considerations which should assume priority over our initial(and perhaps superficial) judgements about today's scientific controversies. Snow tackled this specific issue as a humanist, and reading The Masters will surely deepen our humanity.
By general consensus this is the best of C.P.Snow's sequence of novels, Strangers and Brothers, which provides a kind of social history of Britain from the 20's to the 60's. As such, it is a complement to the better known Dance to the Music of Time. Where Powell beguiles us with a selection of somewhat outrageous characters (especially the infamous and indestructible Widmerpool), moved about his scenario with great wit and panache and where each book is usually dominated by one big set-piece scene, Snow's aims seem at first somewhat more humdrum. His characters are more like real human beings and they and their relationships are explored in greater depth and with more humanity.
Snow's main focus throughout the series is politics in all its forms. In The Masters, this takes the form of the intense internal politics of a Cambridge college, electing its new Master in the period just before the War. It is always when the plot-line and the thrust of the narrative is at its strongest that Snow excels in this sequence of books. It allows his comprehensively developed cast of characters to interact with real dynamism and drama. The relationships become more compelling when there is such a strong focus to their behaviour. Our sympathies are more fully engaged as we wait to see how the votes will finally line up for our chosen (because he's chosen by our protagonist) candidate.
Snow is excellent at evoking the almost eremitic life in a relatively small Cambridge college between the Wars. And he peoples this world with an array of totally believable dons from the young and ambitious to the old and eccentric, from dry rational scientists to the more emotionally led dealers in the humanities.
The key to the success of The Masters is that it is a page-turner. We want to know what happens next. We want to see the effect of the twists and turns of the plot on characters we have come to care about and understand. And that is not always true of the other books in the series.
on 26 May 2014
This is one of my favourite novels ... ever!
Having briefly served as a Fellow of an Oxford College I have always enjoyed reading novels set in academia. My own short-lived Fellowship, at Oriel College, was during the mid-1980s, almost fifty years after the events in this novel were set, and The Masters is set in that other place, over in the fens. However, I could recognise so much of what happened in this book. The conversations between the Fellows, the orotundity of speech, the rigidity and formality of their manners … it all just seemed like yesterday!
I first read The Masters thirty years ago (probably to the month), as I ploughed through the whole of C P Snow's eleven volume semi-autobiographical novel sequence Strangers and Brothers. I remember from that first reading that I considered this novel, and indeed the sequence as a whole, as being curiously lacking in emotion. I enjoyed this volume more than the rest, but didn't really think of it again until five or six years later, when the Conservative Party went through its internal leadership selection process to appoint a successor to Margaret Thatcher after she was ousted in November 1990. It occurred to me then to re-read this novel, and I was amazed - it seemed to be a different book to the one I had read a few years earlier - it positively seethes with emotion.
The book was written in the 1950s but is set in 1937 in an unnamed Cambridge College (generally believed to be King's, where Snow himself had been a Fellow before the war). Like the rest of the sequence it is narrated by Lewis Eliot, a barrister who has been a Fellow of the College for about three years, and who still keeps up his private practice in London. Eliot has had his own personal turmoils in the past and had decided to pursue the field of academic law for a while as a form of emotional rehabilitation.
The novel opens with the news that the Master of the College has just been diagnosed as terminally ill, and is expected to die within the next few months. The remaining Fellows have to elect a successor from among themselves, and it soon emerges that there are only two candidates likely to draw any viable support: Dr Redvers Crawford, an eminent physiologist, and Dr Paul Jago, an English scholar scarcely known beyond the walls of the College, but viewed as having great insight into people and known for the ambition of his ideas. Crawford is to the left of centre politically while Jago is a true blue reactionary.
Snow captures the different personalities, and animosities, marvellously. There are bitter rivalries, jealousies and conflicting aspirations, all of which prey upon the Fellows and render the forthcoming election particularly sensitive. Among the Fellows there is a wide range of scholarly accomplishment. Some have achieved success and recognition far beyond the ivory tower while others have lost their way after a promising start. The portrayal of the Senior Fellow, Professor M H L Gay, is particularly effective. He is a medievalist, renowned and honoured around the world for his success in translating the Icelandic sagas, and never tires of reminding his fellow Fellows about his honorary degrees.
The tension mounts as the old master's health gradually fails, and the election draws closer. Snow's dissection of the emotions of a tight-knit group of colleagues and the relations they have to maintain is utterly engaging, and grips the reader with the same compulsion as the best spy or mystery stories. Since re-reading it in 1990 I seem to read it again every two or three years, and the conclusion and the various twists still contrive to surprise me.
on 19 June 2015
My first Strangers and Brothers novel, read as I greatly admired Snow's intelligence and perception in his description of 20th century Physics (The Physicists) and the Two Cultures. Best of all I found, his lengthy foreword to G.H.Hard's " a Mathematician's Apology", a great piece of writing.
I'm not familiar with the world of Cambridge Don's but found this a gripping story and very convincing. Its pace is slow but I liked this as I suspect it reflected the pace of life in a Cambridge college (Not for the undergrads of course ). In everything I have read so far by Snow he captures the dialogue, opinion and morality of the time very accurately (in my opinion) and his penetration and insight into human nature (which changes little with time) I find even more perceptive. There are no heroes and villains-just stronger and weaker , greater and lesser, better and worse,foolish and smart aspects of the same characters mixed as in real life. We are all shades of grey and to find a black or white marking is unusual and it may vanish and reappear as time progresses.
A great novel, gripping in its enjoyably leisurely way, and I suspect a very accurate rendering of a Cambridge Don's life between the wars.
on 7 May 2012
A thoroughly engrossing classic about the goings-on in a pre-World War 2 college as scholarly factions decide on who should be elected to the position of Master on the death of the incumbent.
Penetrating and compassionate insights into the hearts and minds of men, their ambitions, their complex and decorous relationships, their friendships and enmities. Their lives and characters are laid bare with a style of writing that is sinuously articulate, taut, engaging and always deeply moving. The hot-house atmosphere of the college is evoked in the reader's imagination as vividly as through any masterly screenplay. Strongly recommended.
"Academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low" has been attributed to people as diverse as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Kissinger (OK, so not that diverse!). When I was studying for my own masters degree one of my lecturers put forward a theory that the level of politics within an organisation varies in inverse proportion to the physical output produced by it, and went on - I always assumed from personal experience - to say that when it came to infighting universities were only surpassed by organised religion. The latter has often been written about (e.g. The Complete Barchester Chronicles), and many campus novels address the former (The History Man,The Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and, The Lyre of Orpheus): What's Bred in the Bone, The Rebel Angels, The Lyre of Orpheus, pretty much anything by David Lodge). However this probably outdoes them all. The whole Strangers and Brothers series is about the use of power to achieve specific aims and this book deals with very little besides an example of that occurring within a very small group of people with the prize being of frankly no importance to anyone else. I don't think anyone would claim that Snow was a brilliant writer (although he knew how to coin a phrase), but in what is widely regarded as the best book in the series he manages to make the reader care about the outcome of this unimportant election and believe in the actions of those involved.
The book contains an appendix in which Snow provides those of us who didn't attend Oxbridge with some of the background as to how colleges came about and why they were the way that they were in the 1930s. Interestingly, to me anyway, the information in the appendix doesn't address the main structural flaw in the plot: why doesn't the outgoing master simply resign when his wife speaks to him on the day after the feast?
on 27 October 2015
This is the best entry in the Strangers and Brothers series, which in its entirety is unreadable today, being sadly dated and pedestrian. With The Masters Snow struck gold 1) because it is a masterly portrayal of politics at work, through the prism of a Cambridge college election process, and 2) because it recaptures, as no other novel does, the sealed off, stifling, intellectually challenging but socially restricted world of mid-war Cambridge. Fascinating to read today if only because that world has vanished altogether, even though the architecture, the topography of the colleges and the rituals of collegiate life survive as a reminder of how it once was.
on 25 October 2007
This is a wonderful book. At first to a reader mainly of fiction history there would not be much of interest here, but the way that Snow brings the politics to life of electing a new Master for the college is absolutely brilliant. The different machinations and motivations is handled well and this book made me want to explore the rest of the Snow books.
on 7 November 2014
I have come back to this book many times over the years. It describes a Cambridge life which had vanished even when I first went up to Clare Coege in 1971. The legacy, and lesson, of The Masters is, of course, that the "good side" was wrong. Even as The Masters progresses, Crawford shows up better than his self-obsessed rival. The weakness of the book is also its strength - how on earth did so many of the Fellowship think that Paul Jago would be a better Master than Crawford?