The Masters by C.P. Snow

The MastersSometimes you read books you think you’ll dislike, and they’re wonderful surprises. Sometimes… the opposite happens. This is one of those times.

I recently read The Masters (1951) by C.P. Snow – a 1951 novel that nobody read during the 1951 Club, incidentally. It was chosen for my book group, and I was eager to get to it. The 1951 Club taught me that it was a stellar year for literature, and Snow was one of those names that has been on my peripheries for years. I’ve read books by his wife (Pamela Hansford Johnson) and I’m sure I’ve heard him recommended somewhere.

The Masters is in the middle of the Strangers and Brothers series, published between 1940 and 1970 and covering several decades in the life of Lewis Eliot. We were assured by our book group recommender that it didn’t matter, starting in the middle – during which time he is a don at an unnamed Cambridge college. (I thought the whole series was about the college until I started this paragraph and read the Wikipedia entry for the series.) While most books in the series cover substantial periods of time, this one is only concerned with a couple of months. The college seems curiously devoid of students, or at least students who do anything noteworthy; the novel is only about the dons and their relationships.

He was the one man in the college whom I actively disliked, and he disliked me at least as strongly. There was no reason for it; we had not one value or thought in common, but that was true with others whom I was fond of; this was just an antipathy as specific as love. Anywhere but in the college we should have avoided each other. As it was, we met three or four nights a week at dinner, talked across the table, even spent, by the force of social custom, a little time together. It was one of the odd features of a college, I sometimes thought, that one lived in social intimacy with men our disliked: and, more than that, there were times when a fraction of one’s future lay in their hands. For these societies were always making elections from their own members, they filled all their jobs from among themselves, and in those elections one’s enemies took part.

And it is an election that takes centre stage in the novel. The Master has a terminal illness, and the dons (after a brief nod to the sensitivities surrounding the situation) start trying to decide who will be the next Master. This is done by a vote between the 13 dons, and two candidates quickly emerge: Jago and Crawford.

The rest of the novel is about who is voting for whom.

That’s it.

There are no real subplots, no deviation, and absolutely no reason why anybody might care who wins this election. Characterisation is laboured and yet still unfulfilling – Snow gives us a lot of words about everybody, but hardly any vitality. And every conversation is about who might vote for Jago (for Eliot is cheering him on) and who might be tempted away to Crawford. Is it all a metaphor for something? Would it have meant something else in 1951? I don’t know. I just found the whole thing went round and round in circles, and was unbearably monotonous.

I thought for a while that it was because the scene didn’t interest – having been at an Oxford college for nearly a decade, I was able to see how silly and childish many of the protocols were that older male members of college were clinging onto – but a different author could have made me care. I kept thinking how captivating it would be in the hands of Anthony Trollope. After all, the basis of The Warden is hardly scintillating, until Trollope makes it so.

So – definitely the biggest disappointment of the year so far. Not the worst book I’ve read this year, probably, but the most disappointing. All the same, I’m quite looking forward to a heated discussion at book group…