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Snow, Charles Percy, Baron Snowfree

(1905–1980)
  • Stanley Weintraub

Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow (1905–1980)

by Mark Gerson, 1966

© Mark Gerson; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Snow, Charles Percy, Baron Snow (1905–1980), writer and scientific administrator, was born at 40 Richmond Road, Leicester, on 15 October 1905, the second of four sons of William Edward Snow (1869–1954) and his wife, Ada Sophia Robinson (1871–1944). William Snow was a clerk in a shoe factory and a church organist.

Education and early career

From Miss Martin's grandiloquently christened Beaumanor School of three small rooms he entered, at eleven, Alderman Newton's School for boys, at £5 a term. He excelled at every subject but woodwork and gymnastics, acquiring a reputation for an astonishing memory and, despite needing thick glasses, prowess at football and cricket. He would remain devoted to cricket and found joy in its statistics.

Although he became an external student in science at London University on scholarship in 1923, the Leicester, Leicestershire, and Rutland University College (later Leicester University) had no chemistry or physics department until 1925. Snow bridged the gap as a laboratory assistant at Newton's, reading, meanwhile, the great European novelists from Balzac to Proust. He followed his first-class degree with an MSc degree in 1928 and secured the nationally competitive Keddey-Fletcher-Warr studentship at £200 p.a., using it at Cambridge for research at the Cavendish Laboratory. Snow became a fellow of Christ's College in September 1930, having completed a PhD dissertation, 'The infra-red spectra of simple diatomic molecules'. The 'Cavendish boys', as he called them, were a brilliant generation with whom Snow would work in peace and in war, putting them into his novels in recognizable guises. 'The place', he recalled, 'was stiff with Nobel Prize winners' (Halperin, 18, 21).

From 1934 to 1945 he was a college tutor, although the title became nominal as he moved into other activities, novelizing his experience in The Search (1934). He had already written a never-to-be published novel about 'young men and women at a provincial university' (Weintraub, 1). It would be the germ for Strangers and Brothers (1940), which begins in a setting much like Leicester as he knew it. Seeing himself not as a breakthrough scientist of the order of some of his Cambridge peers, with his work on infra-red spectroscopy going nowhere (he had already switched to crystallography), he experimented further in fiction. Death under Sail (1932) was a detective thriller set near Cambridge on the Norfolk broads, and New Lives for Old (1933)—published anonymously—was science fiction in the manner of H. G. Wells. It combined two of his interests, biological chemistry and politics, and imagined the social and political repercussions of the discovery of a rejuvenating hormone. The Search proved more prophetic of his future, as it dealt with the morality of science and the pursuit of a scientific career (as opposed to the search for scientific truth).

In the mid-thirties—Snow recalled 1 January 1935—he began Strangers and Brothers, the title becoming the eponymous George Passant when he borrowed the original for his cycle of eleven novels drawing upon his own experience through the later 1960s. As a scientist, he later conceded, 'I should never have been much better than a goodish orthodox English professional—probably looking a bit better than I was because I'm bright' (Halperin, 53). Writing seemed a better path. While at Cambridge he began publishing general scientific articles in Nature in 1934 and in The Spectator in 1936, and became editor of Discovery ('the popular journal of knowledge') in 1937, taking it in April 1938 to Cambridge University Press, where he drew distinguished contributors.

Administrative and political career

One of Snow's Discovery editorials in 1939 predicted an atomic bomb, a subject he regretted raising when the Second World War broke out, an event which interrupted his novel cycle just as it was emerging into print. Discovery itself became a wartime casualty in March 1940, when Snow was already involved in a group organized by the Royal Society to deploy British scientific talent, operating under the Ministry of Labour. By 1942 Snow was its director of technical personnel. Working under Lord Hankey, chairman of the cabinet's scientific advisory committee, Snow expedited the mobilizing of scientists for work on radar, the atomic bomb, and other high-priority military technology.

As the urgency abated, Snow became a civil service commissioner in charge of recruiting scientists to post-war government work. He also returned to writing. A director of English Electric by the late 1940s, he remained part-time until he entered the government in 1964. For his public services he had already become CBE in 1943, and a knight in 1957. In 1964 he became a life peer as Baron Snow of the city of Leicester when he joined Harold Wilson's first government as parliamentary secretary of the newly created (but soon to vanish) Ministry of Technology. When the ministry ceased to exist on the demise of the Wilson regime, Snow became an outspoken back-bencher in the Lords. There he continued what he was already doing in fiction and in public life to interpret science to the laity, and to create a recognition of the crucial role of technology to humanity's future.

'The two cultures'

Snow had remained in the public eye through his fiction, book criticism for the Sunday Times, and thoughtful pieces for a variety of intellectual weeklies on both sides of the Atlantic. His most influential essay appeared in the New Statesman (6 October 1956). In 'The two cultures' he charged that ignorance of modern science by professed humanists was as harmful to society as ignorance of the arts ('the traditional culture') by narrowly focused scientists. The ensuing controversy led to his Rede lectures at Cambridge, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), in which Snow contended that the imaginative insights once the monopoly of philosophers, theologians, and artists were no longer sufficient to accommodate a world in irreversible scientific and technological change.

Continuing to espouse the reorientation of perspectives in education and in decision making, Snow delivered the Godkin lectures at Harvard in 1960, published in 1961 with a postscript as Science and Government. Here he warned against the undue influence which scientists with political agendas acquire when political leaders are ignorant of science, pointing to examples from his experience in the Second World War.

Again his message was that the political misunderstandings of the technologically illiterate were as dangerous as the misuse of science, a contention he laid out cogently before the American Association for the Advancement of Science (27 December 1960), published widely thereafter as 'The moral un-neutrality of science'. The doctrine of the ethical independence of science, he argued, could not be sustained, and constituted moral blindness. Whatever the aesthetic elegance of its claimed purity, science in its applications impacted upon society. The 'moral nature of the scientific activity' required moral responsibility.

Inevitably, attacks followed from scientists unwilling to grant any impurity to basic research, and from humanists who saw Snow's inclusive view of culture as debasing values. The most notorious tirade came in the Richmond lecture of F. R. Leavis in 1962, which saw relationships between Snow's pragmatism and the allegedly pedestrian prose of his novels—charges which injured Snow's reputation and clouded Leavis's already controversial reputation as provocateur. Snow's public life went on. His Trollopian novel cycle was still incomplete and his honours had not yet been capped by his peerage.

Personal life

Although his affairs with women became grist for his novels, two women whom Snow would subsume into the later fiction did not even enter his life until the sequence was plotted out. Anne Seagrim had been his post-war secretary, and close companion, but their intimacy had been interrupted in 1949 by Pamela Helen Hansford Johnson (1912–1981), a novelist, then married, whom he had first met in 1941. Known to family and friends by his middle name, he became Charles to Pamela, and kept to it thereafter. After divorcing her first husband, Gordon Stewart, she married Snow on 14 July 1950. (The marriage seemed personally and professionally a success, but in 1957 Snow began seeing Anne Seagrim again. His wife apparently never knew.)

The only child of the Snows, Philip Charles Hansford, was born on 26 August 1952 in Cambridge. They had lived at 20 Hyde Park Place in London with Pamela's two children from her earlier marriage; with the addition to the family imminent they moved to Nethergate, a Jacobean house in the Suffolk village of Clare. (Snow retained a flat for business weekdays in London.) The arrangement failed as neither could drive a car and Pamela felt isolated from the literary scene. In January 1957 they returned to London, leasing the ground floor at 199 Cromwell Road, which they retained until 1968 when, with mounting book earnings and literary status as well as his peerage demanding a more appropriate address, they purchased the lease of 85 Eaton Terrace in Belgravia. The novel cycle was near its close; Snow was overwhelmed by lecturing requests and offers of honorary doctorates; he had become rector of St Andrews University in 1961; he was about to begin a decade of influential weekly reviews for the Financial Times. Snow was offered the Sunday Times post after writing to Leonard Russell, (who thought he looked like 'everyone's idea of a wizard scientist'): 'For an art to consist of a popular entertainment side and an esoteric prestige side is in the long run death … Books are meant to be read' (H. Hobson, P. Knightley, and L. Russell, Pearl of Days: an Intimate Memoir of the ‘Sunday Times’, 1822–1972, 1972, 222–5). Snow's owlish, spectacled face, heavy jowls, bald dome, and ponderous frame, often accoutered in a shapeless suit, and his inevitable cigarette in hand, were recognizable worldwide.

Snow's novel series

The eleventh and final novel of Strangers and Brothers appeared in 1970. As early as 1945 he had envisioned a sequence of eleven interrelated fictions with a single narrative voice—a lawyer-bureaucrat and alter ego, Lewis Eliot. In various forms, some later discarded, he completed nearly a third of the cycle while the war went on, writing confidently to his brother Philip that March: 'Each of the novels, except perhaps Vol XI, will be intelligible if read separately, but the series is planned as one integral work of art and I should like it so considered and judged' (Snow, 102). Although he planned then to depict a variety of characters from 1920 into 1950, 'from the dispossessed to Cabinet Ministers', and to finish the cycle in five years, events in his life and the need to dismantle portions of the work and reconfigure it kept him writing into the later 1960s, with the narrative running into 1965 and even beyond. In Last Things (1970) there is even, as appendix, an 'Announcements—1964–1968', ostensibly in most cases from The Times—marriage and birth and death notices for plot strands unaccommodated in the final pages.

In the letter to his brother, Snow had added,

For each major character, the narrator is occupied with the questions: How much of his fate is due to the accident of his class and time? … All the societal backgrounds are authentic. I have lived in most of them myself; and one or two I have not lived in I know at very close second-hand.

Snow, 102

Only the first novel had then been published. The Light and the Dark, set in the immediate pre-war and early war years, appeared in 1947, and focused upon a manic-depressive but brilliant scholar of Manichaean texts (thus the title) who becomes a bomber pilot in the hope he will be killed. Time of Hope (1949) reached back into Eliot's Snow-like early years, and The Masters (1951), possibly the most admired work in the series, may be the best academic novel in English. Using the microcosmic world of a Cambridge college in the throes of electing a new master, Snow fashioned memorable portraits of the ambitious and those conspiring on behalf of others, and laid bare the ramifications of power. Externally, the year is 1937 and the political context is that of appeasement and imminent war, the outside world mirroring what Snow called the 'ironic sadness' of the conclusion.

The New Men (1954), fifth to be published, covers the years 1939 to 1946, from the planning for an atomic bomb to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moral and career crises intertwine. The major figure is Eliot's politically radical younger brother Martin, whose relationship to a scientist about to defect creates a crisis larger, as it is personal, than the bomb, which is beyond individual control. Implicit in the narrative is the relationship of the American Oppenheimer brothers, Robert and Frank. Homecomings (the final letter is omitted in American editions), published two years later, continued the narrator's own story as begun in Time of Hope. While the first was in the tradition of man-from-the-provinces novels, and focused upon the conflicts between possessive love and lust for power, perhaps related drives, Homecomings concerns ambition and failure, the latter coming early when the unhappy heroine, Eliot's wife, is a suicide. The novel then returns to Eliot's bureaucratic ambitions in wartime, his falling in love again, this time with a married woman, and, after their marriage, the dangerous illness of their child (Snow's novels are full of medical matters), which brings Eliot to consider the relative values of ambition and love.

As traditional in craftsmanship as the others, The Conscience of the Rich, finished much earlier, appeared finally in 1958. Based upon a wealthy and talented Anglo-Jewish family to which Snow was close in the 1930s, the novel concerns what Eliot called in Time of Hope 'the sick conscience of the rich'—or liberal guilt (Halperin, 65). 'It was the sort of thing', Snow recalled in an interview, 'which fairly prosperous people in the thirties in particular felt rather acutely—that they oughtn't to be rich, and that if they were rich then they ought to be doing something other than what they were doing'. Rich in its domestic atmosphere, it also closely mirrors the external world—it is the period of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism. Already involved are the sophisticated Marches. Eliot is mesmerized by them, 'fascinated by the sheer machinery of their lives. They were the first rich family I had known. In those first months it was their wealth that took my attention more, not their Jewishness'.

The Affair (1960) returns to the internal politics of Eliot's college as the fellows, many of them mediocrities if not drones, consider what to do about a brilliant—and politically radical—young colleague who, in his rush to forge a career, apparently fakes some of his scientific results. In the twenties and thirties Snow knew such cases, especially the notorious Rupp affair in German physics, but his title, to hint at prejudice beyond science, comes from the Dreyfus affair. Since literal justice requires killing off a more-than-promising career, the quality of justice is central; however, the intrusion of politics into judgements remains a Snow theme.

The title of Snow's ninth novel, The Corridors of Power (1964) was to enter the language. Again public and private concerns interact, this time on the ministerial level during the mid-1950s, including the period of Suez, but the public issue, Snow confides in a prefatory note, turns on an 'unresolvable complication'. Eliot, largely here an observer, listens to the ambitious Roger Quaife, whose philosophy is 'The first thing is to get power. The next—is to do something with it'.

Tenth in the cycle was The Sleep of Reason (1968), based upon the notorious moors murders that appalled Britain in 1965–6. The novel was as close to a collaboration as spousal authors can achieve without actually writing the same book, as Pamela covered the trial for the Sunday Telegraph, publishing afterwards a non-fiction account, On Iniquity (1967). Taking his title from a Goya caption to a series of phantasmagoric etchings, 'The sleep of reason produces monsters', Snow fictionalized the repellent material, adding some echoes of the Loeb and Leopold case that mesmerized Chicago in the 1920s—two young homosexuals had sought the near-sexual thrill of killing someone. A powerful near-Dostoyevskian novel that returns to the cycle some of its earliest protagonists, it finds Eliot drawn into the case by his unreliable friend George Passant. The book broods upon the doctrine of ‘diminished responsibility’ and its application to crimes as relatively minor as the case in question but applicable even to Auschwitz. 'Morality', Eliot reflects, 'existed only in action'. Its theme harks back to The Light and the Dark.

After nearly 2 million words, the cycle ended with Last Things (1970), which brought closure to its characters if not to the questions which Snow had raised, and included an event as autobiographical as any he had written. Eliot 'dies'—but only, his doctor tells him, for 'between three-and-a-half and three-and-three-quarters minutes'. As Eliot was undergoing surgery for a detached retina, his heart had stopped and his chest had to be opened to massage the muscle back into activity. 'Now you know', the surgeon adds. 'I bring you no news from the other world', Eliot responds grimly from beneath his bandages. And the experience—actually its aftermath—reshapes his values about public and private behaviour.

Last years

The experience of cardiac arrest was Snow's own, as was the eye surgery, even to the date, as in the novel, of 28 November 1965. He could not forget thereafter, as he confided in an interview, that the nearly four minutes in the beyond were beyond memory as 'Nothing, absolutely nothing' (Halperin, 224). He remained 'a pious unbeliever' (ibid., 10).

Compulsively, Snow kept writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Three further novels appeared—The Malcontents (1972), In their Wisdom (1974), and A Coat of Varnish (1978). His non-fiction included a short life of Trollope (1974), and two biographical collections: The Realists: Portraits of Eight Novelists (1975), and posthumously, The Physicists: a Generation that Changed the World (1981), both in the vein of his earlier Variety of Men (1967), which included memories of friends and acquaintances such as Rutherford, G. H. Hardy, and Einstein. Poor health plagued him but he continued to travel and lecture. Returning from his last American visit in 1978, both he and Pamela had to be deplaned in wheelchairs. Still he remained active as writer and critic until hospitalized on 1 July 1980, dying that afternoon of a perforated ulcer. A private cremation took place three days later at Putney Vale, London. No portraits were painted of Snow, who claimed to be too busy for sittings.

As novelist, Snow will be remembered largely for his Strangers and Brothers cycle, its rather flat style mirroring its narrator, who observes, from the inside, English society and politics from the First World War to Suez. His civil servant role during the Second World War was sensitive, secret, and seemingly successful. As a philosopher of science and social organization he publicized in memorable language, and in ways only a highly visible personality could do, some key issues of modern technological civilization, bestriding, and interpreting to each other, the ‘two cultures’.

Sources

  • P. Snow, Stranger and brother: a portrait of C. P. Snow (1982)
  • J. Halperin, C. P. Snow: an oral biography (1983)
  • J. Thale, C. P. Snow (1965)
  • P. Hansford Johnson, Important to me: personalia (1974)
  • S. Weintraub, ed., C. P. Snow: a spectrum (1963)
  • D. Schusterman, C. P. Snow (1975)
  • private information (2004) [P. Snow]
  • m. cert.

Archives

  • Eton, letters
  • Ransom HRC, corresp. and literary papers
  • BBC WAC, television contributors, file 1
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Jack W. Lambert
  • CUL, corresp. with W. A. Gerhardie; corresp. with A. V. Hill; letters to Gordon Sutherland
  • RS, Blackett MSS
  • U. Birm. L., corresp. with Francis Brett Young; letters to Jessica Brett Young
  • University of Bristol Library, DM 1107

Film

  • BFINA

Sound

  • BL NSA
  • Hunt. L., tapes of Halperin oral history

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£312,677: probate, 4 Sept 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)