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The English novelist and physicist Charles Percy Snow wrote eleven books as part of his “Strangers and Brothers” series. They all concern the pursuit of ambition and exercise of power in mid-20th century Britain. The fourth takes place within the closed walls of a college in Cambridge two years before England entered World War II. Several dons are in the process of electing a new Master to lead the college. In this month’s Readers’ Review, we discuss “The Masters” and its depiction of personal and academic politics.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. "The Masters," by C.P. Snow, has been called the best academic novel in English. It's set in a Cambridge college in 1937. Talk outside the college is of appeasement and imminent war, but inside, former friends become enemies as the election of a new Master looms. Joining me in the studio for this month's, "Readers' Review," Milton Greenberg, professor emeritus of government at American University, Frances Steed Sellers of The Washington Post and Philip Terzian of The Weekly Standard. Since this is a "Readers' Review," we do welcome your calls throughout the hour, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or send a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. MILTON GREENBERGGood morning.
MS. FRANCES STEED SELLERSGood morning, Diane.
MR. PHILIP TERZIANGood morning.
REHMPhilip Terzian, how did you like this novel?
TERZIANI liked it a lot. I can't say that loved it, but I found it very interesting. I read it, as you did, 35 -- well, more than 35 years ago when I was undergraduate and not long after that, I was briefly a graduate student at actually Oxford, not Cambridge, so it had some interest to me in that sense.
REHMThe two readings, how did you feel about it the first time as opposed to the second time?
TERZIANWell, it intrigued me the first time because it was anthropological. I mean, how does this culture operate, a separate country, a very rarified atmosphere. I was interested this time in rereading it, having now descended well into middle age and past how the personalities were depicted and how in some degree, they mirrored people I've known under comparable circumstances. So in that sense, I thought it was as a novel, it held up better than I expected.
REHMFrances, how about you? Did you enjoy reading it?
SELLERSI loved this novel, I have to say. Now, I think when we go on, we can talk a little bit about something like character development and the representation of women and some other issues where I think there are somewhat cardboard characters, but the whole atmosphere of the college and how that resonates now is fascinating to me.
REHMHad you read it previously?
SELLERSI had not read it, but I felt as if...
REHMYou had not?
SELLERS...I had heard it from relatives and lived in some ways.
REHMI see. I too, Philip, read it about 35 years ago and felt as though I was so drawn in by, "Strangers and Brothers," the first in this series and then went on to read this one and I was just so intrigued. Milton Greenberg, as someone who has lived through the university system here at American University, what was your reaction to it?
GREENBERGI think that's why I loved it so much. I found myself reading very slowly, absorbing the words in terms of what I know from my experience and also enjoying the realities of ambition and disappointment that characterizes the life of all academics.
REHMAnd the competition that immediately emerges when we learn at the start of the novel that the Master, he's not called the headmaster, he's called the Master, as a terminal illness and immediately before he is near death, the factions begin to form.
GREENBERGRight. That's the idea. The king is dead, long live the king and everyone then immediately turns to the next person.
REHMAnd of course, as you think about turning to the next person, in this case, as you said, Frances, the women come into this, the women are not portrayed particularly nicely.
SELLERSNo. I think it's fascinating because they're very peripheral in some ways and yet they're central to the advancement of the plot and Lady Muriel had this sort of ramrod, aristocrat...
REHMShe is the wife of the Master.
SELLERS...who controls -- the wife of Vernon Royce, controls the moment when he learn about his own fate. So it hangs in her hands and yet we never really learn about her as a human being. Then Mrs. Jago described, I think, as a shrew at one point, an objectionable woman, other things like that and yet she -- in her hands lie the fate of her husband in many ways.
SELLERSAnd then we have this other female, Sheila, Louis Eliot's wife, who seems in some way to control his life and that he goes back to London two days a week where he's a barrister, he's only three days a week in Cambridge and she has the mystery of her life, which I know is revealed in other books, but again, she has a controlling influence, although she's not a central character. I think this is sort of a fascinating way...
REHMBut what struck me was that these women, within this male dominated atmosphere, seem so peripheral.
TERZIANWell, I think that's to some degree Snow's skill as a novelist, even though his literary reputation is not as high as it could be.
REHMOr as it was.
TERZIANOr as it was. Like many social realist novels, he wasn't much of a literary artist and so his reputation as suffered a little bit in literary circles, but I think also the novel, we have to bear in mind, is a reflection of its time. It's set in 1937. I was sort of peripherally in that world for 40 some years later and I still am in touch with it and obviously Oxford, and I'm sure Cambridge, has changed tremendously.
TERZIANThe -- all the colleges are now coeducational, the university is more administrative and bureaucratic. It's a more small de-democratic atmosphere than it used to be. On the other hand, a lot of it still obtains. I mean, the colleges are still as unitary and they operate on their own the same way they used to and there's that same small enclosed atmosphere and tiny society of fellows that operates things. That doesn't change so much even though the personnel has changed. And in 1937, you wouldn't have had women. I mean, there's vestiges of the days when fellowships depended on your not being married and so -- and that is no longer the case. Women are now much more a part of the scenery than they used to be.
SELLERSCan I jump in a little bit there because...
REHMSure. Go ahead.
SELLERS...I come from a family where we've had four generations of women at Oxford (laugh). There were women colleges going way back parallel, in parallel with the men's colleges. So going back to 1870 or so, you found Lady Margaret Hall, Summerville, these other colleges in Oxford, at Cambridge, Girton and Cambridge retains, I think, two female only colleges. Oxford has given them up all together.
SELLERSSo there was this education of women alongside this very masculine society, which Philip describes so aptly, which was very separate from, the two existed in parallel.
REHMAnd of course, Milton Greenberg, your experience was totally different because American University has had women from the start.
GREENBERGYeah, right. What interested me was not the talking of women, but there were no students in this academic novel (laugh), which is very interesting. Let me mention also in connection with one of the nasty parts of that novel involving a wife, that in my own recruiting experiences, I got letters like that.
REHMDid you really?
GREENBERGPersonal letters, yeah. When people heard someone was being considered.
GREENBERGA high position, yeah.
REHMA high position. So it still happens?
GREENBERGOh, yeah (laugh). There was nothing in that book...
REHMThat doesn't still happen?
GREENBERG...that does not still happen.
REHMThat's why I find it such an education novel just, not just in the academic sense, but in the human sense. The kinds of envy, the kinds of jealousies, the kinds of put-downs, not just of women. I mean, you had those who felt that only science should be represented here or only philosophy should be represented. And feelings about the threat of war, which we understand is going on outside.
SELLERSAbsolutely. I think there's a moment where Louis talks about war hysteria, the sort of feelings that are being played out on the national, international stage, being reflected in some ways in this very microscopic way in this college. And that is a great gift, having acknowledged that I look at characters like Jago, who are described as humane. I'd love to hear Philip on this -- described as humane and interesting people, but I never really feel that in the novel. I didn't like Jago particularly.
SELLERSHe never spoke to me directly. He was a victim of his own passions, his own ambitions. And we kept hearing from Louis Eliot that he was this remarkable man to be admired. I didn't end up admiring him.
TERZIANWell, that's the -- to me, that was always the central weakness of the novel, that Jago, to me, seemed the least eligible candidate to be Master. He seemed...
REHMBut we should say that he represents one faction and to begin with, at least, he has a majority of the votes for Master.
TERZIANNo. I mean, two or three of the Masters -- or I mean, of the other fellows are devoted to him and it's never really made clear to me why that should be. He struck me as being semi-hysterical. He was exactly the sort of person you shouldn't have as Master and what is frustrating to me as a reader is that the omniscient narrator, Louis Eliot, really is the one who ought to be the Master.
REHMLouis Eliot, of course, as one of the central figures in, "The Masters." Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. It's a privilege and a pleasure to talk with you.
JOHNAnd he and his wife, a German born before the war, had brought a couple of refugee children, sons -- boys from Germany and Austria, absorbed them into their family, educated them and sent them on in the world. And also had been a nexus for many refugees. And this man, Burkell, Charles Burkell, had held the college together, but because of the statutes, it turned out he failed by one year to satisfy a criteria...
REHMC.P. Snow has written an 11-book series, the overall title being, "Strangers and Brothers." We're talking about the fourth in this series titled, "The Masters." It's set in 1937 as the war is beginning to bubble up. There are those who believe that England should be involved immediately, there are those who are calling for appeasement. At the same time, in this small college, unnamed, is a battle going on for the head of the college when it's discovered that the Master has a terminal illness. And by the way, we're back to the fact, France Steed Sellers, that you pointed out early on, that his wife is in control of telling him or when one might tell him that he's dying. He thinks he's going get better. How outrageous.
SELLERSAbsolutely outrageous by our standards.
SELLERSAnd yet I think it a practice that continued until not so very long ago.
REHMI'm afraid so.
SELLERSAnd she doesn't just keep it, of course, from him, she lets the rest of the college know and so they're forced also to keep it from him. And we have these scenes of one dawn after another going to visit the Master and having to hold back the information...
SELLERS...they all know about his fate.
REHMAnd Milton Greenberg, there is even talk of bringing in an outsider rather than choosing one...
REHM...from within the college to be the Master.
GREENBERGYes, yes. That is (laugh) -- I think if the entire academic world read, "The Masters," they would always go outside. What it does is reduces the inattentions and people focus elsewhere. Just imagine in this country if every time a president was up for selection or a dean or a provost, that they said, we're going pick someone from inside. You would have war, a major academic war.
REHMDo you agree with that, Phil Terzian?
TERZIANWell, I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, sometimes it's a good idea and sometimes it isn't. As I say, one of the paradoxes of the novel for me is that it seems to me there are two or three fellows who would probably make a thoroughly satisfactory Master who no one considers for a moment. We're concentrating on -- although I have to say, the person who does win, Crawford, seems to me perfectly suited to the job of being a Master of the Cambridge college, even though it's a disappointment to the narrator.
REHMWhy? Why does Crawford seem...
TERZIANWell, he just struck me as being judicious and politically smart and he's...
REHMI thought he was rather smug myself.
TERZIANWell, but that's often necessary in that position.
TERZIANYou have to remember, this is...
REHMWhat did you think, Frances?
SELLERSWell, I -- actually again getting back to the role of his family, again, it was very interesting. Lewis Eliot comments at one point that even though he clearly isn't a very attractive man, he's not going to have, you know, lots of women hanging around him, he has a very settled and pleasing domestic life, a wife and two children. Jago does not have children. He has this rather embittered wife and clearly the notion of a happy family in the large is something that the other Masters think is a good idea.
REHMA good idea.
GREENBERGHe's also a scientist.
REHMHe's a scientist.
GREENBERGAnd in that way, C.P. Snow can make some mid-road on his great idea of the two cultures. And the fact that he is a scientist might explain his reticence, his character. Scientists don't tend to behave as humorous.
REHMThey're not very emoting.
TERZIANI'm the son of a scientist and I can assure you...
TERZIAN...there are exceptions to that.
TERZIANBut I always look -- in a novel like that, I always look to see where the novelist appears. And just on a tangent, I would point out that C.P. Snow is very -- I mean, the novel is very English and very red land of England. And Snow is a character of the 20th century. He was a poor boy who rose through the academic ranks entirely by merit. He went to a grammar school where everything he had scholarships 'cause he was a smart boy who did well on exams.
TERZIANHe got to Cambridge entirely on scholarships. And he was a scientist, so he looks at this to some degree as an outsider when he's observing this medieval institution. And so another thing that I enjoy in it as a novel is some of the ancillary characters, such as the sort of doddering, semi senile Mr. Gay who's a fellow. He's treated sort of with slight horror, but also amusement and affection and drawn very well, I think.
SELLERSAnd Bidwell, of course.
REHMExactly. Of course.
SELLERSBidwell the servant who will come up and actually has, you know, his eyes on whose lights are on and whose lights are off around their own and actually, at the end says he -- you know, that he and the other servants would've been fine with either of the two candidates, that they're both appreciated.
REHMHow privileged did this life seem to you?
SELLERSWell, I think this combination, of course, of great privilege, the bottles of claret that are opened, the wonderful meals.
REHMI've never seen so much liquor...
SELLERSSo much drinking.
REHM...in a novel.
SELLERSAnd I have to say, much of that continues today. Yet at the same time, if I remember my own undergraduate years or more my brother's, you know, and certainly this was true back in those periods, these dorms would have sets, several rooms together. And they would entertain their students in those rooms for supervision, as they were called, but they probably have -- may have an open fire, but the rest of the time, it would be freezing cold. When we were undergraduates, you might go down a winding staircase for three flights at night to find a bathroom. It was not great luxury.
TERZIANWell, it's -- but that's the Englishness of it for me, which England has always struck me as a combination of shabbiness and grandeur. And here in this Cambridge college, you -- and I used to observe where I was, you would have all this panoply and theatrical. There was a wine cellar and so on, yet the dons all had sort of threadbare suits. I would have to cross two quadrangles to take a bath and so it was...
TERZIAN...but it was plain -- you know, plain thinking -- what is it, high thinking and plain living at its best.
REHMGood. Let's go to a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Paul.
PAULGood morning. I had two comments to make. The first one is that I think that you have all somewhat slighted the importance of the political element in this novel. I mean, the major political conflict in England in the '30s at that time was whether communism or fascism was to be considered the greater threat, which is what determines people's attitude towards the Spanish Civil War than in progress, which in turn is what ends up deciding the election.
REHMDo you agree with that, decides the election?
TERZIANI don't. I mean, it's interesting. The -- so much is off-stage in this novel. The undergraduates...
TERZIAN...are just luggage in the porter's lodge...
REHMYeah, as Milton said.
TERZIAN...and noise occasionally. And there's an occasional ancillary mention of the outside world, but I think in order to emphasize the insularity of the society Snow is describing, they're not flushed out very much.
REHMPaul, you also mention Sir Timberlake. How do you feel he...
PAULYes. I think he is a somewhat shrewder character than your panelists are giving him credit for. I think, in fact, that he is -- he's playing the fellows and I think he understands the dynamics of their interaction much better than they do.
REHMHow so? Spell that out.
PAULWell, he knows what -- he knows what he wants from them. And, you know, to a certain extent of, course, he's got this money to give away somewhere and, you know, perhaps at some level, he doesn't that much care, you know, where it's bestowed, but he is enjoying his power of -- his power over it. And he is enjoying his power to put, you know, whatever strings he wants on the money.
REHMWell, and the strings clearly have to do with his son.
REHMAnd he wants his son to get a passing grade.
GREENBERGYes, yes (laugh).
TERZIANWell, he wants...
GREENBERGWell, there are lots of pressures that come that way, particularly for admission to professional schools. People think if they give money and mention that their grandson is a candidate for law school or medical school, that that will help. And a smart leadership will decline that.
SELLERSIt's rather unusual for an undergraduate to not get at least what used to be called a gentleman's third, which is what...
SELLERS...Brown is trying to get Saharasis' (sp?) relative -- is it a son or a nephew? I think he's a nephew.
REHMI think it's a nephew.
SELLERS...too, but that's why -- partly why the tragedy of Winslow's son is so moving because his son doesn't get a degree at all. And after the years there and being nurtured, you see this embittered man talking about his son is such a failure, which is very hard, I think. He actually becomes -- I'm seeing here Philip might have something to add there.
TERZIANNo. I was shaking my head for another reason. No. Just in defense of the panel, I think we fully understood Sir Horace's motives and I think he knew exactly what he was doing. The only point I was making was that the academics had a kind of unstated contempt for him, which tore at them 'cause they clearly wanted his money.
TERZIANAlthough I would add, too, that just as you can thrive with a gentleman's third in England, I was thinking young Winslow, if he spent three years at Cambridge, that was as good as having a degree in those days.
TERZIANIt didn't really matter.
SELLERSProbably true. But aren't we all struck by the sort of amateur way that fundraising was done?
SELLERSOf course it continues now, but...
SELLERS...there's no development office. Now, Oxford colleges and Cambridge colleges have development offices, but they're still way behind the way it's done here and there's a great deal of discomfort still in Britain about being asked for money in the way that Americans know. You know if you go to college here, that you'll get that letter, you'll get that phone call and you can decide whether or not to open your pockets. But there, it's quite a different matter.
GREENBERGYou know, there's one other historical concept that should be said. The book was written in 1951. By that time, the American higher education system was nothing like it is today. And it was small, it was liberal artsy, it was private. And suddenly, with the GI Bill and the booming concept that everyone ought to go to college, we have a whole separate concept of how people...
GREENBERGOf higher education.
GREENBERGSo it doesn't -- a lot of this, what goes on in the novel, doesn't tell us much about higher education. But what it does show, especially in (word?) people, we all want respect.
REHMThat's true. That's true. Let's go now to Chapel Hill, N.C. Good morning, Michael, you're on the air.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. I think that it's important to look at, "The Masters," as a wonderful political novel. And I know you've talked about it being an academic, political novel, but I think that it reflects a real world of politics, particularly the world of legislative caucuses, perhaps. I am a part of the academic diaspora. I got a PhD at Harvard in the (word?) department in the mid '70s and with the job drought, went into law and have been involved in the political world a good bit in the last 10 or 15 years. So I'll just say that it tells you an awful lot about real life politics and I hope you'll mention, "The Light and The Dark." I think that's his best novel. Loved it.
REHMMm-hmm. Interesting. Thanks for your call, Michael. Let me just remind you, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What do you think of that, Phil?
TERZIANWell, I was -- one of the small p, political, what intrigued me was that Snow, who was a man of the left, he does make a few allusions to some of the -- some of the mass fellows specific political affiliations are mentioned. And they...
TERZIAN...they don't at all comport with what we would think. I mean, the man of the left doesn't necessarily behave like our caricature of a man of the left and the sort of putative tory among the fellows is not someone I necessarily expected, which is at least what I thought was a kind of interesting twist. Beyond that, though, as I say, the specific politics of the 1930s, I think, is very much off-stage in this novel, even though it is -- they are mentioned periphery.
REHMThey're mentioned and certainly as far as Jago is concerned, you have a sense that Jago thinks that we're headed for war, that we should be involved, that we need to get out front, that we can't let this sort of happen without our involvement. And I think the other fellows who do not support him are rather fearful of that stance.
TERZIANWell, I don't know if it's fearful of that stance because they don't want to resist fascists, I think it's more they just don't like the idea of the college being thrust headlong into national service in that way. I think they want to retain a sort of monastic academic atmosphere and they're not interested in involving themselves.
GREENBERGYeah, I think that's a characteristic of American higher education, to stay out of the political. It's changing now. But a few years ago, it would've been precisely the concept that they not be involved, not use their positions to do that.
REHMFrances, how do you see it?
SELLERSYeah, I mean, I'm thinking back to what happened to Cambridge during the war. And of course, Snow was writing after the war. But going to Kings College and you learn that every single one of those remarkable windows was taken out and I think stored in caves, you know, underground in order to preserve the architecture of that place, there was, as Philip says, a great sense that the place was sacred in a sense.
REHMInteresting. Here is an e-mail from Elizabeth who says, "I read the whole C.P. Snow series when I was in college. It inspired my ongoing search for novels about women at work. There are not many of them and many of them are written by men."
TERZIANMm-hmm. Well, Henry James was one of the greatest novelists of women, so you never know.
REHMHe had a particular view. You're absolutely right. Well, I want to thank you all so much. Milton Greenberg, professor emeritus of government at American University, Frances Steed Sellers, she's at The Washington Post, Philip Terzian is at The Weekly Standard. The novel we've been talking about is by C.P. Snow, it is, "The Masters." Thank you all so much.
REHM...next month's "Readers' Review," a new film adaptation of, "Jane Eyre," has just hit movie screens. Our next "Readers' Review" will return to the pages of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 story of an orphan turned governess and her struggle to live an independent life. I hope you'll join me Wednesday, April 27. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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