The Light and The Dark (C P Snow)

"Can't we simply make them Welsh by statute?" "Who?" "The Jews."


Roy Calvert has a light, quick, graceful stride. He is over middle height, slightly built but strong, upright and slender, full of ease and grace. His eyes glint a clear transparent hazel yellow and his expression is mischievous and grave when it is not sad, grave, stricken and haunted by a wild melancholy. His voice is clear, light and reedy. His smile is intimate and kind, or it might  be demure and secretive*. His is a style of extreme elegance and ease, he hits a cricket ball with statuesque grace and measured power. He is young, gifted and high-spirited. His creator, Sir Charles (“C P”) Snow is fond of adjectives.

Calvert is an oriental scholar, a member of the Cambridge college of which his friend the narrator, Lewis Eliot, is a fellow. Much of the plot of the first part of the novel is concerned with Calvert’s application to be elected a fellow of the College.  The several fellows entitled to vote are, despite their over-description, difficult for the reader to distinguish (the preparation of a reference list is advised). Calvert is admired by some and disliked by others. He bemuses and repels the more “stuffed” fellows by mocking them in a tone of “mystifying solemnity“. For Calvert, despite his many clearly-indicated good qualities, is his own worst enemy and does not resist the temptation to parody and antagonise. He suffers a bipolar or manic-depressive sort of condition which causes him periods of agonising despair, culminating in the bouts of sparkling cheerful malice which Eliot has come to dread. Snow’s prose is leanest and best when showing us Calvert enduring his terrible bouts of blackest depression.

Despite the pitiless bombardment of adjectives, Snow conveys incisive psychological insight. The wife of the Master of the college, Lady Muriel, is stiffly built, a formidable and grandiose snob, a woman of character and power but “there was something baffled about her, a hidden yearning to be liked – as though she were a little girl, aggressive and heavy among children smaller than herself, unable to understand why they did not love her.” So Roy, who is acquainted with suffering, and who delights in Lady Muriel for her heavy-footed, unperceptive self, also “came into immediate touch with her as with so many people.  He knew how she craved to be liked, how she could never confess her longing for affection, fun, and love. It was his nature to give it. He was moved deeply, moved to a mixture of pity and love, by the unexpectedly vulnerable, just as he was by the tormented, the failures and the strays.”

The Light and the Dark is the fourth (in narrative time) of the Strangers and Brothers sequence. The back of our 1964 edition tells us that Sir John Betjemen called it a “novel written with the intuition of a woman and and the grasp of broad essentials generally reserved for men.” Lady Muriel similarly declares (on behalf of the author, we feel), that intellect is for men, while woman have intuition.**  Her daughter Joan (diffident, whose glance can be heavy, brooding and possessive, who has a strong coltish gawky gait) is the foil to Rosalind, (nervous, kind, sensitive in her fashion, hard, ruthless, determined, single minded and unscrupulous). But both are desperate to marry, and they each sit around patiently waiting to be insulted and used and abandoned by Calvert. But to Snow’s credit, Rosalind is good at her job and Joan is permitted to be intelligent (but not attractive at the same time). Snow is also less than PC about the lower classes. The one servant we meet is a thief. But we do not confuse the art with the artist and Snow is a very good artist.

Eliot is really a fleshless cipher and sounding board: his wife’s death is a throwaway line. But this book is not about him; he is the Nick Carraway, and here he is at his best when engaging with Lady Boscastle (sister in law of the Master and Lady Muriel). Lady Boscastle was once a great beauty but now, Snow tells us, she is delicate and frail, with brilliant porcelain blue eyes, puckered brown skin and resembles a delicate humorous and distinguished monkey, with a faint, sarcastic and charming smile (phew). We can say that she is an engaging and brittle character, as well possessed of intellect and as interesting as any man in this story.

The latter part of the book deals with the outbreak of World War II and is less successful than the first part. The panelled, candled rooms of Cambridge give way to dull sojourns in Germany and some silly spy stuff. Calvert toys with Nazism. It’s all rather leaden and we wish everyone back safely in Snow’s college – given over to beauty, learning and exclusivity.

[*Just for the exercise, try to smile in a “demure and secretive” style. Difficult.] [** Vide Prof. Christopher Riley in Shadowlands who explains the ‘otherwise puzzling’ difference between the sexes thus: “Where Men have intellect, Women have soul.” (!) – Ed.]


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