The Masters, Paperback

The Masters Paperback

Part of the Strangers and Brothers series

5 out of 5 (2 ratings)




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One of my top ten books ever. Hardly a racy plot, but I love the insightful descriptions of the main characters. I also like the snapshot of the cloistered life of the university. The opening scene where the author is reading a book in a large drafty room, snuggly ensconsed by the fire is so evocative

Review by

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.

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