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In Their Wisdom by C.P. Snow
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In Their Wisdom

by C.P. Snow

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Ever had the experience of suffering through a thorny legal problem that affects members of your family? Seen how the law's delay affects people's lives? Been waiting for the verdict you are hoping will change your life, or the lives of those close to you?… Better not say any more or I'll spoil this book.

CP Snow's slow, ultra-realistic treatment of human affairs more than compensates for his sometimes rather convoluted syntax, not to mention his erudite vocabulary. He usually provides a great read, and we must not forget that being a great read is what the novel is all about.

There are a number of CP Snow penchants to be found here. There is a court case, with scenes set in high- domed, badly ventilated courtrooms and there are learned judges deliberating and lawyers arguing, very seriously 'onstage', but treating it as a item of mutual disinterest when out of robes an event which can be discussed over a good wine. There is too the commanding presence of one particular 'George Passant'-type character (a leading player in the earlier novels of the 'Strangers and Brothers' series), a curious mixture of bluster, strong will, intelligence, and talent gone to waste. And there is the woman hopelessly in love with the man who is not in love with her.

What makes this novel somewhat different to his others I have read is its insight into that venerable institution, the House of Lords. Through his sketching of this archaic survivor from the monarchical past, Snow provides several observations of the British (or, rather,the English) way of life mid-20th century. Admittedly, the focus is on upper class life, but some of these Lords have fallen on very hard times, attending sessions only for the benefit of obtaining the generous expenses, or the chance to obtain appointments to Boards (expenses again) by self-made, very rich men who hold them in thinly-veiled contempt. Or only because the facilities provide a club for elderly men. All in all, it is a warts and all portrait of an institution gone stale. And here to we have that vignette which Snow draws with always consummate accuracy: the elderly man drawing towards his end, his mind suffused with dread for what is ahead, and regret for much of what is in his past. These men wander through CP Snow's novels almost unanchored to the plot-lines.

There is a general atmosphere of gloom pervading the novel, due to the preoccupations of the characters with legal matters certainly, but even more so because of the political events of the time, most importantly the miners' strike. There are a couple of references to this major event in recent British history, and also to a feeling shared by a number of the characters that this explosive example of social/industrial upheaval is being badly handled. However, a reader detects little understanding of the sufferings of the miners and their families. It is more a feeling that Britain has 'lost her way' at home, and also in the world and that the way ahead is all downhill-- industrially, socially and morally, and a vague feeling of negative implications for its ancient institutions. For example, the House of Lords.

Then too, there are men like Julian, with his selfish pursuit of his own interest is, in the view of some of the elders, indicative of this trend towards social break-up. He hasn't settled down to anything yet (he is in his mid-30s) and this financial inheritance that may come his way would ensure he could spend the rest of his life forever not settling down to anything. His generally selfish, amoral, purposeless lifestyle is, for many of the older men in the novel, a reflection of a post-war generation which has grown up free of any of the hardships their elders had to face. It might have helped if he were a engaging character (people often forgive a rogue-- if he is an engaging rogue) but Julian is far from that.

Although not part of the long series of novels entitled Strangers and Brothers, one two of the characters of that series turn up here. This has a strange effect on a reader who has met them before. It's like seeing, in the midst of a large crowd at a party, one or two people whom you know. You wonder what they are doing there and you'd like to share their views on what they think of the occasion and the people around them. Because you know them somewhat, you feel they might give you a few insights on the more enigmatic characters.

It's a fine novel. ( )
1 vote Eamonn12 | Dec 21, 2008 |
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Economic storm clouds gather as bad political weather is forecast for the nation. Three elderly peers look on from the sidelines of the House of Lords and wonder if it will mean the end of a certain way of life. Against this background is set a court struggle over a disputed will that escalates into an almighty battle.… (more)

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