George Passant – C P Snow

Where should I begin in reading a series? I was confused when I looked at a list of titles in C P Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series & I think I’m still a little confused after reading George Passant, which was the first book published in the series but is not the first book chronologically. It was originally titled Strangers and Brothers, which became the name of the series & I’m not sure when it was retitled George Passant. If you look at the list here, you’ll see that several of the books were published out of chronological order. I had differing advice from the members of my online reading group as to whether it did or didn’t matter which order I read the series & I realised that I’d read The Masters years ago & had no memory of the plot at all. In the end, as I’d borrowed the ebook of George Passant from my library, & was three chapters in, I decided to carry on regardless although I’ve also borrowed Time of Hope (3rd book published but 1st chronologically) & I’m keen to read that next to fill in some gaps. I’m also interested to learn more about how Snow wrote & plotted the series. He wrote George Passant nine years before Time of Hope so did he have the whole plot mapped out first or did he write George Passant & then decide to fill in the gaps of Lewis Eliot’s life?

Anyway, I should probably write something about the book instead of trying to make sense of the bigger picture. Lewis Eliot is the narrator of all eleven books in the Strangers and Brothers series & at this stage he’s in his early 20s, working in London as a barrister but occasionally returning to the provincial town where he grew up. George Passant is in his late twenties, a few years older than Lewis & his friends. They look up to George & see him as someone to refer to when they’re in trouble. Jack Cotery is in trouble at the beginning of the story. Jack is a clerk in the local newspaper office. Roy Calvert, the 15 year old son of the owner, has become infatuated with Jack & has given him an expensive cigarette case & written him a letter which his father has seen. Mr Calvert has been paying Jack’s fees for a printing course at the Technical College (known as the School) with a view to offering him promotion at the newspaper. All this is now over & Mr Calvert tells Jack that there will be no promotion for him & his fees will no longer be paid. This means the end of Jack’s prospects of higher education & he & Lewis decide to consult George.

George works for local solicitors, Martineau & Eden, as a qualified clerk & teaches a couple of evening classes in law at the School. He has never had the money to study further but has a very high opinion of his abilities & his value to the firm. On the other hand, he is very sensitive about his social status & almost makes a virtue of not trying to better his position by attending social events where he could mix with the firm’s partners. He has gathered around him a group of students who follow in his wake & admire his opinions on life. George agrees to take up Jack’s cause & make a representation to the School’s Governors about the injustice of Mr Calvert refusing to pay Jack’s fees because of his relationship with Roy – although, of course, this is never mentioned when Mr Calvert declares his change of mind. George’s interference damages his own prospects but he forges ahead regardless. He even loans Jack money he can ill afford to start up a business when Jack has to accept defeat & leave the newspaper.

George is an odd character. He seems to have no friends of his own age. He is still helping to support his parents, although he’s not well off, but is always willing to help his proteges from the School if they need money. He rents a farm where his group can meet &, at least at first, his relationships are platonic. He spends evenings in a nearby town, either alone or with the young men of the group, when he wants to drink & visit prostitutes. Later on, his motives become more ambiguous as he begins relationships with several of the young women. He’s regarded with some suspicion by Mr Martineau & Mr Eden, but they respect his abilities even though they would never consider offering him a partnership. As Mr Eden tells Lewis,

‘When you see a man night after night sitting in cafes with hordes of young girls, and you haven’t much doubt that he’s pretty loose living all round; when you hear him laying down the law on every topic under heaven, telling everyone how to run the world: when above all you find him making an officious nuisance of himself in matters that don’t concern him, like that affair of Calvert’s: then you have to be an unusually tolerant man’ – Eden leaned back and smiled – ‘to feel very happy when you pay the firm a visit and find he’s your family solicitor.’

George becomes more involved in Jack’s schemes & this leads to trouble. Jack becomes involved with Olive Calvert, Roy’s sister, & his money making ideas become more shady as time goes on. George becomes a partner with Olive & Jack in an advertising firm & they’re accused of misrepresenting the financial position of the company to the people Jack persuaded to invest capital. They also have another scheme to buy the farm that George has been renting for their weekends & turn it into a hostel. The three of them are charged with fraud & sent to trial. Their defence is conducted by Getliffe, a barrister from Lewis’s chambers in London (this was one point when I wanted to know more about Lewis & his life as there’s obviously some history between Lewis & Getliffe but nothing’s explained in this book).

The trial itself is very tense as the exact degree of knowledge George had about Jack’s activities is teased out by Lewis through talks with George & extracts from his diary. The jury & spectators disapprove of all three defendants & their lifestyle but will that be enough to convict them if the evidence is less than overwhelming?

I found George Passant to be an intriguing novel that has made me want to read more of the series. I want to know more about Lewis Eliot, the references to his life in London, his relationship with Getliffe & with Sheila, his future wife, are elusive in this book. I think I probably do need to read the books in chronological order so Time of Hope, which tells the story of Lewis’s childhood, will be next. Does anyone remember the 1980s TV series of Strangers and Brothers? It’s just about to be released on DVD in the UK & it would be good to know if it’s recommended.

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