Time of Hope is the first book chronologically in C P Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series. It was the third book to be published but should really be read first as it fills in the background of Lewis Eliot, the narrator of the series. I read George Passant first & all the questions I had about Lewis & where he fitted in were answered in Time of Hope.
Lewis is a clever boy growing up in a provincial city. His parents are ill-matched – his father, Bertie, is easy going & cheerful; his mother, Lena, is conscious of having married beneath her. She is ambitious for Lewis & devastated when her husband’s business fails & he is bankrupt. His sister, Lewis’s Aunt Milly, condescends to help out but always makes her disapproval known. Bertie eventually finds a job again & Lena saves any money she can to send Lewis to the best school possible so he can make the most of what chances he can get. Her disappointment drives her on, especially as her own family disowned her when she married.
Her hopes had been brilliant. She had a romantic, surging passionate imagination, even then, when a middle-aged woman beaten down by misfortune. As a girl she had expected – expected as of right – a husband who would give her love and luxury and state. She thought of herself in her girlhood, and as she spoke to me she magnified the past, enhanced all that she could glory in, cherished her life with her own family now that she looked back with an experienced and a disappointed heart.
Lewis works hard at school & believes he will accomplish great things. It’s a disappointment to find himself, several years after leaving school, working as a clerk in the local Council education office, a job with no future. He decides to take some law classes at the local Technical College where he meets George Passant &, with George’s encouragement, Lewis decides to stake everything on becoming a barrister. Aunt Milly agrees to loan him the money he’ll need as he will have to leave his job & devote himself to study full time to pass the exams.
After several very lean years, Lewis passes his exams & is called to the Bar. He has very little influence in a profession that demands patronage in order to get ahead but George’s employer, Mr Eden, recommends Lewis to Herbert Getliffe, & Lewis joins his chambers as a pupil, a very junior member of staff. Lewis gradually begins to make money & have some success with the opinions & notes he writes for Getliffe & the cases the clerk of Getliffe’s chambers finds for him. A serious bout of illness threatens his progress but his love for Sheila Knight & his determination to marry her is the real obstacle to any progress in his professional life.
Sheila is a beautiful young woman but emotionally unstable. Lewis meets her in his home town, as part of the group that gathers around George Passant & is immediately attracted to her.
I did not make dreams of her, as I had done of many other girls. That first state of love was delectable beyond my expectation; in its delight I did not stop to wonder that I had often imagined love, and imagined it quite wrong. I breathed in the delight with every breath, those first mornings. I did not stop to wonder why my thoughts of her were vague, why I was content to let her image – unlike those of everyone else I knew – lie vague within my heart.
Sheila’s father is a self-absorbed clergyman & her mother is suspicious of Lewis, thinking him a fortune hunter. Sheila herself seems to tolerate Lewis but without much enthusiasm. She often hurts him by mentioning other men that she’s seeing & seems to find more enjoyment talking to Lewis’s landlady or the waitress in a cafe than to his friends. She often tells him that she can’t love him but he blindly pursues her & eventually she agrees to marry him. Their marriage is a disaster, almost from the beginning. Sheila needs constant reassurance from Lewis & his work suffers. She can’t take part in the social life that is so important to Lewis’s career & he finds himself stagnating at work & miserable at home. He begins to wonder if all his sacrifices & work have been wasted & contemplates leaving Sheila & ending the marriage.
This is a fascinating study of a man who, on the one hand, is determined to make a success of his life & on the other hand, almost blindly follows a course that will destroy him. When he first meets Sheila, Lewis is dazzled by her & is blind to the fact that Marion, another member of the group, is in love with him. Sheila is always completely honest with Lewis & repeatedly tells him that she doesn’t love him & doesn’t think she can ever really be in love with anyone. In the end, he wears her down & she just gives in. Lewis has seen enough of Sheila’s problems to know that she will never be able to help him in his career so I thought it was unfair that he begins to resent her. Before their marriage, he has several opportunities to break away but he is never quite able to do so. He even drives away another young man who Sheila believes she could be happy with. Lewis’s obsession with Sheila is irrational & he realizes this but is powerless to forget her or to leave her alone.
I especially enjoyed the early chapters of Lewis growing up with his ambitious mother & ineffectual father. Father & son spend a day at the cricket – it’s the first game Mr Eliot has ever seen – & it’s here that Mr Eliot finally tells Lewis about his bankruptcy. The picture of small town life, the gossip, the shame & the irritation of everyone knowing your business & having an opinion about it, is intensely claustrophobic. I felt less sympathy for Lewis as he grew older but I was always interested in his struggles in his career, his fear that his health would break down & his unrelenting efforts to succeed. I pitied Sheila, living with her uncomprehending parents & pursued by Lewis. She always seemed so much more clear-eyed about herself & what she was capable of than anyone else. I’d like to have been able to see Lewis through her eyes.