Snow’s novel puzzled me. It was only 345 pages long, but it felt like a much longer novel. Perhaps because it dealt with the conduct of a legal case—a challenge to an inheritance and a later appeal—as well as a fairly large cast of characters with intersecting fates, I was thinking of Dickens and Bleak House early on. Indeed, as I discovered after having finished, the publishers were pushing this very comparison, citing that novel in the dust jacket copy, and suggesting that Snow, like Dickens, “use[d] the processes of law to create the image of the whole society.”
This isn’t false advertising. Starting with Mrs. Underwood, who cared for the now deceased Mr. Massie in his final years, and her layabout son Julian, who is the chief beneficiary of the old man’s will, the legal proceedings come to involve Mr. Massie’s estranged daughter, Jenny Rastall; her wealthy employer, Mr. Reginald Swaffield; Julian’s girlfriend, Liz Fox-Milnes; lawyers and solicitors on either side; Liz’s father, Lord Hillmorton; several other members of the House of Lords with whom Lord Hillmorton is friendly (particularly historian and successful businessman James Ryle and scientist Adam Sedgwick); and, finally, physician Archibald Pemberton, the distant male heir who will take over Lord H’s seat on his demise.
Set in 1970s London, the novel deals both specifically and broadly with issues of inheritance and primogeniture, examining them from legal, scientific, and social perspectives. While much of the novel’s action takes place among the Lords, the characters occupy a wide variety of positions on the social spectrum. Alongside the wealthy old men we would expect in the upper chamber, we see younger and more ambitious doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. There are less ambitious men as well–like Swaffield’s “pet” Lord Clare, and the poverty stricken Lord Lorimer, who depends on the chamber’s daily stipend to support himself.
The novel’s women, from whose point of view we see much of the action, are themselves at the mercy of a system stacked against them, one that both rewards and may be manipulated by the wealthy and the unscrupulous. Both Jenny and Liz are intelligent, capable, and, in Jenny’s case, compassionate women whom the law literally disinherits. Both single, they also find themselves in relationships that the novel’s narrator directly informs the reader are in important ways beneath them—though Jenny’s partner is considerably less repellent than Liz’s.
Events of the novel unfold against larger events—legislation on industrial relations and education policy, general economic uncertainty, and England’s place in the European Community Parliament has voted to join. The novel describes a legal system—including the government—that is somehow out of step with the times, both for good and ill. Its set pieces–a large elaborate party thrown by self-made millionaire Reg Swaffield and a surgical operation performed to alleviate Sedgwick’s Parkinson’s disease–encapsulate the times with inquiries into the contemporary politics of class and wealth and scientific and medical advances.
Such a seemingly self-conscious Dickensian effort necessitates a novel of some length, and I don’t object to that. But, as I said above, this novel feels longer than it actually is. (And let’s face it–345 pages is like a detailed outline of a Dickens novel.) Despite the well-conceived and in many ways compelling legal case at its center, the novel is slow and ponderous. I felt like it couldn’t get going—even as it was going. Perhaps this was intentional—Snow’s tribute to the interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce at the center of Bleak House.
But it just felt out of whack. Even as I came to know the characters, I felt distant from them. Some were introduced at odd times or suddenly became prominent. Others, who seemed as if they would loom large in the story, didn’t. While Jenny and Liz got enough coverage, they still behaved in ways that seemed out of keeping with at least part of their characterization. Aware of their romantic and financial difficulties, I still found some of their choices frustrating and odd. I thought Julian made a nice Dickensian scoundrel, but many of the other characters seemed as though they couldn’t quite find their place here. Plus there was a casual homophobia that I couldn’t help but find off-putting.
At least Dickens had the pressures and demands of serial publication to explain the increased and decreased prominence of certain characters and plotlines in his novels. I can’t imagine that Snow labored under these same constraints.
In Their Wisdom does ultimately give us a vision of the society, but it made it tough to care about that society. Maybe that was Snow’s intention. Certainly the novel’s final paragraphs hint at a longer and only partly charitable perspective:
It occurred to [Ryle] to wonder, how would a historian of the future, a historian of his own type, judge the society he had lived in and the people in it. It was possible, it was more than possible, that historians of the future wouldn’t be much fascinated. It might seem a period of confusion between great epochs, and those didn’t shine very bright in history. But if they did give us any attention, it was certain that they would analyse our discontents, anxieties, the forces moving us, even our attempts at foresight and our hopes, quite differently from the way we had tried ourselves. And they would be right, or more right than we had been. If there was a lesson a historian learned, that was it.
But there was another lesson a historian learned. They will also read our feelings and our experience quite differently from the way we lived them. The present couldn’t imagine the ideas of the future, that is one of the certainties. It seemed equally certain, from what Ryle knew of history, that the future couldn’t live again the existence of any present. For what it is worth, that is our own. We didn’t know much, but that was something only we could know.
A consolation? No, it just put us into perspective in the whole chain of lives, and that was humbling. Not that anyone should require humbling, Ryle thought, if he had lived in our time. (345)