The Conscience of the Rich is the third book in C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers sequence, and is an illuminating and moving one. Published in 1958, it looks back at London in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Lewis Eliot is trying to work out a career in London as a barrister, amid many distractions, including a painful love, severe poverty, and friends in trouble in his home town, Leicester. He makes friends with Charles March, another young barrister, proud hope of a rich Jewish family with strong traditions.
There are many delightful things in this book, but few can match the dazzling skill with which Snow portrays Charles' father, Leonard March; he is a proud, sometimes irascible man, deeply fond of his two children, but completely out of touch with their aspirations in politics, in careers, and in love. And he is given to great rambling stories of the family, where non-sequitur is piled upon irrelevance until he triumphantly brings the tale - amongst the laughter of his children and friends - to a glorious conclusion. And Lewis notices wealth and what it can do - the Marches have a man in to wind the clocks once a week - and starts as a junior figure who, because of his personal qualities and later his professional skill, becomes central to the March family.
For these are times of turmoil. A whiff of political scandal touches a connection of the family, and the left, to which Lewis, Charles and his sister and others are passionately devoted, forces a conflict with the family. And events in Germany mean that being Jewish is suddenly a burden, suddenly it is something that the Marches and families like them have to be measured against, have to take account of; to use a word which would achieve a terrible significance after the war, they cannot be unbelastet or unencumbered any longer. And both the children, Charles and his sister Katherine, break away from the family in ways which Leonard and his peers find very difficult, difficult even unto the death of the spirit.
The politics of the inter-war period is the scourging, ripping tide of this book, but the young men and women are several boats afloat, swirling wildly, trying to steer a course but not wholly in control - and unable, unwilling to stay in safe harbour - but deeply hurt by the places they end up. Careers, marriages, politics, personal relationships of all kinds, that is the heady mix of this book. It's a fine read, although not entirely a comfortable one. The final words, as Mr March sees off guests from a dinner party in which all the pain of his family problems has been apparent, are as much about the European situation as they are about a lonely and sad old man:
Standing at the corners. I stamped my feet, waiting for a taxi. Through the bare trees of the garden, I could see a beam of light, as the door of Mr March's house opened, letting out some more of his guests. Soon the party would be over. He would test the latches and switch off the lights: then he would be left in his own company.