The idea of an author leaving their publisher because, “he had sold too many copies of her books,” is about as believable as an alcoholic leaving his bartender because she didn’t water his drinks down enough. But that is exactly what Susan Howatch did. That alone makes her worthy of a second look, but for me the reasons why I have read and reread her books cuts much deeper. She is the first novelist I have read who portrays clergy in a way I could appreciate, and in most cases, relate to. Too often clergy are portrayed as odious hypocrites (Elmer Gantry, Obidiah Slope) or as saccharine sweet, like Father Tim Allen in the Mitford series, which I tried to read, but finally had to put down, thinking, “No one is that good.” (Maybe that says more about me than about the books.)
But Howatch gave me a parade of clergy that I could relate to, men (and unfortunately all of her clergy characters are male) who love God and believe they are called to serve their Creator, but who wrestle with what it means to be an authentic servant of God. Her ministers are deeply flawed in many ways, but at the same time they are devoted to God, and working with God to overcome their failings. They are heroic in some ways, but all of them have feet of clay. And they are unlike in their devotion to God. Some are church bureaucrats. Some are mystics. Some are charismatic personalities. Some are Anglo-Catholic, others are Liberal modernists, and some are conservative. Monks are scattered in with bishops, archdeacons, deans and healers.
She wrote two series of books concerning the English clergy. The first, the Starbridge series, centers around the goings on around the Starbridge Cathedral, based loosely on the cathedral at Salisbury. Each novel centers on a specific time and issue, theological and/or social, facing the Church of England. The first, Glittering Images, is set in 1937, and deals with the issue of divorce. Glamorous Powers is set during World War II, and centers around the mysticism of an ex-monk. Ultimate Prizes follows a Liberal archdeacon, who is at odds with Anglo-Catholicism and Neo-Orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth. Scandalous Risks is the only one of the Starbridge series narrated by a woman, who is not of the clergy, and portrays the church in 1963 just after Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God came out. Mystical Paths follows the son of one of the main characters in 1968 as he tries to solve a mystery, and shows some of the worse sides of Christian mysticism, and of the idealism of the early 60s. The final book in this series, Absolute Truths, as the Bishop of Starbridge tries to cope with the death of his wife. It portrays a church caught between the need to adapt to its time, but also which needs to hold on the the absolute truths of her tradition. Each of the books is loosely anchored around actual theologians and clergy in the Church of England.
Her attention to detail is fascinating, from the way she portrays accurately the misunderstanding of Karl Barth’s crisis theology in 1940s England, to her knowledge of monk’s underwear. She takes the writings of the various theologians who influence each particular book, and places it in hurly-burly of real life in the Church. No one theology is adequate to address the actual needs of the characters who espouse them, and one of the underlying messages is that the Church needs a variety of approaches to faith. But more important to the stories are the development of her characters, who all have to deal, in some way, with their flaws. In the end most find ways to integrate the various parts of their personalities and their calling, into a healthy whole. I found their struggles encouraging for me, because most ministers have some sort of split between their public persona as clergy, and their private lives, some elements of which are not for public consumption. By fusing Jungian psychology and traditional Christianity, she shows how an ancient faith can adopt new language to help deal with modern issues of personality.
The second series, the St. Benet’s trilogy, still maintains many of the themes in the Starbridge series, but takes place in London, and many of the central characters are not clergy. Many of the Starbridge characters make appearances, but many new characters are added, including a frumpy cook, a high flying lawyer, and a male prostitute. The trilogy takes place in 1980s and 1990s and is less theological, and more psychological.
All of these novels are about redemption. Almost all the characters find salvation, but not the simplistic way of “accepting Jesus as their personal savior.” They find wholeness and healing. Yes, many of the characters in her novels engage in bad behavior, but Howatch in more concerned with the whys rather than the whats of their sins. The people in her books are just forgiven. They are redeemed. They find new life, and the freedom of not being bound by the things that caused their sins.
I have only two criticisms of her books. Sometimes the dialog comes off as very contrived, but that might be because I am not English, and many of her characters are stereotypical English. The other is the absence of female clergy. In the St. Benet’s trilogy we do see a wider variety of female characters. In the earlier novels many of the women are fairly helpless in the face of male dominance, but in the later novels they place a more central role.
I once spent a summer reading through Trollope’s Barchester novels. It was time well spent, but it was shame I had to go back to the 19th century to find literary clergy who I could identify with. Howatch gives me an updated version, people who are closer to my time, and to my issues as I wrestle with what it means to be a minister and a man of God.
Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia)
- Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.
- Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision. He then must deal with the problems of his adult children, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”.
- Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a lower-middle-class background in the north of England. After being widowed and marrying again, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.
- Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop. It is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. The relationships, and Aysgarth’s family, closely echo the relationship of H. H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley.
- Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of Dean Aysgarth.
- Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much older but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we originally encountered him in the first of the books.
St. Benet’s trilogy
- A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow twenty years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London, where he runs a centre for the ministry of healing. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after he meets Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result.
- The High Flyer narrates the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who “has it all”. Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur, which reveal that things are not what they seem.
- Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.