You don’t hear much about Susan Howatch these last few years and I think it’s a shame. If you love a book or a series of books to really get your teeth into, you can’t do better than discover this author.
I first came across her books when I was an undergraduate and my flatmate loaned me The Rich are Different, Sins of the Fathers and a few others. I enjoyed them a great deal, even though I am not especially fond of historical or period fiction.
The next time I crossed paths with Ms Howatch was when my husband was at theological college and I was undergoing something of a protracted breakdown of sorts. Her Starbridge series of novels gave me some relief from the emotional anguish I was in, partly due to the novels being about the very structure(the Church of England) I was battling to survive, but mainly due to the strength of the characters and the power of the stories:
The action of all six books centers around the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, which corresponds to the real life dicoese of Bath and Wells with the city of Salisbury(Starbridge) at its centre supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, an Anglican monastic order that has no direct paralell in real life. They remind me a little of the Franciscans, though.
The first three books of the Starbridge series (Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes) start during the 1930s, and continue through the war. The second three (Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, Absolute Truths) take place in the 1960s.
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 as a sort of spy, under the guise of interviewing the Bishop of Starbridge. The Archbishop of Canterbury suspects that there is a steamy menage a trois going on in the Bishop’s household.After a very public meltdown, 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 of a new future for him.. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, 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”. This is the hardest book for people with no experience of such things to take on board.
Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, Archdeacon of Starbridge. From a working class background in the north of England Aysgrath has had a meteoric rise to power. After being widowed from his childhood sweetheart and remarried to an eccentric but fascinating society woman from way outside his class , he too undergoes something of a meltdown but also 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. Unlike the other stories, this is the first one to be narrated by an outsider to the church, Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a strange relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. Venetia falls obsessively in love with Aysgarth and is faced at the end with some terrible choices.
Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, in his quest to stay away from dangerous paths. It’s the only story so far with a muder mystery theme, which takes a different tack to all the others so far. It also deals with Nick’s difficult relationship to his now elderly father.
Absolute Truths brings the cycle full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we encounter him in the first of the books. Charles’ life is far from what he wanted it to be and his search for peace nearly costs him everything.
Well I was blown away. I read them cover-to-cover and hungered after the next release in paperback. I understand she managed to upset quite a few people in Salisbury which is the town Starbridge is based upon, but the stories were so very powerful indeed…..
Then after a hiatus of a few years came the St. Benet’s trilogy:
The St. Benet’s trilogy takes place in London of the 1980s and 1990s. Again, the changes which took place in the Anglican Church in those years are startling and the stories brings back some of the characters in the Starbridge series.There is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy though to be honest, the Churh looms large constantly.
A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), continues the story of Nicholas Darrow fifteen years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London where he runs a center for the ministry of healing. Alice Fletcher, a young woman in turmoil happens upon the healing centre Nick runs and becomes a volunteer there. Nick’s own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the center, he is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result. Much of the story is told in the words of Alice, but the narrators takes turns. It makes for an interesting change every so often in the book.
The High Flyer narrates the story of a female City lawyer, Carter Graham(changed from Catriona to make it more masculine). Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after strange occult tinged events begin to occur, which show that all is not well in her life.
Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds his world spiralling out of control when he realises he is himself at the center 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. This is by far the raciest and most shocking of the books, and strangely one of the most touching.
Hooked yet? I was.
Susan Howatch is one of the very tiny number of authors whom I have actually written to; like the lady she is, she replied to all my letters with thoughtful, handwritten replies that I keep and treasure. I’m not a reader who has a great tendancy to worship or set on a pedestal the authors whose work I enjoy. I am quite happy for them to be almost anonymous, really. In her last reply to me, she said she wanted to give up writing and indeed, there hasn’t been a new book from her in some years. I understand that, though it makes me sad. I understand because the scope and complexity and sheer range of subject and emotional exploration she has covered in her many books is so immense that surely it would have to be something entirely out of the usual to get her to start the whole process again.
Anyway, go and get addicted!