Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From Glittering Images to Absolute Truths: Susan Howatch's Starbridge Sextet

Lent seems the perfect time to reflect upon the ecclesiastical novel.

Church-centred fiction frequently has difficulty resolving the Christian dilemma of being "in the world and yet not of it." If an ecclesiastical novel confines itself to the life of the Church, it risks alienating the reader unfamiliar with—or even antipathetic to—matters considered "churchy." If, on the other hand, it engages excessively with the Church in the world, it risks creating a narrative in which all consideration of the transcendent is sacrificed and the ecclesiastical environment becomes merely a setting for characters shorn of heavenly aspiration. Fortunately, there are novelists capable of transcending such conflicts and Susan Howatch is certainly among their number.

Howatch's Starbridge Sextet was published over a period of seven years, the last—and arguably the finest—Absolute Truths, appearing in 1994. Like Anthony Trollope, her setting is a Cathedral community in southern England (Howatch wrote in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral). As with Trollope, the conflict between the Bishop and the Dean of the Cathedral forms the central dynamic of the final three novels, but unlike Trollope, the reader is never presented with a cast in which hero and villain are easily identifiable (there are no Obadiah Slopes or Francis Arabins). Indeed, Howatch's twin preoccupations are human fallibility and the necessity of a life transformed by divine grace. Furthermore, although these are novels that focus upon the lives of men engaged in the business of the Church, they are set in the context of a turbulent Great Britain passing from the horrors of economic depression and global conflict of the late 1930s to the cultural unravelling of the late 1960s, when crisis theology or the "new morality" still had meaning beyond the portals of the seminary. In an age when the observations of most bishops of the Church of England evoke little interest even among church-going Anglicans (never mind the wider public), it is well to be reminded of an age when the pronouncements of a George Bell or a John Robinson had the capacity to excite public interest.

Another ingenious feature of the sextet is that while it follows a chronological progression, it also reflects a re-telling of a common story from different angles, most notably those of the three principal characters, Charles Ashworth (Cambridge don and later Bishop of Starbridge), narrator of Glittering Images (1987) and Absolute Truths (1994); Jon Darrow (a member of an Anglican religious order released from his vows to function as a laicized spiritual director), narrator of Glamorous Powers (1988); and Neville Aysgarth (Archdeacon of Starbridge and later Dean of Starbridge Cathedral), narrator of Ultimate Prizes (1989). Outside perspectives are also provided by Aysgath's erstwhile lover Venetia Flaxton, narrator of Scandalous Risks (1990) and Darrow's son Nicholas, narrator of Mystical Paths (1992), though neither novel has, in my opinion, quite the power of the other four.

Howatch's three principal characters—while unquestionably individuals—also serve as theological "types." At one extreme we find Jon Darrow, representative of the Anglo Catholic party at its zenith but also of a mystical tradition that is, as the character acknowledges at one point, beyond parties. At the other pole is the liberal Protestant modernist, Neville Aysgarth, whose disdain for the trappings of ritualism is never far from the surface. Between the two, we find Charles Ashworth, a Prayer Book high churchman increasingly dedicated to resisting the tides of modernity sweeping through the Church of England. Such single sentence summaries do less than justice to the complexity of the characters involved, however, for Howatch displays an enviable skill in exploring both their strengths and their weaknesses. Such a narrative, rendered all the more effective by the fact that it is generally the character that testifies against himself, articulates with resounding force the messages of Sin and Redemption, Incarnation and Atonement, Good Friday and Easter that amplify the limitations of the human condition.

Subsequent posts will explore the principal features of each novel in detail and will be linked to this introduction. It might seem strange to propose such literature for Lenten reading, yet I would personally recommend Absolute Truths (although it is the final part of the sextet, and the penultimate chronologically, it is not necessary to have read the others to appreciate it) as an example of the depths from which a Christian can recover and a reminder that "failure" is as much a part of the human condition for the clerical order as for that of the laity.

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