When I first read Susan Howatch’s “Starbridge Series,” her brilliant fictional look at the history of the Church of England from 1937 to 1968, a similar confusion beset me. Indeed, Bond’s martini preference — ”Shaken, not stirred” — comes to mind here; I was shaken and stirred both by the genius of Howatch and by the fact that the characters and plots of her Starbridge books blended together in my recollection. I’d read the books too fast, too close together, and out of order. Someday I hope to reread them and give them the attention they deserve.
My confusion did not recur when reading Howatch’s three-volume St. Benet’s series, mostly because I read the books in order. The latest novel in this series is The Heartbreaker. Though the story again involves the “wonder worker” Father Nicholas Darrow and his cranky mentor and spiritual advisor Father Lewis Hall, the true protagonists of the novel are Carta Graham, a beautiful, high-powered attorney whose spiritual quest has led her to work for St. Benet’s, and Gavin Blake, an incredibly handsome prostitute who sells his body for a steep price to men, though he himself is heterosexual.
When Carta and Gavin meet, there are the fireworks we might expect from two people who are so instantly attracted to each other. Their chief difficulties in connecting are Carta’s boyfriend, writer Eric Tucker, and Gavin’s special spiritual problems. Whether they actually become lovers I must not reveal here, though I can add that The Heartbreaker takes many turns and twists in the relationships between the characters.
One quality that makes Howatch’s novels remarkable, particularly the ones dealing with religious themes, is the way they mirror our own age, our own selves. Let’s take Gavin Blake as an example. His dominatrix, his female pimp, the woman whom he trusts with his immense savings and whose opinions he so respects, reveals herself during the course of the novel to be a liar, a believer in astrology and fortunetelling, an occultist, and an accessory to murder. Her control over Gavin is nearly absolute, yet he receives help from several unexpected quarters in his battle against her, including aid from the woman’s own secretary.
In Gavin, in Carta, in Nicholas and Lewis, indeed in all of Howatch’s characters, we see reflected the concerns of our time: an obsession with sex, a corresponding denigration of romance and love, the pursuit of the things of this world, particularly of money and power, the negligence of the things that really matter to us, and the way in which all of these ideas act upon us. Nicolas Darrow and Lewis Hall, who is one of my favorite cantankerous characters in all of fiction, regard this sickness of the soul as quite deadly, to be fought not so much with drugs or operations but with prayer and counseling. Here and in the Starbridge books Howatch does a fantastic job of coupling Christianity with modern psychoanalysis, of showing us how both faith and science can play a role in recovery from emotional or spiritual sickness.
Enhancing this philosophy is Howatch’s command of the language. The voices of her characters seem real because of her use of slang, contemporary grammatical usage, and a heavy reliance on conversation as a device for carrying the story. She also has a marvelous ability to capture a character through conversation, to show us the character simply by speech or word usage. Here, for examples, is Gavin speaking to Carta in the middle of the novel:
“He’s already told me. Can’t wait to see the lavish Wiltshire mansion!”
My heart gives a great thud. “You’re going with him?”
“Of course! This is major fundraising!”
“Cool!” I breathe, reeling from the testosterone surge. “Keep me posted, huh? Take care.”
As I sign off, my equipment feels ready to burst out of my trousers.
In those six lines, we learn that Gavin clearly thinks of himself as some sort of sexual stud, that Howatch presents him as a man given to cliché (his heart giving “a great thud”) undercut by irony, and that she isn’t afraid to use grammar irregularities such as an overabundance of exclamation points if she thinks those will help her characters tell their stories.
Finally, Howatch’s unusual novels work because she presents her characters as living behind masks which other characters must work to remove. If we consider our relations with others — loved ones, friends, relations, fellow employees, casual acquaintances — we see that we frequently do slip behind masks to hide a part of ourselves. How a man might relate to his wife, for instance, is of course vastly different than how he relates to his mother-in-law or his boss (which for the truly unfortunate may be one and the same entity). The three novels in the St. Benet’s series, though filled with many subplots and wide-ranging ideas, are chiefly an examination of how we heal ourselves enough to remove certain of these masks.
Howatch is one of our most prolific and insightful storytellers. Perhaps because of her earlier best-sellers, which may have caused certain critics to dismiss her more current work, she is also surely one of our most underrated novelists. Her seven-volume Starbridge Series chronicles not only the changes in the Church of England for the middle 50 years of the last century; it is, in one sense, a chronicle of the changes in Christianity itself during that same time. Her St. Benet’s novels are both studies and critiques of a society undergoing enormous, and at times harmful, change.