Girl History Month – Susan Howatch, Storyteller

Cover of "The Rich Are Different"

Cover of The Rich Are Different

Susan Howatch (born 14 July 1940) is an English author who is first and foremost a storyteller.

Her first novel was The Dark Shore (1965). She published several other “gothic” novels before she published the first of her family sagas Penmarric (1971), which details the fortunes and disputes of the Penmar family in Cornwall during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An important theme of the story is how the mansion of Penmarric becomes controlled by various branches of the family. The family fortune was made in the Cornish tin mining industry, which is discussed throughout one of the six parts, each with a different character as narrator. As is made clear by the chapter headings, the fortunes of the family closely parallel the Plantagenet family, including Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, with the mansion representing the throne.

Howatch followed a similar theme in her vast saga, The Wheel of Fortune, where the story of the Godwin family of Oxmoon in Gower, South Wales, is in fact a re-creation in a modern form of the story of the Plantagenet family of Edward III of England, the modern characters being created from those of his eldest son Edward of Woodstock (The Black Prince) and his wife Joan of Kent, John of Gaunt and his mistress and then wife, Katherine Swynford, Richard II (son of Edward of Woodstock), Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt) and Henry IV’s eldest son King Henry V. Again the mansion represents the throne.

She also wrote three other family sagas, Cashelmara, which focuses on the family of Edward I (Edward DeSalis), his son, Edward II (Patrick De Salis) and others; and The Rich Are Different followed by its sequel, The Sins of the Fathers, both of which combine to tell the story, in America’ s financial industry, of Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and Octavian.

After her return to England in 1980, Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it. She had settled in Salisbury out of love for the beauty of the town, but found herself increasingly drawn to Salisbury Cathedral; eventually she began to study Anglican Christianity in earnest. She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.” This personal turning point culminated in Howatch’s most successful and popular works, the Starbridge series.

This series of six books sets out to describe the history of the Church of England through the twentieth century. Each of the six books is self-contained, and each is narrated by a different character. However, the main protagonist of each book also appears in the other books, allowing the author to present the same incidents from different viewpoints.

The action of all six books centers around the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, which is supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, a fictional Anglican monastic order. The cathedral and ecclesiastical hierarchy at Starbridge are based on the real-life Salisbury.

The first three books of the series (Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes) begin in the 1930s, and continue through World War II. 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 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 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”.

Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a working class background in the north of England. After being widowed and remarried, 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.

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 more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we first encounter him in the first of the books.

The St. Benet’s trilogy takes place in the London of the 1980s and 1990s. Again, it illustrates the changes which took place in the Anglican Church in those years and brings back many of the characters in the Starbridge series. However, while the Church is still at the heart of the books, there is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy. Like the six preceding books, each in the trilogy is written in the first person by a different narrator.

A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up 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. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the center, 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 female 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 male prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds 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.

Howatch has used some of the profits from her novels to found an academic post with the title ‘Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology’ in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, devoted to linking the fields of science and religion. The first holder of this post is the Reverend Dr. Fraser Watts, a psychologist and theologian.

There are rumors online that Ms. Howatch may not write any more, and that would be sad because I have now read all of her books. I recommend them highly, for well-written, thrilling stories, and, for anyone with spiritual yearnings, as manna for the soul.

3 thoughts on “Girl History Month – Susan Howatch, Storyteller

  1. Deborah, I have never heard of Susan Howatch before, thank you so much for this post and for educating me and engaging my interest. I love this series of posts!

  2. Great blog! I loved Susan Howatch but have not read her for years, so you’ve given me a great reason to revisit. Loved ‘The Rich are Different’, ‘Penmarric’ ‘Cashelmara’ et al but stopped reading when she ventured into CoE history. Maybe it’s time I tried it…

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