Sex, scandal and Christian theology–these are the substance of the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch, a sprawling soap opera about the Church of England in the 20th century. A colleague introduced me to this one-of-a-kind series, which I quickly devoured. These novels are both addictive and enriching.
The Starbridge books and the subsequent St Benet’s trilogy span 1937—1992. The first six novels are set in the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge (for which read Salisbury, England). Each novel is self-contained and indeed wonderful on its own. Howatch has planned very carefully so that the novels can be read in any order without fear of spoilers. But reading the full series rewards the reader’s dedication, both because the interconnectedness of numerous characters comes into focus and because Howatch often winks at readers who are familiar with other books in the series.
So, the Starbridge novels:
- Glittering Images is set in 1937 and narrated by Charles Ashworth, a young priest trying to solve a mystery at the Starbridge Episcopal Palace.
- Glamorous Powers opens in 1940 and narrated by Jon Darrow, an Anglican monk called to leave the Order.
- Ultimate Prizes is set in 1942 and narrated by Neville Aysgarth, an Archdeacon obsessed with chasing worldly success, a fixation that leads him to make a potentially disastrous marriage.
- Scandalous Risks is set in 1963 and narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat, who begins a doomed love affair with Neville Aysgarth.
- Mystical Paths is set in 1968 and narrated by Nicholas Darrow as he tries to solve the mystery of a friend’s death.
- Absolute Truths is set in 1965, i.e. before the events described in Mystical Paths, but is the finale of the series. It is narrated by Charles Ashworth, who began the series. Now the Bishop of Starbridge, Absolute Truth finds him facing a personal catastrophe.
The Starbridge novels are followed chronologically by the St Benet’s trilogy. These books centre on the London-based healing ministry of St Benet’s and feature a few characters from Starbridge. Unlike the Starbridge novels, which are focused on priests, the St Benet’s trilogy turns the spotlight on characters who are new to Christianity.
- A Question of Integrity (published in the USA and Canada as The Wonder Worker, a better title in my view) is set in 1988 and narrated by several different characters.
- The High Flyer is set in 1990 and narrated by Carter Graham, a tough city lawyer.
- The Heartbeaker is set in 1992 and narrated alternately by Carter Graham and Gavin Blake, a male prostitute.
The Starbridge novels are about dedicated, intelligent priests making mistakes and getting themselves into messes. One of the aims of the series is to show that clergy are only human and just as capable as anyone else of falling short of their ideals (in this sense, the Starbridge series does for Church of England clergy what ER did for doctors).
Howatch is fascinated by the complexity of the human personality and the dark secrets that everyone carries. Each novel is full of robust theology and thought-provoking ideas. But these books are not just intellectually enjoyable; Howatch is a good storyteller and there’s plenty of scandal. You will have to know what happens next.
I particularly love these books for their psychologically complex characters that you truly care about. Howatch is an astute student of psychology and a Freudian interview sits at the heart of all the Starbridge and St Benet’s books. Her characters turn to psychoanalysis to uncover how heredity, experience and the ubiquitous British class system have shaped them and brought them to their present crisis. A regular motif is the idea that the language of religion and the language of psychology both point to the same truths.
What I admire most about Howatch’s storytelling is her ability to tell the same story from different perspectives. In each novel, she adopts a distinctive and convincing voice for the narrator. She uses different Starbridge narrators to represent wings of the Church of England (Neville Aysgarth is low-church, Jon Darrow an Anglo-Catholic and Charles Ashworth represents the Anglican ‘Middle Way’). Perhaps this sounds overly schematic, but Howatch presents the different viewpoints so intelligently and sympathetically that you can get inside the minds of the different characters. Read as a series, the Starbridge novels enabled me to understand a range of conflicting perspectives within the church.
Howatch is also the master of the unreliable narrator. Here is a meaningful exchange from Glittering Images:
‘Have you read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by the other, more famous Miss [Agatha] Christie?’
‘Yes. That’s the one where you have to watch the narrator’.
‘Precisely. I always find the more I read that story the more intrigued I become by the narrator’s omissions and evasions.[i]
The joke is that the same might be said about our own narrator, Charles Ashworth. The truth about his past will only come to light later.
I believe Howatch uses unreliable narrators, and presents a spectrum of perspectives across the series, in order to highlight the limited nature of human knowledge. Once the reader is familiar with multiple books in the series, she will constantly be aware of instances where our narrator makes an incorrect assumption and misunderstands the situation. The subjectivity of our knowledge is depicted throughout the series. For example, in Absolute Truths, the device of a diary forces the narrator to confront his personal delusions. A Question of Integrity and The Heartbreaker both use multiple narrators within the same book to showcase both the individuality of our perspective and complexity of reality.
These novels taught me a great deal about the Church of England (very useful, as I work for an Anglican publisher!), delighted and enriched me.
[i] Glittering Images, page 120.