I can't remember when I first read Susan Howatch's series on the Anglican Church, but the last time I read them was, I think, when I was on a retreat with my mother at a convent right before my wedding, oh, twelve years ago now?
So they've faded from my memory a fair bit.
But I've been happy to make my re-acquaintance of this fabulous series.
In fact, I've been rather gorging on them this summer.
"Glittering Images", by Susan Howatch, is the first book of her Church of England series. There are six books in the series proper, though there are a few spin-offs that she wrote afterwards.
"Glittering Images" is the story of Charles Ashworth, a clergyman who's well-off, happy in his academic ivory tower, but who is suddenly called away into a slightly seamy mission by the Archbishop of Canterbury: there's a bishop, Jardine, who has been making a lot of noise about the legality of compassionate divorce (have I mentioned this is set in the 1930's?), and the Archbishop wants to make sure there's nothing suspicious about Jardine's private life, so that he can be sure the gutter-press of the day won't be able to find any scandal in Jardine's private life while they're busy making hay of Jardine's daring public opinions on the ending of bad marriages.
So Charles hares off to Starbridge - "glittering, glamorous Starbridge" - a cathedral town pretty clearly patterned off of Salisbury - and stays as a guest with the Bishop of Starbridge, Jardine, ostensibly to study a manuscript in the cathedral library.
During his stay in Starbridge, Charles encounters not just wisps and hints of scandal, but the dark side of his own "glittering image", the public self he's so carefully cultivated, and has to face the more private self he's ruthlessly hidden in pursuit of his own high-minded clerical career.
The wonder of Howatch's novels is that they are so very suspenseful. But none of the suspense comes because you're afraid the main character is going to die or that terrorists are going to complete their doomsday weapon and destroy the world or anything far-fetched like that.
No, the suspense comes because of the protagonist's unavoidable collision with the worst, most hidden, most suppressed, most terrifying parts of his own psyche. We all have bits of ourselves that we don't really want to look at - and sometimes "bits" is generous. "Lots and lots" might be more true, most of the time.
Howatch, amazingly, is able to write about those depths in a way you believe. And not only do you believe it, but you're captivated by the mystery of it.
And also captivated by the drama of all the characters around it - by the drama, by the history, by the theology of the day - by all of the setting and the plot and everything else.
I love these books. Reading them again, I'm still in complete bafflement as to how she plotted something so intricate and so enthralling.
I love these books.
Peace of Christ to you,
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