Steve Petford enjoys a high-spirited talk to best selling novelist SUSAN HOWATCH about the whys and hows of her extraordinary STARBRIDGE series and her own mystical path. 

I’VE LONG BEEN a fan of the novels of Susan Howatch particularly the the compelling inner-worlds of the ecclesiastical characters that inhabit the cathedral sagas of the Starbridge series; I was delighted when she agreed to meet me over coffee at the Barbican to discuss these six novels and shed some light on their inspiration and the intellectual and spiritual journey that forged them.

It’s worth saying that these thrilling, sometimes breathless six novels revolve around the psychological complexities of a Christian faith and the history of the Church of England 1930s – 60s. Whilst each of the six books is self-sufficient and can be read alone – in fact each is narrated by a different main character – the novels form a quite addictive chronicle and I really recommend their reading to new readers.

The action of all six books takes place in the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, loosely based on Salisbury where Susan Howatch lived for so long – and revolves around a heady mix of scandal and theology, a sort of ecclesiastical soap opera, all be it a high brow one – even including a new fictional Anglican monastic order, the Fordite monks.

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.

SP: So you wrote the Starbridge series between 1987 – 1994. Have you re-read them? And what do you think about them now?

SH: I think it was about two years ago in February 2016, that I started reading them, I was so bored and I thought I could do something – so I re-read the Starbridge books – I literally hadn’t read them for 30 years; and I thought hmmn  yes….

SP: So what’s that like, the impact of re-reading your own works? I think Dorothy Sayers says in The Mind of the Maker, a novel or any other work of art is a ‘living thing’ – just as much for its creator as its audience?

SH: Well they were published a long time ago – 1989 etc – so it really was interesting to read them again. And I was quite pleased with them. You see the point about the six books of the Starbridge books was that I didn’t know where I was going when I started them… so the first three books weren’t so good as the last three! By the time I got to the last three I really knew where I was going! 

SP: Was it obvious how it all interweaves, your creativity as a writer to your spiritual, theological journey?

SH: I’m first and foremost a writer – so writing is always first. I had this story to write and I wanted to write the story of Prime Minister Asquith – I would do it as a roman-a-clef and change all the names and everything. I thought how could I recycle Asquith? I’ll recycle him as a clergyman so I thought this was quite a good idea. And that’s what I did – I recycled him as a clergyman. And then it was after I’d made these decisions that I started reading about theology. I knew nothing before.

SP: OK, so when you made this decision to repackage Asquith as it were there was no religious impulse behind that?

SH: No, I was actually living in Salisbury, near Salisbury Cathedral and that was my impetus I think; though I wasn’t a churchgoer, I was a sort of vague Christian, a Christian on the penumbra as they used to call it. But I was living in the cathedral Close facing the Cathedral because it was so beautiful, so it was quite natural to think in terms of Asquith being a clergyman. I went to Salisbury Public Library and looked at the religious section and I thought I’d better look up God!

SP: So was it an intellectual interest developing this novel?

SH:  It came together. The idea came first. In the beginning was the word… Then I did them in tandem. I read about theology for 10 years and of course the more I read the more I knew. By the time I got to Absolute Truths, the final book, no, earlier than that, Mystical Paths, the 5thbook, I had ideas of my own because all I did beforehand was absorb the ideas of other people. But I’m not an original thinker. Before that I was absorbing the ideas of leading theologians and regurgitating them as sort of motifs in the book. But from Mystical Paths – after reading Christopher Bryant’s books about Jung and Christianity – I began to really sort of get things together. Well, the 4thbook was good too because it was about the controversies raised by John Robinson’s Honest to God and that was a great thing to explore in that context. The final book as I say, touched a lot of places, that was inspired by my reading of Austin Farrer. The first 3 books were fine but I thought the 2ndbook, Glamorous Powers – I was amazed by how many loose ends there were, the plot could have been developed much better. So I thought I’d rewrite it! I thought it would take about 9 months and it’s 2 years and I still haven’t finished though I’m quite near the end.

SP: You said in an interview with Caroline Armitage that, ‘My Christianity will work itself out by the creative process, that creation is a very mysterious process…’ 

SH: Yes that’s true!

SP: I also recall you saying that you have a crucifix?

SH: I’ve still got that!

SP: And when you worked it was on your desk…

SH: That’s not true now. I don’t have a desk! That’s in my bedroom.

SP: So was there a kind of spiritual enrichment as this process went on in writing these novels?

SH: Oh yes.  A sort of symbiosis, yes…

SP: Because one of the great things about your work for me is the way that the ideas – about ways of living, and the best way to live – and values – from lots of different perspectives that vary according to the lives of the characters – well that’s something I find really effective in your work. We get multiple perspectives – and layers are taken away to reveal new ways of understanding the characters to us and to themselves. You think that as a reader you reach a point which coincides with the character’s self-understanding and then you get the interpretation of another character so there are different voices in the novel.

SH: That’s it, multiple perspectives like reality and people appear differently. People see different people in different ways at different times. If you take Jon Darrow in the first book – he’s a hero but in the second book you see all his flaws; in the third book Aysgarth thinks he’s a pain in the neck, in the fourth book Venetia thinks he’s a fabulous old pet. In the fifth book he’s a tiresome parent with Nicholas but in the final book he is a kind of sage living in a wood, so you get six different angles on him. 

SP: You used the word ‘regurgitation’ about your use of theological works but it doesn’t read like that at all; it’s really carefully worked out and unfolded and is utterly convincing psychologically.

SH: You have to understand that when I started reading all the theologians whom I quoted, I had to make the effort to understand where they were coming from, but I didn’t really have any strong views of my own for some time. But yes, of course there was an interplay; I found theology fascinating and too bad it’s not more widely taught. The ignorance nowadays is unbelievable. 

SP: In fact one of your characters refers to the 60s as a ‘moral wasteland’ …

SH: Well it was!

 SP: So then I was wondering whether you might think something similar about the times we live in now…

SH: Well, I mean you know it’s not my time. I had my time – my prime time – from 1985 to 2005 – well call that 1980 to 2000. Then you have to make way for the next wave. I don’t really have any views.

SP: So is there another wave? Because you’d think there would be or should be more religious novels or more works concerned with Religion…

SH: Or even Philosophy, why not… I mean there’s nothing now. No, I shouldn’t say thatbecause I really don’t know. The trouble is that a lot of the church bookshops were closed down because SPCK made the mistake of being bought out by an American publisher who closed them down. And without the bookshops in every cathedral city I think it’s difficult. It’s a question of media, isn’t it? I’m sure the church now has great media coverage on the internet. That’s made up for it. Christianity I think will always be around, its eternal values. The Church may come and go, may rise and fall just as it always has done over the centuries.

SP: Yes, well, that’s right. The culmination of Absolute Truths vindicates that view. But when you were writing the novels and particularly when you encountered the ideas of Christopher Bryant – he talks about individuation and fulfilment of the self with God…  Presumably you haven’t lost that belief?

SH: Well, Christopher Bryant made Christianity intelligible to me because I never really understood what they were banging on about. When I read Christopher Bryant I realised that the whole thing, all the theological language – which must be respected because every profession has its different language – the whole thing can be replicated, almost, in psychological terms. And once I understood the psychology of it then I realised.

SP: I think that’s utterly convincing. 

SH: You’ve got to have the concept of the two languages, that’s why I was interested in science and religion. It was the two languages but different facets of God, describing different aspects of one truth. So I got very interested in that and talking to people about that. The concept of two languages… you know I was trained as a lawyer, did Law at university, and of course the law has its language…I think it’s a question of translating the language into a language that you can absorb. Once I understood what they were actually talking about then it was much easier to get along with it. But another great thing about the faith aspect was I was living very near Westminster Abbey. That was lovely because I attended evensong every day. That was when I started to go to church, when I got to London. I didn’t have to participate, I could hide behind a pillar and watch. I’ve always found worship almost impossible, very difficult. However, I got there in the end! But it took me a long time. I’m spiritually quite stupid actually.

SP: So would you say you become spiritually less stupid as you developed your characters?

SH: Ha, that’s for God to decide! I think one gets more discerning.  Everything begins to chime and it all works through into the novels. 

SP: Individuation and so on?

SH: Individuation, that’s what you want to know about. Christopher Bryant, of course, did this synthesis with Jung in ‘Jung and the Christian Way’ and so on, and that’s something I found very valuable. Christianity is multi-sided but the side that interested me was the business of starting over, in the mid-life crisis, what they call the ‘second journey’. The mid-life crisis is when you want to cling on to a lost youth and the second journey is when you want to move on. So it’s a different thing.

SP: But you said in the interview with Armitage that you woke up one day and you realised that the way you’d been living…

SH: Yes I  realised that I knew nothing.

SP: But was that a kind of epiphany? 

SH: There are many epiphanies. The first one was wanting to do Asquith as a clergyman. But as I say I’m primarily a writer. Yes, obviously once I had decided to write about the Church I applied myself first of all to the structure and history and got a grip on it and then the theology came bit by bit as I examined these different 20th century writers. They didn’t all speak to me. I think Charles Raven had the most attractive voice but he was just very approachable in prose. He was very pro-women too, unusually for his times, although he still expected his daughter to wait on him! He was very liberal and a pacifist. I’m not a pacifist but I could respect his pacificism and I could respect his liberalism. I’m a conservative liberal like John Habgood, the former Archbishop of York. 

SP: But I remember you saying that you like speculation and going off in other directions.

SH: Yes, it’s hard to remember now what I felt in the 90s but…. 

SP: Have these things continued? Do they change over time?

SH: Oh yes they change all the time! It’s difficult living in Surrey really. I go to the parish church but prefer the cathedral, Guildford Cathedral. I have often toyed with the idea of going back to Salisbury but I’m really too old to start over. You’ve got to be practical and sensible. That was then and this is now. It’s no good re-running the past. 

SP: But in terms of going to church and being part of that kind of fellowship and community…

SH: But that’s the trouble, I am not really suited for parish life because I’m not into community stuff, I’m really a loner. But at Westminster Abbey of course it was different and Salisbury, though I wasn’t a churchgoer in Salisbury. But I got involved with Salisbury Cathedral later when we were raising money for the spire. So I got to know everyone at Salisbury in the end. 

SP: It’s a beautiful cathedral but in Absolute Truths the cathedral is very sinister.

SH: Yes, the cathedral in the last book Absolute Truths is actually a character. It reflects Ashworth’s psyche. 

SP: It’s not something you’ve experienced yourself?

SH: No. 

SP: How does the Anglican Church or other denominations regard you now?

SH: When I started out with Glittering Images published there was a lot of media interest but the Church was much more reluctant but in the end when Absolute Truths was launched the launch was at Lambeth Palace in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I just said thank you God…. 

SP: Had the Archbishop of Canterbury read Absolute Truths?

SH: I don’t know, I never asked. I heard from a lot of clergy but not everyone reads novels.

SP: But I think though that your novels are quite educative actually. 

SH: Well in the beginning they found them shocking. In Glittering Images I think I went a bit too far but never mind I didn’t know much then. But I think it’s the same old story: in America I was treated much more seriously and they are now given to every bishop qualifying from a certain theological college. And the Dean of King’s College London also recommends them – so I’m getting there!

SP: But do you know what your general readership currently is? 

SH: I’ve no idea. I don’t know. But my job was simply to do the books. It was up to God to decide what to do next with them. It was very liberating. I didn’t have to agonise over what was happening. 

SP: So just changing tack slightly, do you think in order to undertake a second journey that one has to suffer from what William James calls ‘a sick soul’? One of your characters Lyle talks about ‘a divided life’, ‘a cancer of the soul’, ‘being out of alignment’. Many of the characters are afflicted with a very similar thing but that’s the sort of energy behind them trying to fulfil themselves as God wants them to….

SH: Yes, they wind up in catastrophic messes because they are out of alignment; fundamentally they’re not happy, and make bad decisions. And then they can’t go on so then they have to stop and find out who they are.

SP: But do you think this is an essential part of the process?

SH: I think it really all depends. I think you learn through suffering though you should never seek suffering because that would be masochism. But if suffering comes your way it’s a question of how to redeem it and that enables you to work creatively with God, to redeem the suffering. But these are very profound spiritual things. Also the other thing I’d like to make a point on is that we never actually know what goes on in people’s lives and a lot of people might have this sort of crisis but either not be able to identify it or else not turned by it.

SP: It’s quite clear that there are a lot of similarities between the kind of dilemmas which George Eliot explores and your Starbridge novels – particularly what she calls ‘the unknowability of human beings’. Several of your characters remark on that as well as experience it…

SH: You can make educated guesses but basically you never really know. 

SP: But in that case is that compatible… because I was going to ask you whether you believe that there is such a thing as a ‘true self’?

SH: Oh yes, if you think of it as a metaphor of our Self as a blueprint and how we are supposed to become and the true self is the blueprint which one has to realise. Christopher Bryant goes into this, and you have to realise the blueprint. Now, of course, a lot of people never know what the blueprint is, and therefore can’t realise it. As I say we live in a suffering world but if you get the picture that you’re actually not in the right place or not the right person or whatever then you have to go back to the blueprint and find out how to uncover who you are and what you are supposed to be doing, that’s where spiritual direction comes in, though I’ve never had spiritual direction.

SP: Have you not?

SH: I’m a Protestant, I’m not really into Catholic stuff. But however…

SP: But – you paint a very sympathetic picture, well more than sympathetic actually of Darrow and so on.

SH: It’s actually a very strong strength in my books –

SP: Very –

SH: And of course I’ve read a lot about it. And the Dean of King’s, he says that the books are about spiritual direction and that’s what he likes about them. 

SP: It seems to me that spiritual direction is the heart of it really. The books really do make you think about yourself as you’re working through the lives and situations of the characters.

SH: Well, to uncover who you really are. Therapists and psychoanalysts do this too but they not coming at it from the same perspective. I’m not saying that their work is wrong or invalid, it’s just a different perspective on the human condition. And they feed into each other. They can complement each other. 

SP: Yes I particularly like it when your characters – particularly Darrow and Lewis Hall – put things in a modern way. 

SH: That’s right, the two languages. But the fact that I haven’t had any spiritual direction myself doesn’t mean that I can’t read about it and research it. 

SP: But it is utterly convincing and compelling in the way that it is conveyed. Did you in the process of writing develop your own spiritual direction through the characters?

SH: No, I always said to people who’d write in that I’m not a spiritual director. To people who’d write in I’d refer them on. I was in correspondence for quite a long time with a wonderful old guy, a clergyman called Norman Goodacre and he inherited his spiritual direction ministry from a very famous Anglican priest called Reginald Somerset-Ward. So Norman talked quite a lot about Somerset-Ward and actually I was just reading through a couple of Somerset-Ward’s books again (and of course they’re quite dated now) but very interesting. He was born in 1881 and he lived into the 1960s I think and so he was like a contemporary of Jon Darrow. But he was certainly very au fait with people’s problems, modern in some ways for his day. It was all very interesting. I studied all these people. And Norman I could see would be very good at spiritual direction because he was very affirming, very sympathetic. I met him once. He was a very good person. 

SP: What lay behind the business with the original character of the cat, Whitby in Glamorous Powers?

SH: Oh, Whitby… That was me being creative I guess. The point was of course that Darrow got into such trouble there because he was being proud and arrogant…and poor Whitby paid the price.

SP: That was rather shocking. 

SH: Yes, everyone was shocked by that. It was a terrible thing because Darrow had sent the community off the rails.

SP: Is there anything that you know of that’s comparable to that? 

SH: Well, of course, in previous centuries they used to suspect people who had cats of witchcraft….

SP: Yes, but there are successive Whitbys in the novels, that play an important positive role, particularly in Scandalous Risks… OK, in terms of spiritual direction and so on, why did you have a spiritual director, and more than one, in the novels?

SH: Well, you have to think of it as a Church. You’ve got the conservative wing, Charles Ashworth, you’ve got the liberal wing, Neville Aysgarth, and then you’ve got the mystical strand, Jon Darrow. So you’ve got the three strands and that’s why at the end of Absolute Truths they all stand together and join hands. That is the Church of England. And mysticism is the raw material of all religions. And of course a lot of mystics in the past have been members of religious orders so it made sense to create an Order for Jon Darrow to belong to, an English Benedictine eccentric. 

SP: Have you ever met a mystic? Are there any contemporary mystics in Christianity?

SH: I’m sure there are many, yes. I belong to The Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies which is really a juncture of the the paranormal and Christianity. It’s a Society really, like the Alaster Hardy Society, they are specifically for Christians. They don’t deal in the nutty fringe. It’s quite interesting. Of course, every Bishop has an exorcist, even today, though it’s not really spoken of. In the C of E a man called Michael Perry who was the Archdeacon of Durham – dead now – used to run this Christian parapsychologist thing; he was terrific. He was a very down to earth common-sense sort of person which I think the best mystics are. Actually I don’t know whether he was a mystic or not but he was interested in the paranormal and then I’ve read his books. He did a handbook for exorcists in the C of E and also Dominic Walker, the Suffragen Bishop of Reading, he was an exorcist. So there’s this strand in the C of E. But it’s just not really spoken about. There was something in the paper only the other day about an exorcist in a council house doing things about some poltergeist activity, which is usually with a disturbed adolescent. 

SP: You haven’t experienced anything of the paranormal yourself? It’s very powerful in your novels.

SH: No.  My sister-in-law in America, there was a paranormal incident in their house which of course I believe because I knew her very well. Poltergeist activity dies out, it usually takes about nine months. While it’s going on it can be very difficult. But yes, it goes on all the time, but we live in a very sceptical age.

SP: But going one step further than that, do you think that there’s such a thing as demonic possession? Or would you account for that in terms of projection?

SH: The books I’ve read certainly suggest so but it was over-diagnosed in the old days. But there’s always the case you can’t really explain. 

SP: Because there’s some terrifying things in the novels…

SH: But I try to leave it quite open… the two languages again. But I am sure that you do get some odd cases. I mean, Michael Perry, he said there are cases but they are very rare. I was trying to put this into words the other day. With mental illness the disturbance is from within the brain but with possession the force is without and after it’s gone the person is quite normal. There’s a difference but it is very rare. We know more about mental illness now but I’m sure it’s still around.

SP: Have you ever, you yourself, had what you would call a mystical experience…

SH: I think it depends on how you define the terms – it always does – but I would say definitely that my whole experience of writing the Starbridge novels was like a mystical process.  The more I came across it, the more I did it, the wider it grew.  As I say, it was like the generosity of God. And the fact that I wasn’t ambitious for it. In fact, in the end I said to my New York agent I don’t want any money up in advance because I don’t want to be in hock to the publisher, and I don’t want to alter this because it’s not commercial. So anyway, I wasn’t interested in being famous or making a lot of money out of it. ‘Cos it wasn’t like my previous books which were global, I knew this would be a limited audience. I wouldn’t have expected these novels to sell on the scale of my previous books.

SP: Also the levels of ignorance of even the most basic Christian beliefs, narratives, and practices are very high given we live in what Rowan Williams called ‘a post-Christian society’.

SH: But in the old days it was probably just the same in that people couldn’t take in more than a few basics. What’s changed is that there’s not so much emphasis in the media. If there were more emphasis by the media on religion it would be different. People may grasp the essentials but then it doesn’t really register permanently. But I think the Holy Spirit ‘blows where it listeth’. I wasn’t a churchgoer, nobody converted me. 

SP: Did you have a kind of abstract belief before…?

SH: I certainly respected Christianity. I didn’t really enjoy my lessons at school, they were quite boring, and very literal. You have to be quite religiously sophisticated to approach it from the metaphorical point of view. Why I think the evangelicals are so very popular at the moment is because most people when they start out they want certainties, they want clergymen to get up in the pulpit and proclaim that this that and the other is certain. And of course, it’s not like that. But whether that’s ideal in the long run…

SP: And maybe things become dead dogma rather than living truth…

SH: Yes, but the Church is quite good on updating itself but if they update too far like they did in the 60s then you get a great backlash. Maybe nowadays they update too much. Maybe they should stand still a bit. I don’t know. It’s difficult.

SP: Attendance at the C of E is diminishing very fast. 

SH: Well, I don’t really go along with that. People go to Church at different times. I very seldom went to Church on Sunday when I was living in Salisbury. And now I don’t go to Church on Sunday I go on Friday morning. And I think a lot of people go to cathedrals. Cathedrals are booming. They were when I was in Salisbury. I think it’s the parish churches that are having difficulty.

SP: Do you think there’s a danger in coming to a true self once you know what that is? Is that a settled condition? 

SH: One keeps evolving. 

SP: So, in fact, what you think is a true self might actually be a stage?

SH: No, a variation. If you think of the true self as being in the middle and you evolve around it. Again, I think the core of you stays the same. I shall always be a writer. I always was a writer. That’s my core. But there are many facets of one’s true self. Sometimes it’s impossible to be true to one’s self due to the pressures of society, the pressures of family, pressures of all kinds of things, but in the end you come back to the mean. 

SP:  Actually, Bryant says that religion, specifically Christianity, is one way of realising your true self resisting what he calls ‘the pressures of society’.

SH: Well, yes, it’s not always possible. When you’re young you have to conform in order to get on. You either adapt or you rebel eventually. I have a cousin who is very successful and I don’t think he’s ever had a mid-life crisis …he’s just been enjoying life too much. But he’s certainly a very good person. What you were saying about everyone has to go through a crisis, probably not. But one doesn’t know, one doesn’t know what goes on. 

SP: But when you talk about a second journey is that something one has to do in life?

SH: Well, it depends where you are in life, doesn’t it? Some people find themselves straightaway and remain the same forever. And others don’t. I think God can reach out to anyone at whichever stage of the journey that they are at  – and the Holy Spirit.

MAY 2019 Steve Petford MONK


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