The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suddenly Susan: Some Notes on Howatch

So for this Advent (starting a little early (November 6), ending a little early(December 18)), I'll be leading a book group at St. Barts on the Starbridge Novels of Susan Howatch. The books are old friends; I stumbled on them when Howatch was only partway through with the series, and bought Mystical Paths and Absolute Truths when they came out. They're interesting in several ways, but here's what grabbed me when I first read them: they succeed as moves first and foremost. Howatch's characters, particularly her leads, the conflicted intellectual Charles Ashworth, the mystic Jonathan Darrow, and the low church, ambitious Neville Aysgarth, are three dimensional figures whose struggles with their own flaws and with each other are credible, rooted in deep human insight, illuminated with deep empathy.

You can hear the overview of the novels that I gave at the St. Barts Rector's Forum over the summer here.

As Howatch explained in an interview with David Virtue (!):
Virtue: What makes good Christian fiction?

Howatch: It’s a vexed question. I don’t think of myself as a Christian novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes on Christian themes. I think there is a difference. A Christian novelist implies someone who thinks a Christian theme and tailors everything to fit. For me, the people come first and the Christian themes grow out of that. The important thing about Christian fiction is that first of all it should be good fiction; without that, nothing is possible. But because Christianity applies to the whole of life and the novelist’s concern should be the whole of life, if a novel is done well, it inevitably should have Christian themes in it because Christianity is dealing with the great fundamentals of life. Unfortunately many novelists today aren’t interested in broad interests or major themes.. . . I think it is extremely dangerous for any novelist to set out to evangelize, because you end up writing a Christian polemic. A novelist’s first duty is to write a story. A novelist’s second duty is to write a readable story, and without a readable story nothing is possible. You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right, the Christian themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated. In The Wonder Worker you can see the theology of healing, and you can see the business of sin and redemption and forgiveness at work. The themes are all there in the book. Once you start saying I am going to evangelize, that’s actually pride. When I had my religious conversion, one of the most important things was that I was working for years furthering my own self-interest. What I am going to do now, if I continue to write books, I am going to offer them to God to use as he pleases. That sets me free. I offer it to God and say “make of it what you wish”; otherwise you get carried away by pride.
By her standard, of writing good novels with compelling characters, and a storyline that naturally flows from their interactions, Howatch succeeds admirably in the Starbridge novels.

Each of the three clerics at the center of the series is the narrator in one book. The daughter of Aysgarth's best friend continues his story, as Darrow's son tells his father's story and his own. Ashworth then brings the series to a close. Importantly, there are no villains. While Howatch clearly has her favorites among the cast--she's quite fond of Ashworth, respects Darrow, and does not like Aysgarth as much as she does the other two--she gives them all their do, as she does for less central figures making up the work. The overlapping narration, in which the same event is often seen several times, through starkly different viewpoints, enriches the whole.

The theological component of the novels is rich, also, and worth noting, and I'll write about that next.

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