The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Sort-of Brief for the Partial Defense: Neville Aysgarth

In the course of the book group meetings St. Barts is hosting on Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, we've reached Scandalous Risks and Mystical Paths, up for discussion on December 11.

In discussing the books, I was asked why I had any sympathy with Neville Aysgarth, the "liberal Protestant Modernist" who is dean of Starbridge Cathedral in 1963, and who --

Ok, Spoiler Alert.

As Elaine Kendall summarized the plot:
"Scandalous Risks" is told in the first person by Venetia Flaxton, a peer's daughter who falls hopelessly in love with the venerable dean of Starbridge Cathedral. No matter that Dean Stephen Aysgarth is past 60 and Venetia a mere 26; less matter that he is her father's closest friend, husband to the neurotic Dido and parent of adult children, a man in a highly conspicuous and vulnerable position, a bit overfond of the bottle and at chronic odds with his Bishop--he's still irresistible to Venetia.

When the book opens, Venetia is a jaded woman in late middle age, revisiting the scene of her youthful indiscretion. Her voice is brittle and wry as she recalls the consuming passion that dominated her life; Howatch will maintain this tone throughout her witty, literate but essentially didactic book. The time is 1963, just as the waves of social change are lapping at English shores. The Beatles are still fresh-faced boys sporting Dutch bobs, skirts hover at a respectable fingertip length, and a Church of England bishop has just published a revolutionary treatise called "Honest to God," in which the gospel of love is taken far beyond its traditional limits. This radical volume has not only caused considerable turbulence within the established church, but provided Dean Aysgarth with justification for his dalliance with Venetia.

That romance is the sum and substance of "Scandalous Risks." Because the lovers must be so exceedingly cautious in the cathedral town of Starbridge, much of the love affair is conducted through letters. Venetia and her dean (whom she calls by his given name, Neville, because his wife calls him Stephen) write to each other daily, arranging their weekly trysts in his car and their more casual encounters on a bench in the churchyard. Because the logistics alone would hardly make riveting reading, they discuss church matters and debate the provocative issues raised by the author of "Honest to God."

They also make love, though not in what Howatch delicately calls "the ordinary way," because the dean has promised his wife that his adventures will never degenerate into technical adultery. Unsatisfactory as this restraint may be, Venetia stoically endures it, abstinence only serving to make her heart grow fonder. Non-consummation combined with Howatch's formal, elegant prose style lend the book its 19th-Century quality, a mood reinforced by the minutiae of church activity. During the course of the love affair, the dean is embroiled in a controversy involving an avant-garde sculpture he's commissioned from another attractive young woman; the work of art is considered unsuitable, if not downright pornographic, by his ecclesiastical superiors.
NB: To be fair to the late John A. T. Robinson, that's not quite the point of his book; a much more nuanced and helpful critique by N.T. Wright is a good counterbalance (though Howatch has Charles Ashworth give some good counterbalance in the novel, as well, Wright is more charitable).

In any event, why do I have some sympathy (not all that much; he's the primary bad actor in the book, but some) for Aysgarth?

First, we have to remember that Aysgarth is exclusively viewed from the outside in SR; we don’t see his thought processes or into his heart other than through externals, such as his words and his notes to Venetia. Some of them are true, others are not. It's harder to assess his actions when we don't have full access to his thoughts and feelings, as we did in Ultimate Prizes.

In the 16 years since we last encountered him, Aysgarth has lived in a very difficult marriage with his notoriously "impossible" wife, Diana Dorothea, known as "Dido." Dido is emotionally unstable, eager to impress, clever, and dangerously receptive, in that she's infamously indiscreet. She loves her husband, but not in a way that he finds easy to accept. He has tried very hard, and been quite devoted to her throughout that time, refusing speak ill other, putting her welfare over his career. Aysgarth is sacrificing again and again to achieve his redemption, but over time, has forgotten his duty of self-care; he has mistaken submission to Dido’s whims with loving her (which he finds very hard to do). Just as he did with his first wife, Grace, Aysgarth doesn’t have the stomach to face the hard facts of life. He tries, but embroiders them, to make “everything lovely in the garden.” Denial is his key defense mechanism.

Aysgarth has been, prior to the events in the novel, pretty successful in trying to make the relationship with Dido work, despite all their incompatibility. There is nothing in SR or in the later novels to suggest that he has engaged in any similar relationship prior to Venetia’s crying jag on the vacation to the Hebrides. The relationship clicks into a place that has nowhere to go but disaster, but is, like that of his mentor Bishop Alex Jardine and Ashworth's future wife Lyle Christie before them, an attraction of people who are fundamentally very well suited but not placed so that they can marry. Jonathan Darrow, often Howatch's spokesperson, aptly uses Venetia’s car as a metaphor for the “transient” nature of their relationship.

Notably, Aysgarth has been deprived of some important truths by his mentor, Alex Jardine, who (in Ultimate Prizes) held out for him as an ideal the amitie amoreuse, but hid from his the disaster(s) it had fostered in Jardine’s own life. In other words, Jardine’s reticence leads Aysgarth to think that the kind of relationship he wants with Venetia when she is, to him, his Egeria, is easily attained and maintained. But in fact, it’s difficult, easily sliding into exploitation and folie a deux. This was true for Jardine (with Lyle, obviously, but also with Loretta, and, as we see in Mystical Paths (Nick has a psychic flash), with Lady Starmouth). Jardine may only censure himself for Lyle, but in fact, he’s been far more harmful than he can bear to face. Aysgarth follows his example with grotesquely naive expectations, because he buys Jardine’s “glittering image,” in part because, when he was dying, Jardine told him a lie to preserve it, while gaining Aysgarth’s assistance with Charley and Lyle.

John A.T. Robinson plays a role here; his book Honest to God reaffirms Aysgarth’s faith that he isn’t being exploitative, but rather that he is consecrating an unconsecrated love, and that he’s pursuing his vocation by doing so. As the gap between his ideals and half truths and reality gets wider and wider, he falls into the weaknesses Darrow warned him against: drink and denial.

It’s not that Aysgarth is a victim, it’s that the whole milieu of the early 60s colludes with his self-deception. The reality he has to face—that he must let Venetia go, that Dido is his for life, that he is hers forever—and not just legally, but in fact, emotionally-- and he must find a way to come to terms with that very difficult, but not necessarily completely bleak reality. Darrow tells Venetia that Aysgarth is "bound to [Dido] with chains of steel," and he's right. Aysgarth isn't trying to break free of Dido, but to make room in his life with her for Venetia. It's a doomed quest, every bit as doomed as Jardine's own domestic menage in Glittering Images was doomed. But these aren't evil men evilly chortling and choosing to do evil; they're both men who have failed to face reality and allowed their own gifts for rationalization and wish fulfillment to blind them.

Notably, Aysgarth is also without much support. Charles has Lyle, Darrow, and Alan Romaine to hold him together. Aysgarth could go back to Darrow, but has nobody else who is useful (Dido actually tries, Venetia and Aysgart's daughter Primrose can’t, his protege Eddie is too obtuse). Notably, his bishop—Charles—does not have a pastoral relationship with him, a fact that is in large part, but not exclusively, on Aysgarth. In Absolute Truths, we’ll see Charles come to grapple with his share in that relationship.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you've mentioned this elsewhere - the characters are based on actual people of earlier in the 20th century. Neville Aysgarth's family history is based on that of H.H. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, who was in office at the start of the First Wotld War. Dido is based on Margot Asquith, who was just as eccentric in real life. Venetia is based on Venetia Stanley, with whom Asquith had a rather unclear relationship. He wrote her letters about secret wartime stuff - scandalous risks indeed!

Susan Howatch used this technique of resetting historical events in her early family saga novels.