Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Writers: Susan Howatch

I have decided to begin a series on writers. I begin with Susan Howatch, an English fiction writer, who seems to have been most popular a decade or so ago.

Susan Howatch is a new author for me but she has intrigued me for a long time now. A friend EmKay (who blogs at My Real Journey) first mentioned her series on clergy and family dramas. I've wanted to read Howatch ever since. Since then, I learned some of Howatch's novels are set in Salisbury Cathedral (UK) and involve Church of England characters. I love books set in the UK and so, recently, I picked up, rather randomly, two Howatch books to read over the Christmas holidays: Penmarric, a gothic-type novel set in romantic, rustic Cornwall and Scandalous Risks set in Starbridge Cathedral, a make-believe for the great Salisbury Cathedral which I love. I finished both books somewhat easily but will confess I skipped major portions. I'm unsure if I will be reading any of her books again. My dilemma now is this: Should I recommend Howatch?
Howatch is a fine writer. Her descriptions are detailed and the story lines compelling but the morality issues she uncovers or explores leave me unnerved, unhappy. Howatch is not a writer I would recommend for believers although I understand her fascination for those still trying to understand sex and sexuality as God's gifts; American culture and evangelical Christians too especially have become far too obsessed with it. This is why, fiction sometimes leaves me unfulfilled. Fictional stories that explore sexuality and with trite, sad, happy or ambiguous endings leave me cold. I want clear-cut answers and I want to feel empowered, uplifted, not sad when I finish a book. For me, there are definite boundaries between good and evil. Good always wins in the end and is not the lustreless virtuosity of a bleak, grey world but the shining golden radiance of light in a dark world. I must remember that fiction is just a device used to explore moral issues and the author who appeals is one who lets the reader discover the answers, rather than stating it in black and white!

In Scandalous Risks, Howatch has a revered Anglican dean of a cathedral, who should know better, choose to engage in "pure love" (without adultery) with a young upper class girl Venetia. In Penmarric, she has a young man choose to love two women and proceed to have two families through both the women. Risks has the saving grace of humor, insight into class distinctions, and interesting theological discussions about Honest to God, a book published in real life by an English Bishop and that criticized traditional Christian theology. Penmarric has detailed and fascinating descriptions of Cornwall and again, what seems to be a Howatch motif, insight into the different but widely held perceptions about class differences starting from 1890 and into the first half of the 1900s.

Will either of these books contribute to spiritual formation and growth in faith? Do they help me keep my eyes on Christ? I don't think so but I could be wrong. If all you want to do is pass the time, that is you are a fan of high quality escapist literature, then, Howatch is a good read. She is highly recommended over the traditional romances (Mills and Boons, Harlequin, etc.). There is definitely a lot more going on intellectually than those kinds of books. I also suspect a greater depth to her novels than a quick first read reveals. In fact, her epigraphs - quotes at the beginning of each chapter in both novels - set forth the themes in a witty, attention-getting and persuasive fashion. There are also quotes sprinkled within the conversations between the characters. One quote she attributes to that great early Church Father Augustine "Love God, and do what you like" had me dipping into my copy of The Confessions of Augustine! And who can not fail to be touched and drawn closer to God by Augustine's Confessions? There is just so much of the Word of God there! The quotes from Robinson's Honest to God at the beginning of each of her chapters in Scandalous Risks was also quite enjoyable. In Penmarric, she explores opposite standards through each of the main characters in the novel: Mark (the man who starts it all), honor and dishonor, Janna (the woman he loves and marries), love and hate, Adrian (the second son with the woman he beds but does not wed), good and evil, Philip (the second son with Janna), truth and falsehood, and Jan-Yves (the youngest son with Janna), justice and injustice. The epigraphs in this novel draw parallels with the royal Saxon and Norman families and the treacheries, loves, friendships and betrayals that existed between them. Penmarric has been made into a TV series. 

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