Slang in Susan Howatch

This post is intended as a prelude to some more in-depth thoughts to come at some indeterminate point in the future. It’s about the 6 Starbridge novels and 3 St Benet’s books, but not any of her other fiction. *Includes spoilers!*

The nine CofE books by Susan Howatch that make up the Starbridge and St Benet’s series are written at least in part as a spiritual history of twentieth century Britain. They begin in 1937, as Charles Ashworth undergoes the first of many spiritual crises and the series ends in 1992, with Nick Darrow contemplating retirement after the defeat of the sinister Gnostic, Asherton.

Howatch’s characters are notable for many reasons, but one of the more subtle elements of her art is the way her characters speak. This includes both direct speech and narration – all the books are in the first person. While it is true that some of the speech patterns are genuine slang terms from certain points in history (such as “vamp” as in ” I’m going to vamp that handsome man sitting opposite me at the table”), they are applied consistently across the series in a totally unrealistic manner – and others are completely invented. “Vamp”, for instance, turns up right across the century, even the early 1990s, when it had not been used in real life for years. Carta Graham, totally against her class and training, not to mention contemporary mores, uses the personal pronoun “one”. Everyone in Starbridge and even a few people in the City get into “sex messes”; people in 1990 apparently talk “nutterguff”, refer to sexy young women as “fluffettes” and, when cross, “climb the walls”.

I think, to some extent, this is entirely intentional. The climactic scenes of both series involve times merging – in the Starbridge sequence, in the form of memories healing, in the St Benet’s in the form of a damaged mind coming to terms with its past – and the speech patterns are meant to serve as gateways to something universal or transcendent (the drive to integration), not as markers of historical veracity. The fact that someone in 1990 gets into a “sex mess” is meant to recall the same thing happening in 1937 and to remind us how little we change.

The invented slang is curious because it’s difficult working out what its function is. Take “fluffette” for example. It’s a twee, out-of-place coining. It jars with its high-powered, city-slicker setting. However, it recalls two things. One – “fluff” – is a genuine, but old, slang term for young lady. Howatch is merging times again. Two – “fluffer” – porn performer used to keep male performers “interested”. That is a direct link to the mysterious Mrs Mayfield and her “therapy groups”.

Throughout the novels people refer almost autistically to specific years. In the final book, for example, Carta would more likely refer to her troubles of a couple of years ago, rather than consistently say “my problems in 1990”: the fact that she, and others, such as Ashworth in Absolute Truths, always use actual years, is to remind us that times are connected by minds and brought from contingency to meaning. Ashworth is obsessed with 1963, 1957 and 1945, not to mention 1937.

In essence, the speech habits of her characters are serving the overarching spiritual ethic of the series, not the exigencies of characterisation. That can make the books seem awkward, unconvincing, even; but they are first and foremost spiritual histories, not temporal ones.

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About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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5 Responses to Slang in Susan Howatch

  1. Linda Marshall says:

    Interesting. I’m not sure if I completely buy it though – Ms Howatch has always, in all her books, had something of a tin ear, and I think this is just another manifestation of the same trouble.

  2. Hi Linda

    Welcome to my blog. Thanks for your comment. You’re probably right, and that’s an interesting question in itself: why do her characters speak so unconvincingly? She’s a wonderful writer, so why the dialogue problems?

  3. Actually, further to my post, I’ve just discovered “fluff” in an Inspector Lynley mystery by Elizabeth George, written in 1994, used in a very similar way to “fluffette”. That suggests to me that it’s deliberate on the part of Howatch but doesn’t explain the difference.

  4. Linda Marshall says:

    It’s difficult for me to speak on specifics, because I’m a Canadian, and it’s very possible that phrases that clang horribly to me do so because of that – her characters don’t talk like people I know because they don’t live in a small Alberta town.

    I don’t think that’s all of it, though – I read a lot of British authors, and most of the time phrases that are unfamiliar to me still sound, oh, valid. The rhythms and stresses are natural.

    My theory – because you’re right, she is a wonderful author and has a lot of insight into human behaviour – is that she is naturally an inward-looking person. She puts most of her energy and focus on *thinking* about how and why people behave, rather than watching and listening to people behaving. Notice how seldom she draws word pictures of characters – a character doesn’t fiddle with a teacup because he is the sort of person who must be fiddling with something, but because he’s nervous. Everything her characters do, everything in the books, is in the service of advancing her plot, or her theme. I don’t see her caring much if she gets a detail right and true to life, just if it does its job in the book.

    Huh. It looks like I do agree with you after all – she’s not concerned with verisimilitude, but with nailing the points she wants to nail.

    • That’s a good point – judging the rhythms of speech from a distant vantage point can be tricky – but it can also give you a kind of neutrality. I wasn’t alive in Victorian times or in the 1950s, but I know when someone’s writing cod-Victorian or cod-50s dribble.

      I think you probably touch on the “absolute truth” here. Each major character in the Starbridge and St Benet’s series is a representation of something. Yes, they are a character, and, as you say, a tremendous amount of energy has gone into designing them as people and examing their motivations: but they are figures on a canvas where the spiritual story is being shown. So their speech patterns aren’t really central. Some other authors are the opposite, of course – Martin Amis, for one. Their speech is needed – and there is an awful lot of it – to advance the story, to explore the issues (and an important one is thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which is why there are so many antagonisms or productive conflicts: Darrow/Aysgarth, N Darrow/Lewis, Carta/Tucker, Venetia/Eddie, Ashworth/Lyle, Charley/Michael, etc) and to suggest symbolic connections – my original point.
      Oh dear, bad sentence!

      The points she wants to nail refer ultimately to possession of one’s own soul, and the integration of personality, so I can forgive her for thinking that’s more important than dialogue style.

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