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.