A in Susan Howatch

Spoilers alert….

A stands for Ashworth and Aysgarth. Both are active in the late 1930s, Ashworth as a professor of Divinity and Aysgarth as an archdeacon. Ashworth narrates the first book,  while Aysgarth makes his first appearance in the second, bringing his low church disdain to Jon Darrow’s ministry of healing.

It is these two who cast the longest shadows over the whole Starbridge and St Benet’s series. In Absolute Truths they reach a unity, with the help of Jon, but the consequences of decisions they took back in 1937 and in 1942 respectively are still being played out in the St Benet’s series. Ashworth’s status is most difficult. He is the hero, in many ways, of two books. He is the most obviously sympathetic character of the series – intelligent, hard-working, loyal, highly sexed. Despite his abilities, he’s the main character that it’s easiest to identify with, because he’s drawn in largely humanistic terms. His thoughts are given transparency by Lyle and Jon and even when he finds that he’s not as wonderful – “glittering” – as he thinks, when Lyle dies, it’s all fairly ordinary in terms of feeling you never really understood your partner.

That’s not to diminish it, but to reinforce my point that Ashworth’s life is something we can identify with as readers.

By the St Benet’s series, Charley Ashworth is a “northern bishop” (which should remind the experienced Starbridge reader of Ruydale) who slams the phone down on Lewis in the first book. Although that might not sound all that important, it’s an act of cruelty to a confused and suffering old man, who has still not come to terms with what happened in the chapel in 1968. It’s immediately contrasted with a more positive call he later makes to Lewis, an unctuous, “professional” call which is intended to reassure the old man.

This proves that the legacy of the “glittering image” of his father is still very much active. It means there is a kind of violence, the same kind Ashworth used to suffer, at the heart of Charley’s personality, and it suggests that despite the freedom to embrace his inner Alex Jardine (his father, of course), given to him in Absolute Truths, he is still too much Ashworth’s son – imprisoned, in a sense.

This hardly impacts on the series, but it’s a salutory reminder that as a human being, you’re only finished when you’re dead. Otherwise it’s a constant progress and regress.

Jardine was Aysgarth’s mentor and inspiration; Aysgarth the hard-drinking, womanising and above all – bizarre-Dido-marrying character who bestrides the two series like no other character. Aysgarth wrecks Venetia Flaxton (although in that he is actually helped by Lyle, whose disastrous entreaties to marriage Venetia obeys), his sons Christian and Norman both die unpleasant deaths after deeply unhappy lives; his fund-raising activities are, if not illegal, then as good as; and his dislike of both Jon and Ashworth suggests an unhealthy disdain for rivals.

It’s hard to see the positives in this man. His manipulatiion, his insincerity and his sentimentality contrive to damage so many people. In the first St Benet’s book, Norman’s widow Cynthia is the lady to rescue Alice, and offer her employment, through which she finds the whole St Benet’s crew and finally, his appalling legacy seems to have reached some kind of tangible positive end. It’s a major one: the way Alice, with her “warm psyche” is able to reach out to others, especially Carta Graham, means that the good St Benet’s does extends, eventually, to putting Mrs Mayfield and Asherton in jail.

Two more As: Alice and Asherton. The latter, as befits the villain of the final book of the series and the concept, is the nastiest creation of them all. It’s interesting that the culmination of this is hidden in an envelope in a box in a wall: the video that proves that Asherton and Mayfield both take pleasure in brutal murder. The concealment and the sheer horror of it are deeply psychological. It functions as a final metaphor: there is horror, that we keep hidden in secret places. The job of Christ the healer is to reveal the horror and deal with it so we can become “integrated” – saved. It’s a startling moment, the most disturbing in the whole 9 books.

There is also a subtext to this moment and it’s been foreshadowed since book 5 at least. Nick Darrow is often accused of Gnosticism as a young man, given his prediliction for claiming special knowledge. His journey, which is more violent than any of the others, involving as it does a brutal death and the investigation of another, takes him away from that concept.

But what do Asherton and Mayfield run? A Gnostic group – the Guild of Light and Darkness.  Is it a fairly blunt statement that gnosticism leads to murder? Or is it a restatement of the principle laid down to Jon Darrow by Fr Darcy: that “straite is the way and narrow is the gate” (Matthew, 7.14)?

In which case, as a symbol that error and self-aggrandizement lead to disaster, it works particularly vividly.

UPDATE: I see this post is getting quite a few views, but I’m not sure where from. Do leave a comment, even if you think everything I’ve written is drivel, as we might get a discussion going!

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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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3 Responses to A in Susan Howatch

  1. Martha says:

    I am one of the moderators of an email list devoted to the novels of Susan Howatch. I came across this post, and another you wrote about slang in her novels, and I posted links to your blog on the mailing list. I suspect more than one of the list members have viewed your posts.

    I am enjoying your analyses a lot, and if you would like to join our discussion group, send an email to howatch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com . We are not as active as we once were,
    since no new novels have been released, but there is a lot of material in our archives that you might enjoy and your thoughts might well provoke an interesting on-list discussion.

    • Hi Martha

      Aha! thanks for letting me know. I will join up and put a link to you on the blog. Thanks for your comments – there is more to come when I can think through some of the other issues a bit more (especially the role of mysticism).

      Kevin

  2. chrsarchr@gmail.com says:

    The Howatch novels are brilliant. Great Lenten fiction reading. I have a bit of an Eastern Orthodox Christian perspective to them: mysticism should not be run away from. Western thinking is far too limiting.

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