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Novelist Susan Howatch: Author of the Starbridge Cathedral Series

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Jo shares her love for reading in this article with an in-depth look at this prolific English author.

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England

Fans of Susan Howatch describe her novels as "soul stirring," "beacons of light," or "books to get addicted to." I first became acquainted with her novels when I bought one at a library sale. It happened to be Glittering Images, the first book in her Starbrdige Cathedral series about the Church of England, but I knew nothing about the author or the book when I bought it. I just liked the look of it.

When I finished Glittering Images, I wanted more, and I read through the Starbridge series with eagerness. I then wanted to know more about the author because these books were so different from any I had ever read, so I read everything I could find about her online. Since I picked up that first novel by happenstance, Howatch has become one of my absolute favorite novelists.

Susan's Early Life

British author Susan Howatch was born Susan Strut July 14, 1940, in Leatherhead, Surrey, England. She obtained a law degree from King's College and worked as a secretary before emigrating to the United States in 1964. In the United States, she married Joseph Howatch, an American writer and sculptor, had a daughter, and began her writing career. She found success almost immediately with her intricately detailed Gothic novels.

Susan's Early Novels

Susan Howatch's writing career spans almost forty years, beginning in 1965 with her Gothic novel The Dark Side, and ending with The Heartbreaker, published in 2004. She published six Gothic novels at a rate of about one per year before switching gears and turning to family sagas. In these family sagas, the lives of her fictional characters closely parallel the lives of real people in history. For example, the lives of the characters in her first family saga, Penmarric, closely parallel the Plantagenet family, including Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Since these family sagas are well researched, they can also be enjoyed as historical fiction.

Gothic Novels

  • The Dark Shore (1965)
  • The Waiting Sands (1966)
  • April's Grave (1967)
  • Call in the Night (1967)
  • The Shrouded Walls (1968)
  • The Devil on Lammas Night (1970)

Family Sagas

  • Penmarric (1971)
  • Cashelmara (1974)
  • The Rich Are Different (1977)
  • Sins of the Fathers (1980)
  • The Wheel of Fortune (1984)

Intro to BBC Production Based on Susan Howatch's Penmaric

The Starbridge Series

In 1975, after separating from her husband, Susan left the United States, residing for four years in the Republic of Ireland before returning to live permanently in England.

With her early novels, Susan Howatch had developed her story-writing skills and become a successful, best-selling author. In 1980, however, after returning to live in England, she found herself, as she said in a lecture in 1994, “rich, successful, and living exactly where [she] wanted to live” but feeling a spiritual emptiness and questioning her life.

She was living near the cathedral in Salisbury and was drawn to this magnificent building, at first as an outsider since she did not have a history with the church. Her interest in the cathedral and her spiritual quest led her to an in-depth study of Anglican Christianity and to a spiritual epiphany. Following this epiphany, she decided to continue writing novels but to center them on the Christian faith, or, as she explains in a lecture given at Salisbury, to “set forth her discoveries in the light of faith.”

Out of these experiences grew her novels about the Church of England—not necessarily a likely subject for a best-selling novelist. But they, like her other novels, have been very successful because of her impeccable research and first-rate story-telling skills. There are six novels in this series, five of them narrated by a Church-of-England clergyman, one a conservative traditionalist, one a mystical Anglo-Catholic, and one a liberal modernist. These narrators demonstrate the strength and diversity of the institution. The fourth novel, Scandalous Risks, is narrated by a young woman who is having an affair with a Church-of-England clergyman.

These clergymen all go through different versions of the novelist's own spiritual crises. They are not pious, shallow characters with simplistic answers about faith (like characters in some other Christian fiction I have read) but fully human and sinners all, their sins at times almost destroying them. They sin, repent, and are forgiven, thus embodying the Christian message. In an interview in the March/April 1999 issue of Touchstone magazine, the novelist said, “Repentance, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection, and renewal, that is what my books are all about. The great Christian themes.”

In all of these novels, there is a meshing of Christianity and psychology, which Howatch uses as a tool to perhaps reach the “well-educated and intellectual who say and think that religion is outdated rubbish.” If you talk to these people in the language of psychology, she says, “then you can say, 'this is what Christianity is saying.' Learn the language . . . if you say to a nonbeliever who knows nothing about Christianity, 'The only way to the Father is through Jesus,' he is going to say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' But if you say, 'Do you want to be well integrated, do you want to feel whole, happy or in tune with your deeper self?' that they will listen to and relate to.”

The Starbridge Novels

The first of these novels is set in the 1930s and the next two in the war years following. The last three take place in the 1960s, with the church mirroring the problems of the society during each period and managing to endure and remain relevant through the changing times.

Starbridge is a fictional cathedral but is based on the Salisbury Cathedral that Susan lived near after her return to England. In the lecture Howatch gave in 1994 at Salisbury, she tells about her years in Salisbury and explains how she came to write these novels. This lecture has been printed in pamphlet form as "Salisbury and the Starbridge Novels," but it is difficult to find. It is worth reading, though, to understand her writings better.

The St. Benet's Trilogy

In her last three books, Howatch deals with healing and mysticism. These books center on a healing center in London in the 1980s and 1990s. None of the narrators of this series is a clergyman, but all are drawn to the church in some way. All of these books also deal with Christian themes that link them with the Starbridge series. Some characters introduced in the Starbridge series (or their offspring) reappear here. Again, the characters here are not perfect in a Christian sense; in fact, the main character in the last novel is a gay male prostitute.

  • A Question of Integrity—issued as The Wonder Worker in the United States (1997)
  • The High Flyer (2000)
  • The Heartbreaker (2004)

Why Howatch's Work Is Worth Reading

The last book in the St. Benet's Trilogy was published in 2004, about the time I discovered Susan Howatch. I read all of the Starbridge Series and then the St. Benet's Trilogy. These books are not just intellectually stimulating, but they are also page-turners because Ms. Howatch is a gifted storyteller. When I had finished these later books, I read all of her earlier Gothic work and family sagas just for the gripping plots.

I was a little addicted to these books for a while, but now I've read them all. Ms. Howatch reportedly retired from writing novels and lives in Leatherhead, a town in Surrey, England, back where she began her journey. Since there are no more books to read, I feel like I've lost a friend—a very wise one.

I recommend these books highly for anyone interested in well-written, thrilling stories or anyone with spiritual yearnings. They are manna for the soul.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Jo Miller (author) from Tennessee on July 10, 2019:

They are beautiful, Bill. We visited this cathedral on our literary tour of England.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 10, 2019:

Those old cathedrals are stunningly beautiful. It blows my mind that it took a hundred years or more to build them.

BlairBurton on December 16, 2016:

Very good intro to Susan Howatch, but I should point out that the fourth Starbridge novel, Scandalous Risks, is not narrated by one of the three Anglican clergymen who are the focus of the series, but by a young woman who is romantically involved with one of them.

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