NARRATIVE. . .Formidable personalities embroil themselves in ruthless power struggles that would make a corporate raider blush."
--The Washington Post Book World
It is 1965, and Charles Ashworth has attained the plum position of bishop of Starbridge, an honor that keeps him in a heady whirl of activity that would exhaust the most seasoned corporate executive. With the invaluable support of his minions and his attractive, unsinkable wife, Ashworth stands against the amorality and decadence of the age--"Anti-Sex Ashworth." He slays his opponents by being a tough, efficient, confident churchman, the torments of his past long since dead and buried.
And then the unexpected, the unthinkable, strikes.
Suddenly Ashworth finds himself staring into the chasm of all the lies hes been telling himself for years: about his marriage, his children, even his views on the Church. And as he suspects his old nemesis and dean, Neville Aysgarth, of drinking too much, of financial chicanery, of--God forbid--having an affair, Ashworth discovers to his horror that he is tempted to commit the very acts that he has so publicly
denounced. . . .
"ENTHRALLING. . .Rich, dense, almost indecently entertaining."
--San Jose Mercury News
"POWERFUL. . .MIRACULOUS."
--Booklist (starred review)
SELECTED BY THE BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB
About the Author
Susan Howatch was born in Surrey in 1940. After taking a degree in law she emigrated to America where she married, had a daughter and embarked on her career as a writer. When she eventually left the states, she lived in the Republic of Ireland for four years before returning to England. She spent time in Salisbury – the inspiration for her Starbridge sequence of novels – and now lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
“No doubt it would be more suitable for a theologian to be absolutely pickled in devout reflection and immune from all external influences; but wrap ourselves round as we may in the cocoon of ecclesiastical cobwebs, we cannot altogether seal ourselves off from the surrounding atmosphere.”
Warden of Keble College, Oxford, 1960–1968
SAID OR SUNG
WHAT CAN BE MORE DEVASTATING THAN A CATASTROPHE WHICH arrives out of the blue?
During the course of my life I have suffered three catastrophes, but the first two can be classified as predictable: my crisis in 1937 was preceded by a period of increasingly erratic behaviour, and my capture by the Germans in 1942 could have been prophesied by any pessimist who knew I had volunteered on the outbreak of war to be an army chaplain. But the disaster of 1965 walloped me without warning.
Ten years have now passed since 1965, but the other day as I embarked on my daily journey through the Deaths Column of The Times, I saw that my old adversary had died and at once I was recalling with great clarity that desperate year in that anarchic decade when he and I had fought our final battle in the shadow of Starbridge Cathedral.
“AYSGARTH, Norman Neville (‘Stephen’),” I read. “Beloved husband of Dido and devoted father of …” But I failed to read the list of offspring. I felt too bereaved. How strange it is that the further one journeys through life the more likely one becomes to mourn the loss of old enemies almost as much as the loss of old friends! The divisions of the past seem unimportant; we become unified by the shrinking of the future.
“Oh God!” said my wife, glancing across the breakfast table and seeing my expression. “Who’s died now?”
Having answered her question I turned from the small entry in the Deaths Column to the many inches of unremitting praise on the obituary page. Did I approve of this fulsome enactment of the cliché Nil nisi bonum de mortuis est? Summoning all my Christian charity I told myself I did. I was, after all, a retired bishop of the Church of England and supposed to radiate Christian charity as lavishly as the fountains of Trafalgar Square spout water. However, I did think that the allocation of three half-columns to this former Dean of Starbridge was a trifle generous. Two would have been quite sufficient.
“What a whitewash!” commented my wife after she had skimmed through this paean. “When I think back to 1965 …”
I thought of 1965, the year of my third catastrophe, the year Aysgarth and I had fought to the finish. Bishops and deans, of course, are not supposed to fight at all. Indeed as senior churchmen they are required to be either holy or perfect English gentlemen or, preferably, both.
How we all hanker after ideals, after certainties—and after absolute truths—which will provide us with security as we struggle to survive in the ambiguous, cloudy, chaotic world which surrounds us! Moreover, although in a rapidly changing society ideals may appear to be swept away by a rising tide of cynicism, the experience of the past demonstrates that people will continue to hunger for those ideals, even when absolute truths are no longer in fashion.
Society was certainly changing with great speed in the 1960s, and when I was a bishop I became famous for defending tradition at a time when all traditions were under attack. I had two heroes: St. Augustine, who had proclaimed the absolute truths till the end, even as the barbarians advanced on his city, and St. Athanasius, the bishop famous for being so resolutely contra mundum, against the world, as he fought heresy to the last ditch. By 1965 I had decided that I, like my two heroes, was being obliged to endure a dissolute, demoralised, disordered society, and that my duty was to fight tooth and nail against decadence. A fighting bishop unfortunately has little chance to lead a quiet life, but I decided that was the price I had to pay in order to preserve my ideals.
In the 1960s there were three years which now stand out in my memory. The first was 1963, when I clashed with Aysgarth over that pornographic sculpture which he commissioned for the Cathedral churchyard; it was the year Bishop John Robinson wrote his bestseller Honest to God, a book which rocked the Church to its foundations, and the year I wrote in rebuttal A Modern Heresy for Modern Man. That was when I ceased to be merely a conservative bishop, underlining the importance of preserving the accumulated wisdom from the past, and became a fighting bishop contra mundum. The second year which I remember vividly is 1968. That was the year young Nicholas Darrow, my spiritual director’s son, was finally ordained after what I suspected was a very shady interval in his private life. It was also the year my son Charley became engaged and my son Michael was married, yet despite these family milestones, 1965 remains the year which is most clearly etched in my memory. Not 1963. Not 1968. But 1965.
Let me now describe the man I was before my third catastrophe felled me, the catastrophe which arrived out of the blue. I had been the Bishop of Starbridge for eight years and despite a tentative start I had become highly successful. My sons were both doing well in their chosen careers, and although in their different ways they still worried me, I had come to the conclusion that as a parent I must have been doing something right; at the very least I felt I deserved a medal for paternal endurance. I was on happier ground when I considered my marriage, now almost twenty-eight years old and a perfect partnership.
In short, I was not ill-pleased with my life, and stimulated by this benign opinion of myself I travelled constantly around my ecclesiastical fiefdom, spoke forcefully on education in the House of Lords, held forth with confidence on television discussion programmes, ruled various committees with an iron hand and terrorised the lily-livered liberals of the Church Assembly. I also had sufficient zest to maintain my prowess on the golf course and enjoy my wife’s company on the days off which she so zealously preserved for me amidst the roaring cataract of my engagements. Occasionally I felt no older than forty-five. On my bad days I felt about fifty-nine. On average I felt somewhere in my early fifties. In fact I was as old as the century, but who cared? I was fit, busy, respected, pampered and privileged. Frequently and conscientiously I thanked God for the outstanding good fortune which enabled me to serve him as he required—and what he required, I had no doubt, was that I should fight slipshod thinking by defending the faith in a manner which was tough-minded and intellectually rigorous. St. Augustine and St. Athanasius, I often told myself, would have been proud of me.
I was proud of me, although of course I had far too much spiritual savoir-faire to do other than shove this secret opinion of myself to the very back of my mind. By 1965 I was too preoccupied by my current battles to waste much time visualising my future obituary in The Times, but on those rare moments when I paused to picture my posthumous eminence, I saw long, long columns of very dense newsprint.
God stood by and watched me for some time. Then in 1965 he saw the chance to act, and seizing me by the scruff of the neck he began to shake me loose from the suffocating folds of my self-satisfaction, my arrogance and my pride.