As Venetia Flaxton edges closer to the threshold of a love affair with Neville Aysgarth, who is Dean of the Cathedral and old enough to be her father, his hidden emotional past and her moral conflict in the present lead them deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the human heart and soul. Here is a powerful and moving novel of good and evil, resolve and temptation, hope and despair.
Praise for Scandalous Risks
“Wonderful.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Howatch is at her best when dealing with conflict, bringing a passion and tension to her portarit of people facing moral dilemmas.”—The Washington Post
“Keep[s] one turning the pages.”—The New York Times Book Review
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
“We all need, more than anything else, to love and be loved.”
JOHN A. T. ROBINSON
writing about HONEST TO GOD in the
SUNDAY MIRROR, 7 APRIL 1963
I NEVER MEANT TO RETURN TO THE SCENE OF MY GREAT DISASTER. But one day, after yet another wasted weekend among alcoholic adulterers, I took a wrong turn on the motorway and saw the sign to Starbridge. Immediately I tried to escape. I drove up the next slip-road, but as I crossed the bridge to complete the U-turn I made the mistake of glancing south, and there, far away in the gap between the hills, I saw the spire of the Cathedral.
1988 dissolved into 1963. I glimpsed again my Garden of Eden, and as I hesitated at the wheel of my car, the rope of memory yanked me forward into the past. I forgot the U-turn, I forgot the motorway, I forgot my wasted weekend. On I drove to Starbridge along that well-remembered road which snaked between the hills before slithering to the floor of the valley, and ahead, appearing and disappearing with each twist of the road like some hypnotic mirage, the Cathedral grew steadily larger in the limpid summer light.
The city stood in the heart of the valley, but it was the Cathedral, eerie in its extreme beauty, which dominated the landscape, and as I stared at the spire I saw again that vanished world where the Beatles still had short hair and skirts were yet to rise far above the knee and the senior men of the Church of England still dressed in archaic uniforms. Then as I remembered the Church in those last innocent days before the phrase “permissive society” had been invented, I thought not only of those scandalous risks taken by Bishop John Robinson when he had written his best-seller Honest to God, but of the scandalous risks taken by my Mr. Dean as he had run his Cathedral and dallied with disaster and indulged in his dangerous dreams.
I reached the outskirts of the city.
It was very old. The Romans had built their city Starovinium on the site formerly occupied by the British tribe the Starobrigantes; the Anglo-Saxons had converted Starovinium into Starbrigga, a landmark in King Alfred’s Wessex; the Normans had recorded the town as Starbrige in Domesday Book, and Starbrige it had remained until the author of an eighteenth-century guidebook had fabricated the legend that the name was derived from the Norman bridge across the river Star. Starbridge then acquired its modern spelling, but the link with its remote origins lingered on in the Bishop’s official designation. In theory married to his diocese, he was entitled to use “Staro” as his surname whenever he wrote his signature. I had no idea who the current Bishop of Starbridge was, but I could remember the Bishop of twenty-five years ago as clearly as I could remember the Cathedral’s Dean.
I drove into the city but it was not as I had known it. Starbridge had been raped in the later years of the 1960s, like so many other dignified county towns. The new housing estates now stretched to the cemetery; there was a by-pass, a shocking aberration on concrete stilts—how my Mr. Dean would have hated that!—and in the oldest part of the town I found a one-way traffic system so baffling that I had to circle the market-place three times before I could find my way out. Then I got lost in the network of streets I had known so well, the streets around St. Martin’s-in- Cripplegate. Butchers’ Alley was a pedestrian precinct; Chasuble Lane was blocked by a NO ENTRY sign. Completely confused I fled down Mitre Street only to find a hideous multi-storey car-park leering at me as I flashed by Marks and Spencer’s, but ahead I could see the traffic lights of Eternity Street and with relief I realised that the past was finally at hand. Seconds later, still swearing and sweating after my excursion in the maze, I was driving through the arched gateway into the Cathedral Close.
At once the constable on duty flagged me down. I was told that no parking was available unless I was calling on diocesan business or visiting a resident. I almost declared: “I’ve come to see the Dean!” but somehow I hauled myself back to 1988, produced a five-pound note and said instead: “Would this do?” The constable was deeply shocked. He said: “I’m afraid not, madam,” and in rage I retired to the multi-storey car-park, but I felt cheered to learn that even now, in the heart of Mrs. Thatcher’s England, there were still some things which were not for sale.
I left my Mercedes sulking by a down-market Ford and emerged from the car-park into a street which ran down to the Crusader Hotel. I was progressing at last. The Crusader faced St. Anne’s Gate, the pedestrian entrance to the Cathedral precinct, and a minute later I was entering the huge walled enclosure of the Close.
The Cathedral rose from the lawn of the churchyard like a vast cliff towering upwards from a beach. The building still had the power to bring me gasping to a halt, but no sooner had I told myself that nothing had altered than I realised the place was awash with tourists. The Japanese, the Americans, the Germans, the French—all were on parade with their cameras and their guides, and amidst the flotillas of foreigners the English drifted idly, grey-haired ladies on outings, hikers with backpacks, even a bunch of teenage bores with beercans, their ghetto-blasters silenced by the Constable of the Close. I was just marvelling at the diversity of these superfluous people when I became aware that they were united by their behaviour: they were all constantly looking up, and at last I looked up too; I looked beyond the slim windows, beyond the gargoyles, beyond the roof of the nave to the great cross which marked the summit of the spire.
That at least was unchanged.
But soon I felt the crowds were oppressive, and in the hope of escaping from them I tried to enter the Cathedral. The main doors of the west front were closed. So was the door in the north porch. Between the hours of ten and five, I discovered, all tourists were channelled through a side door by the cloisters where turnstiles heralded a request for money. “It’s only a voluntary contribution, of course,” said the dragon on duty at the cash-register. I flung her the five-pound note which the constable had refused. In shock she gabbled her thanks but I ignored her and stalked into the Cathedral.
It was infested with tourists. They swarmed and buzzed and hummed and clattered. Official guides droned. Cameras flashed illicitly. In horror I fled down the side-aisle of the nave and re-entered the cloisters by the door in the south transept, but even in that secluded quadrangle it proved impossible for me to be alone with my memories. A bevy of matrons declared that everything was “awesome” and “wondrous” and far better than that cathedral they had seen yesterday or was it the day before. Elbowing my way past them I tried to find the wooden seat where my Mr. Dean and I had sat so often, but it had been removed. Tears stung my eyes. I felt I was engaged in an exercise of overpowering futility. My Garden of Eden had been ploughed under. Here I stood, in one of the greatest cathedrals in England, and it was no more than a Disney theme-park. God was absent. There was no whiff of holiness, no whisper of religion and not even a clergyman in sight.
But then I saw my clergyman. I glanced down the north colonnade at the moment that he entered the cloisters by the transept door. It was not my Mr. Dean; he was long dead. It was the man I had labelled my Talisman. He recurred in my life. I thought of him as a portent, sometimes heralding disaster but often merely signifying change. Some years had elapsed since we had last met, but now here he was again, a tall thin man some five or six years my junior with straight brown hair and a strong-boned face. He was no longer wearing glasses but I recognised him at once. He had more trouble recognising me. I saw him look in my direction, glance away, then stop to look back. The tourists swarmed between us, but as he moved forward they automatically stepped aside to make way for him.
“Venetia?” he said amazed, and at once as I saw myself through his eyes I realised how odd my presence must have seemed. It was surely not often that a raddled wreck of a society woman was washed up on such a beautiful but polluted shore.
“Hullo, soothsayer!” I said, instinctively assuming a synthetic gaiety, although why I attempted to deceive him about my state of mind I have no idea. I should have realised that the passing years would only have heightened his intuitive powers.
“This place is worse than Piccadilly Circus,” he said, ignoring my pathetic attempt to be debonair. “Want to be rescued?”
With an unutterable relief I hurried after him as he led the way around the quadrangle. The door on the south side was marked PRIVATE but my Talisman, that human amulet who could achieve extraordinary results, ignored the sign and drew me into the stonemasons’ yard beyond the wall. Various workmen, engaged in the unending task of restoring the Cathedral’s fabric, were moving among the blocks of stone, but no one queried our presence. My companion’s clerical collar was no doubt sufficient to rebuff any thought of a challenge. On the far side of the yard we reached a second door. This one was marked CHOIR SCHOOL ONLY, but once again my Talisman, ignoring the sign, led me through the doorway into another world.
“It’s the garden of the old episcopal palace,” he said. “Ever been here?”
“No.” The palace had been ceded to the Choir School after the war, and by the time I had started moving among the ecclesiastical elite of Starbridge, the Bishop had lived in the house known as the South Canonry on the other side of the Close.
I suddenly realised there were no other human beings in sight. A silence broken only by birdsong enveloped us. The garden shimmered bewitchingly in the hot bright light.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was fascinating. It presents a fairly realistic picture of mankind's flesh warring against the Spirit. Its down to earth in its analysis of families and parenting effecting the child and the kind of person they will become. But the psychology does not overshadow the Spirit of God that enters into the lives of the characters to turn the direction.
Bishop John A. T. Robinson's book "Honest to God" was published in 1963 while I was in college. I wasn't entirely aware of what all the commotion was about after the book's publication, but I was certainly aware of the commotion. And that was on this side of the Atlantic. In England it was more of an uproar.In her 1990 novel "Scandalous Risks," British author Susan Howatch blames "Honest to God," with its attempt to restate Christianity for the modern age, for the collapse of the Church of England to cultural insignificance. Her book attempts to demonstrate what can happen when situational ethics as advocated by Robinson are adopted even by those within the church."Scandalous Risks" is the fourth of six novels Howatch wrote about the Church of England in the 20th century. Each novel covers a different period and explores a different person's spiritual crisis. For the first time in "Scandalous Risks," the narrator is a woman and a lay person ¿ Venetia Flaxton, the daughter of a member of the House of Lords and an intelligent young woman with no clear direction in her life and little interest in spiritual matters. However, she does admire Neville Aysgarth (the narrator of "Ultimate Prizes," the third novel in the series), the dean of a nearby cathedral and a friend of her father's she has known since childhood.Now in her mid-20s, she begins an affair with Aysgarth, who is now in his early 60s and married to a frustrating woman. If they truly love another, can this relationship be wrong? So they ask, echoing Robinson, whose words are quoted throughout the novel. The story takes place soon after "Honest to God's" publication.Venetia and Aysgarth take "scandalous risks," a phrase repeated throughout the novel with tiresome regularity, and exposure follows, as we all know it will. But after that, redemption."Scandalous Risks" is not your typical Christian novel. There's all the sex, for one thing. It may not be very explicit, but there is still more sex than you would find in a novel by Beverly Lewis or Karen Kingsbury. And if you deleted all references to smoking and drinking in the novel, you would have a significantly shorter book. For some devout readers, reading Susan Howatch's novel might seem like a scandalous risk, but it is a risk that will pay off handsomely.
How Howatch captures the exact tone of certain parts of specific periods is beyond me, here she manages to give us theological England of the 60s, before the idealism wore off, and before the cynicism set in. Honest to God (which was a reality a pretty dreadful little book) is all the rage, and Venetia is finding herself; both spiritually and as a child of God. Unfortunately she also finds herself in Neville's arms.