From the Paperback edition.
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
“Many of us have a hard fight to control our passions …”
CHARLES E. RAVEN
THE CREATOR SPIRIT
THE MOST APPALLING FEATURE OF THE MORNING AFTER I nearly committed adultery was my lack of surprise. I was scared out of my wits, racked by regret and almost prostrated by shame, but a virtuous amazement was notably absent. For some time my life had resembled a ball of wool kidnapped by a kitten, and now, after the preliminary unravelling, I was apparently experiencing the start of the inevitable tangled mess.
As we all know, adultery is far from uncommon, particularly in spring-time and particularly among people in the prime of life, but it happens to be an activity which disqualifies me from my job; if a clergyman commits adultery he becomes spiritually disabled, unfit for further service. Even in that spring of 1945, when the entire population of England was no doubt gripped with the desire to celebrate the war’s end by wallowing in corybantic copulation, clergymen were still expected to keep their minds on God and their eyes on their wives. And why not? In my opinion such exemplary behaviour is the least that the Church of England should expect of its men. Everyone knows that all the best clergymen live in domestic bliss and never have an adulterous thought in their lives.
I was one of the best clergymen. I was forty-three years old and had already risen to a rank usually occupied by men in their fifties and sixties. “What is an archdeacon?” my Germans had asked in their prison-camp on Starbury Plain, and when I had begun to explain how the diocese of Starbridge was divided into two archdeaconries, one of the Grade C men, the unrepentant Nazis, had exclaimed impressed: “Ah, so you’re the Bishop’s Gauleiter!” I was sure I was no such thing, but the implication that I was a man of power and authority was true enough. As my Uncle Willoughby would have said, I had “Got On” and “Travelled Far” in my chosen profession, with the result that any possibility of moral failure was now quite unthinkable.
I thought about it. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,” St. Paul had written to the Corinthians, and on the morning after I almost committed adultery I found these words had assumed a new and sinister immediacy.
I knew what I had to do: I had to repent (which I did, with every fibre of my being), pray for forgiveness (which would be granted because of my genuine repentance) and go on being the first-class Archdeacon which I undoubtedly was. Yet when I sank to my knees I found the formula was failing to work. My repentance, though genuine, was ill-defined and ultimately ineffectual. I did not understand why I had wound up in such a mess, and without understanding, how could I promise that my appalling behaviour would never be repeated?
I remained kneeling, not chatting garrulously to God like some woolly-minded mystic but trying to concentrate on the spiritual force of Christ as I struggled for enlightenment, and gradually I felt strong enough to face a very unpalatable truth. The main reason I was now in such a spiritual mess was because three years ago, in the May of 1942, I had met Miss Diana Dorothea Tallent.
With a shudder I began to recall that seductive first meeting with Dido.
The fatal dinner-party was given by my Bishop, Dr. Ernest Ottershaw, at his episcopal palace in Starbridge. This statement evokes a grandeur which unfortunately, by that stage of the war, was little more than a memory. Gone were the lavish sophisticated dinner-parties of Dr. Alex Jardine’s pre-war episcopate. Dr. Ottershaw, who had succeeded Alex in 1937, offered a hospitality which war-time economies and the increasing dearth of servants had systematically drained of glamour.
Both wings of the palace were now closed. In the main section of the house the Ottershaws were cosseted only by the butler, Shipton, a famous ancient monument, and by a couple of elderly maids, who were obviously retained more for charitable than for utilitarian reasons. It was rumoured that Mrs. Ottershaw had learnt how to boil an egg to present to her husband at supper on Sunday nights when the servants were resting their varicose veins, and it was even said she was keen to acquire more advanced culinary skills, but Shipton refused to countenance such ambition. He was still recovering from the Bishop’s attempt to learn to drive after the chauffeur had gone into the Army—we were all still recovering from that well-meaning episcopal whim which had destroyed one of the palace gate-posts—and Shipton, an arch-conservative, was firmly of the opinion that bishops and their ladies should never develop ideas below their station.
Heaven alone knows who had produced the food on the evening when I met Dido, but it was well in accord with the recent Government edict which proclaimed that no restaurant could charge more than five shillings for a meal or serve more than three courses. Rationing had become increasingly severe; in the dark mysterious stew which emerged from the episcopal kitchen, lonely chunks of meat could occasionally be glimpsed swimming alongside the potatoes and carrots. Pudding consisted of bottled plums covered by a sauce which Mrs. Ottershaw tried to pass off as custard. She even said it contained a real egg, a disclosure which made me wonder if the Bishop had nobly volunteered to forgo his Sunday supper that week. Fortunately the meal was redeemed by a claret provided by one of the guests, the Earl of Starmouth, who had a reputation for being benevolent to the clergy.
Lord and Lady Starmouth were the most aristocratic guests present but they were not the guests of honour. The dinner was being given for Dr. Ottershaw’s predecessor, my mentor Alex Jardine, who had been living near Oxford since his premature retirement in 1937 and who was now visiting Starbridge to consult the official records of his episcopate; he was working on his autobiography. Alex was keen on claret and lukewarm towards Dr. Ottershaw, two facts which led me to suspect that the Earl of Starmouth had provided the legendary St. Estèphe not merely out of Christian charity but in a desire to ensure that the dinner-party fell well short of disaster.
The other guests consisted of the Dean and his wife, who were almost as old as the Ottershaws but not nearly so endearing, their neighbour in the Cathedral Close General Calthrop-Ponsonby, who could talk of nothing but the Boer War, the Ottershaws’ unmarried daughter Charlotte, now a Wren at the Naval base in Starmouth, and Charlotte’s new friend, the former debutante of the year and the darling of the society gossip columnists, Miss Dido Tallent. Marooned improbably among so many nineteenth-century relics, she exuded such vitality that I was at once reminded of a diamond, glittering wickedly among a prim collection of pearls.
Like Charlotte Miss Tallent was serving in the Navy, and as soon as I saw her I thought how appropriate it was that she should be able to call herself a Wren. She was slight, bright-eyed, quick, sharp and volatile. Her dark hair was immaculately waved, her sleek uniform swooped in and out of a dramatically small waist and her scarlet lipstick emphasised the whiteness of her teeth. She had a small bosom, but that was of no consequence to me. I’m not one of those men who are obsessed by the symbols of motherhood. I like legs. Naturally I was unable to see Miss Tallent’s legs from top to bottom, but one glimpse of her ankles inspired me to imagine firm gleaming thighs. In fact so absorbed was I by this potent fantasy that I barely heard Charlotte Ottershaw’s introduction and had to ask for the name to be repeated.
“Haven’t you heard of me?” exclaimed Miss Tallent amazed. “What a sheltered life you must lead!”
“Archdeacons never lead sheltered lives!” retorted Charlotte. “This one’s constantly roaming the north and west of the diocese in order to pounce on any clergyman who misbehaves!”
“What happens in the south and east?”
“Not much. The other Archdeacon prefers to play croquet.”
“What’s wrong with croquet? I adore all games with balls,” said Miss Tallent in a formidably innocent voice, and gave me a very straight look with her impudent bright eyes.
I cleared my throat, wondered dizzily if the ambiguity had been intentional and asked myself why I was so suddenly unable to think of anything but sex. Who exactly was this fantastic creature? I had heard of her but my knowledge was sketchy because I never read gossip columns unless the sexton accidentally left his Daily Express behind on the churchyard bench; like all good clergymen I confined my excursions into the world of secular journalism to The Times. However with the aid of the sexton’s Express and the glossy magazines which nervous tension drove me to read in the dentist’s waiting-room, I had learnt that Miss Tallent moved in the best society despite the fact that her father was a self-made Scottish millionaire. I had of course long since dismissed her as a frivolous creature I would never meet, and yet here she was, in a bishop’s drawing-room—in my Bishop’s drawing-room—giving me impudent looks and talking about balls. I could hardly have felt more confused if I had been confronted by one of Orson Welles’s invaders from Mars.
“Dido, how can you possibly say you enjoy all games with balls?” Charlotte was protesting, sublimely unaware, just as a bishop’s daughter should be, of the sensational double-entendre. “Only the other day you remarked that cricket—”
“Oh, don’t let’s start discussing English perversions! What did you say this distinguished clerical gentleman’s name was?”
“Neville! How dreadful—I am sorry! Mr. Chamberlain’s ruined that name for all time. I think you should be called Stephen, Archdeacon, after the Christian martyr. It has such noble, serious, earnest associations, and I can tell you’re noble, serious and earnest too, blushing at the mere mention of such a frivolous sport as croquet … oh, there’s the exciting Bishop Jardine—introduce me, Char, quick, quick, quick! I’m simply passionate about controversial clerics …”
She skimmed away. After a while I became aware that Shipton was offering me a glass of sherry and I had to make an effort not to down the drink in a single gulp. Images of gleaming thighs and croquet balls chased each other chaotically across my mind until the Dean, buttonholing me purposefully, began to hold forth on his current nightmare: Starbridge Cathedral’s possible destruction. The Germans had recently announced plans to bomb every illustrious British city which had been awarded three stars in the Baedeker guide, and although Baedeker in fact never awarded more than two stars no one believed that this little inaccuracy meant the Nazis were joking. Three heavy raids on Exeter had damaged though not destroyed the Cathedral; Starbridge, not so many miles east of Exeter, was now in the front line.