Wow! Susan Howatch has been recommended to me several times as a “Christian author” or an author of fiction dealing with Christian themes, but I didn’t expect the emotional and spiritual impact of this book. After just having read just one of her books, I would say that Howatch reminds me most of P.D. James. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel to Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers.
I would also add Howatch to my list of authors of Anglican-themed literature. The spiritual advisor who plays a large role in Glittering Images is as Freudian as he is Christian, but all the main characters are orthodox, if somewhat liberal, Anglican Christians, people who describe themselves as “not apostate.” The plot and the themes hinge upon their being devoted followers of Christ and members of His church. And those themes of forgiveness, celibacy, marriage, self-deception and hypocrisy are explored in depth and somewhat exhaustively. So, I give the book a qualified recommendation.
Qualified by what? Welll, one of the main themes of the novel is one about which I professed last week to find difficulties reading and finding really good literature, namely sex. Glittering Images is about the images we project to the world to protect ourselves and the desperate deceptions we practice even upon ourselves (The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9). However, in a concrete sense Glittering Images is also very much about sex, sexual ethics, celibacy, marriage, sex within marriage, adultery, and all sorts of other sexual aberrations. For the most part, Howatch deals with the subject in a mature and thoughtful manner, but some of the bizarre actions of some of the characters in her book and some of the descriptions of those actions may be more than the average Christian reader wants to read.
The book is set in England in the 1930’s. Archbishop of Canterbury Lang, a real person, asks the narrator of the story, a fictional canon named Charles Ashworth, to investigate a bishop who is causing political trouble for the Church in the House of Lords. Ashworth, unfortunately, has troubles of his own, problems which interact with those of the troublesome bishop to create one unholy mess. Howatch uses a rather bizarre (her word, not mine, but I concur) situation to explore such diverse topics as sexual ethics, fathers and sons, counseling ethics and methods, marital relations, and the limits of sanity and demon possession.
Here are a couple of passages that I thought especially insightful, just to whet your interest:
“I’ve prayed and prayed for help but —”
“Then your prayers are being answered, aren’t they?”
I stared at thim. “Answered?” I looked around the room. I was barely able to speak. “I’ve broken down so utterly that I’m unable to continue as a clergyman, and you say this is God answering my prayers?”
“Of course. Do you think God’s been unaware of your difficulties and the suffering you must inevitably have endured? And do you think He’s incapable of reaching out at last to bring you face to face with your troubles so that you can surmount them and go on to serve Him far better than you ever served Him in the past?”
I understood but was unable to tell him so, and as I covered my face with my hands, I heard him say: “God hasn’t sent this ordeal to destroy you, Charles. He’s come to your rescue at last, and here in this village, here in this house, here in this room where you’ve hit rock-bottom, here’s where your new life finally begins.”
“All clergymen ought to be married, said the authorative Mrs. Cobden-Smith, offering a handful of water-biscuits to the St. Bernard. “They say the Roman Catholics have frightful trouble with their celibate priests.”
“They say the Church of England has frightful trouble with its married clergy,” said a strong, harsh, well-remembered voice from the doorway, and as we all turned to face him, the Bishop of Starbridge made a grand entrance into his drawing-room.
“Do they still perform exorcisms in the Church of England?”
“Nowadays it’s generally regarded as a somewhat unsavoury superstition.”
“How odd! Is it wise for the Church to abandon exorcism to laymen?”
“They’re called psycho-analysts,” she said dryly. “Maybe you’ve heard of them. They have this cute little god called Freud and a very well-paid priesthood and the faithful go weekly to worship on couches—“
I like the second conversation particularly because I’ve always thought that the nonsense that people talk abut how Roman Catholic priests are bound to fall into sexual sin because celibacy just isn’t natural is particularly pernicious nonsense. Of course, celibacy and sexual purity aren’t natural; neither is marriage and sexual purity within marriage. Sin is natural, and there but by the grace of God . . .
I think this novel is worth reading in spite of its sexually explicit passages and in spite of its tendency to get lost in Freudian psychoanalysis because the author has a great deal of insight into the agonies of spiritual darkness, the process of healing and forgiveness, the vicissitudes of marriage, and the practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation. And she tells a good story. I’m going to be thinking about applying those insights to my life for a quite a while.