The Rev Dr Canon Charles Ashworth
(creator: Susan Howatch)

Susan Howatch
The Rev Dr Canon Charles Ashworth had done well at school and university and had then been selected by Dr Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, as his chaplain. Apparently rejected by his own father, the Archbishop had been only one of the father-figures for whom he always seemed to be looking. Now aged 37, he is a theologian at Laud's College, Cambridge, and residentiary canon at the Cathedral (both the college and the cathedral being invented by the author), and had published a book about the Early Church. He "looked younger. Playing squash and tennis had curbed an inclination to put on weight .... and although I was a litttle too fond of good wine, my appearance proved I had these weaknesses well in control .... I looked like the man I wanted to be and the image in the long glass seemed impregnable." Yet he turns out to be a very different man from his glittering image as a model clergyman, who would not even allow himself to smoke while wearing his dog collar.

He had been married but, seven years before, after a furious argument, his wife had stormed out and been killed in a car crash when she was expecting their first child. He did not take kindly to enforced celibacy but went abroad, where he would not be recognised, to find sexual partners. His true self only gradually emerges as the book progresses.

Susan Howatch (1940 - ) was born in Surrey in England. After taking a degree in law at King's College, London, she emigrated to America where she married, had a daughter, and embarked on her career as a writer. In 1976 she separated from her husband, left America and lived in the Republic of Ireland for four years before returning to England. While living in a flat overlooking Salisbury Cathedral and "trying to hold my divided self together", she found herself inspired by the beauty of the cathedral and became a convert. She wondered if she should continue producing romantic novels. Instead, she wrote Glittering Images. It was the first of a series of six Starbridge novels about the Church of England in the 20th century, all of which reflect her own spiritual crises.

Glittering Images (1987)
Glittering Images contrasts people's outward appearance (their glittering images) and their true selves, with their private and shameful secrets. Set in 1937, it tells how the hard-drinking Dr Charles Ashworth, a theologian and canon at a Cambridge college, is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury on a spying/detective mission to visit Dr Alex Jardine, the Bishop of Starbridge (a fictitious version of Salisbury), to discover if there is any truth below the whiffs of scandal surrounding the strange ménage à trois that exists there, involving the Bishop, his reticent wife, and Lyle Christie, the woman who acts as her companion and what else?

It is a mystery that Charles Ashworth, who is the narrator throughout, eventually solves, but only after himself falling in love with Lyle, and having to face up to his own fears and failings, so that, in the end, his own "glittering image", the other half of his split personality, is shattered, and he is helped to face up to the truth, not only about the Bishop but about himself.

The story combines fictitious characters with real ones, such as William Cosmo Lang, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Alex Jardine, the author explains, is "based in part on the life and career of Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947)" who became Bishop of Durham - but without Jardine's sexual improprieties. Appropriate quotations from Henson's memoirs appear at the start of every chapter.

Despite its length, the story holds the interest throughout, even though it is a a slightly odd mix of a romantic novel with a theological work. So it includes such incidents as Ashworth taking Lyle out for a first ride in his car when "leaning forward I kissed her on the mouth. This was fast behaviour for a gentleman on a sedate afternoon drive with a lady he had known for less than twenty-four hours, and for a clergyman the behaviour was so fast that I felt I was travelling at the speed of light." His subsequent love-making with her, and with Loretta, one of the Bishop's "Lovely Ladies", is described in a way that is nothing if not graphic: "I sensed she was ready and moved myself into position between her thighs .... She said suddenly, 'You're going in."
I halted. 'Is it too soon?'
"No, no -' She pulled me close and kissed me with such fervour that disaster nearly intervened."

Yet, with the help of Father Jon Darrow, the formidable new abbot of the Fordite monks at Grantchester, Ashworth learns to face up to his real self - and to the reality of God: "The glittering image of the apparent world dissolved into the great truths which lay beyond and the truths were not a beautiful dream .... but the ultimate reality. Love and forgiveness, truth and beauty, courage and compassion blazed with a radiance which far outshone the cheap glitter of illusion, and I knew then with an even deeper conviction that in serving God man only fulfilled his need to strive to live in that eternally powerful light. St Augustine's famous words echoed in my mind: 'O God,thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.' "

As he tells Lyle, " I was hiding behind a mask - the mask I call my glittering image - but Father Darrow's helping me to put that mask aside so that I can be the man I really am."
"If only you knew," Lyle replies, "how much I long to put aside my glittering image and be the woman I really am." It sounds very much as if the author was thinking of her own glittering image as a highly successful novelist when all the time she was all too conscious of her real unhappy self.

It's a strange but gripping story, in which even the flashbacks hold the interest, even if it is not always totally convincing, as when Father Jon Darrow confronts Lyle: "Miss Christie, take the cross and hold it tightly .... Yes, you're being tortured by the demons of shame, guilt, despair, rage and terror, but no demon can withstand the power of Christ ... Close your eyes and breathe very deeply ... and evenly ... and listen to my silent prayer, listen for any word from God. Listen and listen very carefully ...' Darrow leant forward, 'Did you hear?'
'No, I heard nothing.' She rubbed her eyes, 'But I know I have to have faith in God and trust Him to look after me.' ''
"That's it," replied Darrow.
Then, later on, when Lyle was distraught, "Darrow used the ancient symbolic language to express profound psychological truths. He said with complete authority: 'The demons were very strong but they're gone now. You're not well yet but you're going to be well because now the healing can begin.'
'Suppose the demons come back?'
'They can't so long as you're in touch with God .... Give her another sip of brandy.' ":

Although it all starts as an unusual sort of detective story, it ends up by being an exploration of Ashworth himself. Recommended, despite its occasional relapses into the world of romance.

There is a Wikipedia article about the author, and a video of her talking about her novel The Heartbreaker (and only about this) on the Meet the Author site, where she had obviously been invited to do a sales talk and looks suitably embarrassed!

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Glittering Images cover
This was the first book in a series of six, but the only one involving detective work.
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