I had read several Howatch books but I felt that I should have started right at the beginning and then worked my way through the lot. My knowledge of the Anglican church
the politics, the workings of a parish in England in the early part of the 20th century, the hierarchy of the bishops, arch bishops, deacons and vicars were all little known to me and was actually of very little interest to me until I got my hands on Susan Howatch.
Her books are intense, all encompassing reads. You feel swept along in the passion of how each person feels not just for their lives, including their sex lives! but the passion and fervor shown towards their religion in this very modern age. The details are minute but not boring, and show very clearly how the ecclesiastical system works.
This book deals mainly with Dr. Charles Ashworth as the primary character and Bishop Jardine and his wife Carrie along with the mysterious Miss. Lyle being supplementary characters. Initially Charles is sent to investigate the actual workings of Bishop Jardine's household and where Lyle fits into the general scheme of things. Lyle is an extremely attractive 35 year old who does not apparently show any kind of love requited or unrequited for the Bishop and who seems devoted to his wife Carrie and acts as hostess and general dogsbody in the household. Charles goes to Starbridge as a spy for his Bishop Lang and though uncomfortable with the thought is determined to seek out the truth of the Jardine house.
Ashworth is a widow of seven years and the attraction for Lyle is immediate on his side. He pushes through his views with Lyle despite her obvious reluctance to do so and also at this point it does appear that her loyalties are divided and that she does not want to do anything that will upset the apple cart of the Jardine's lives.
Whilst pursuing Lyle, Charles Ashworth also discovers various aspects of his own life which are mysterious and answers which do not quite tally. His antagonism and difficult relationship with his own parents, why his parents constantly quarrel, why love and affection were never shown to the children of the Ashworth household. Past histories are untangled with surprising results leading to a certain amount of reconciliation between Charles and his own parents.
The focus shifts to Charles own twisted psyche and that Charles himself has grown far too confident for his own good and the fact that he seems to know it all - knows how to handle the problems thrown up at him and feels he can do so without spiritual guidance, almost too cocky for his own good! He disdains advice from his spiritual advisor in the form of the enigmatic and deeply charismatic Jon Darrow and he thinks that he is above it all and can manage perfectly well on his own steam. It is Darrow who guides him, protects him from the demons within him, gives him strength to pursue a path which he feels is pre destined for him and also shows him a path to reach out and win over Lyle without hurting either Bishop Jardine or his wife.
A twist in the tale at this juncture is almost too much to handle. A "spiritual" marriage between Jardine and Lyle witnessed by Jardine's wife is "permitted" according to Jardine as Carrie is not interested in the physical aspects of the marriage and how this is reconciled in the eyes of the Bishop, his wife and Lyle is too good to be true!!! You have to read this to understand how someone could actually blindly follow a charismatic man despite knowing fully well that what he is saying has absolutely no legality or validity from any point of view. It seems that almost anyone who comes in contact with the Bishop is hypnotised by the Bishops way of doing things and accepts it blindly as the only way.
The ending of the story is unusual in that Lyle leaves the Bishops house or rather runs away from the horrible position she is in and Charles naturally welcomes her with open arms as he wants Lyle with him under any circumstances. What he didnt envisage is that Lyle will get deliberately pregnant as she feels that this is the only way for her to escape from Jardine. Bishop Jardine realizes at this point that the time for retirement has come as not just him but the entire bishopric will be disgraced by the scandal.
The book is good reading as it delves not just into the lives of clergy who are shown up as very normal human beings but is also a very good descriptive read of the early 20th century in England. For those of us not from England this will come as something different and unusual. A book that I couldnt put down and had to finish in one go.
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