Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, 1987.
DW suggested that I take a look at this series of six novels, telling me that each of the novels is a compelling read. It sounds uninteresting when described as a history of the Church of England in the twentieth century, told in specific narratives—but judging by this first volume, I agree with DW.
Glittering Images is the story of Dr. Charles Ashworth, a cathedral canon and Fellow at Laud’s College, Cambridge, and the protégé of ++Cantaur, Dr. William Cosmo Gordon Lang. Following a public spat in the House of Lords between the Archbishop and bishop of the fictional diocese of Starbridge, revolving around A.P. Herbert’s divorce bill, the Archbishop sends Ashworth to Starbridge ostensibly to investigate whether Bishop Jardine might be vulnerable to gossip in the tabloids. While there, Ashworth finds himself immersed in a familial mystery, and finds himself in a spiritual crisis. He retreats to an abbey, and the new abbot challenges him to deal with the traumas that have brought him to this point. I found Ashworth’s story compelling, and though the details of his journey are far different from my own, some odd similarities caused me to have a new look at my own spiritual life. Given tools to help him in his life, Ashworth re-emerges to grapple with the mystery and situation in which he finds himself immersed.
The novel is fascinating. Much of the story is told through dialogue, and certainly the novel has a greater appeal if one is passing familiar with both the history of the Church of England and theology. Regardless, it is a novel I read in a gulp, reluctant to pause, although I have marked passages to which I want to return. It is a romance, as much as anything else, and its only real flaw is that one might well think Ashworth’s recovery an easy path—akin to the psychiatrist who can cure a patient within a half-hour television episode—rather than the more difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance that it actually represents. The book is, as well, a remarkable look at the church in the late ’30s, in the midst of trying to make sense of a great deal of change in social mores and behaviours. I’m quite looking forward to the second volume.