Sport 34: Winter 2006
Seeing Susan: the performance of meeting
Address to the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists February 2006 Conference, 'The Performance of Meeting'
Good morning and thank you for the invitation to speak to your conference. I will begin as I mean to go on: in confessional mode—only appropriate, you'll agree, at a gathering of psychotherapists, and from a cradle Catholic. Please think of yourselves as my kind of priests…
I was born into a long line of therapy sceptics—and as I say long line I'm immediately aware of dissembling, or embroidering, as is both the patient's and writer's wont. In fact, on both sides of my family memory and genealogy reach back no further than three generations, but the scepticism, not to say simmering dislike, of therapy has been very real. My parents and their families of origin have always been more likely to espouse prayer—the Rosary in particular—as a salve for distress, rather than an extended discussion where family pathology is unpacked with… a stranger, and—doubtless—a godless one at that.
'Show me the nerve that ever broke,' said my Uncle Gerald when I began weeping unexpectedly in front of him, going quietly mad in 1978. Reductive paradox and euphemism have often been my extended family's approach to matters of the heart and mind.
'Well, your old man's dial is definitely a bit off the station,' said my Uncle Jim in 1989 when my father responded to semi-retirement and the removal of routine with a brief descent into panic disorder.
Interesting that it was the men who pushed away mental ill-health with metaphor. The women in our family tended to stroke your brow with one hand and tell the beads of the First Sorrowful Mystery with the other… though not always…page 172
'Do you want to end up in Calvary Clinic?' said my mother furiously when I was sitting up in bed, sleepless, night after night—again in 1978—muttering incantations against what I was certain was incipient lunacy. Back then Calvary Clinic was regarded with equal parts gratitude and terror by our family and community: it was a necessary retreat for the Catholic bewildered (a burgeoning tribe in the late 70s, you'll appreciate), and yet—and crucially—a place to be avoided at all costs.
But that was my family—the products of a secular culture resistant to the investigation of psychological processes: doers rather than ruminators, people who trusted the manual over the cerebral, the tangible over the abstract, closed statement over disturbing open questions, the transparent conscious mind over the opacities of the unconscious; and products, too, of a religious culture only recently moving out of a medieval world view, but ever alert to those Generals of Modernity—Freud, Marx and Darwin—and their wily foot-soldiers: shrinks, commies and scientists, atheists every man jack of them…
I have long been grateful for psychotherapy in its various forms—for its direct assistance in my life; and its enlargement of my understanding—the excitement it has provided in that enlarged understanding—of relationships between people, and in particular relationships within family… the latter being, I have come to see, the stuff and preoccupation of my writing life. So it's been very good to have had the opportunity to think about the theme of your conference—the performance of meeting—in regard to my own area of interest: literature.
I'm aware of the body of writing available now regarding psychoanalysis and literature—the life of the culturally and personally determined text beyond the 'ordinary' reader's relatively innocent understanding of what is happening when they are, as they see it, enjoying a damn good read. I've only dipped my toe into these waters and so have limited understanding; I look forward to future immersion. My grasp of the matrix, tributaries and divisions of psychotherapeutic beliefs and practices is similarly limited, though my interest real. I say this by way of disclaimer. You'll forgive, I hope, any mistakes.
My understanding, though, of this weekend's theme—the page 173performance of meeting—is that it refers to or encompasses the business of transference: from patient to therapist, and back again, presumably—counter-transference. This address runs with the spirit and substance of transference, but the relationship under scrutiny is mine with books, children's books in particular, and in deeper particular the books of Susan Howatch.
I have called this talk 'Seeing Susan', and the 'seeing' works in several ways. Firstly, it is, of course, a punning reference to the psycho-therapeutic meeting you're all so familiar with in your professional life. I have been 'seeing' Susan regularly over three decades, in a manner not dissimilar to your patients' attendance on you. On the other hand, in the last four or five years as I've been rereading Susan—and even the last month as I've been preparing this talk—I have been 'seeing' her and her stories and their place in my life with a fresh perspective. Thirdly, in 2004, when I made my overdue first journey to The World (specifically England), I went to 'see' Susan, the flesh-and-blood Susan Howatch, in her 11th-storey apartment in the Barbican in London—a meeting very definitely hung about—for me at least—with the fraught and pleasurable rituals of performance. There is for me a shape to these various 'seeings' of Susan that nicely replicates the ancient shape of story itself: beginning, middle and maybe, maybe, an end.
Of course I'm aware that an understanding of a transferential relationship—which is undoubtedly what I have with Susan and her texts—will, on the part of the patient/reader, only ever be partial; that's the nature of transference, as I understand it. My 'seeing' of it will be as occluded as any patient's understanding of their transference onto their therapist, despite my best efforts with an alert third ear—even an ear that has been well cocked and trained over twenty years for the chimings and rhymings and echoes in text and behaviour. I leave it to you, as your patients do, to note the tell-tale signals of this particular transference that are—as they must be—beyond my penetration.
So: Seeing Susan. Firstly, the name Susan. I longed—at various times in my childhood and adolescence—to be called Susan. It was a name, I naively thought, quite without cultural freighting. Ubiquitous, generic, plain, unmusical, emblematic of a certain kind of girl or woman. It was a name wreathed in normality and competence, redolent of the page 174wider culture's values. Anne was nearly as good—again, unadorned, unfussily one-syllabled—and indeed for a couple of years in my teens I expunged my own baroque, ickily euphonious, aggressively foreign middle name from my personal records and substituted Anne—but Susan was the prize.
My full name is Kathleen Domenica De Goldi, after both my grandmothers—Kathleen Dora, the eighth child of Irish immigrants, and Domenica Celeste, an Italian immigrant—both formidable women by any calculation: unflinching in the face of considerable hardship, practical, unsentimental—survivors. As a legacy—both linguistic and emotional—their names were a bothersome one for a child growing up in 1960s and 70s Christchurch—the New Zealand centre most determinedly Anglo-Saxon and Anglican in its self-image and symbolisms. Even at a parish primary school (called, wonderfully and significantly, in my own linguistic life, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour); even at this school, surrounded by Bernadettes, Eileens, Patricks, Kevins and Michaels, I felt that my full name was florid, overly assertive and loudly different.
I mention this sensitivity partly to make the point that Susan's 'susanness' has always pleased and attracted me, but also to underscore that a notion of 'otherness' was something I appreciated at an early age (even, or perhaps because of, living side by side with Austrian Jews, Dutch and Indonesian immigrants—a small set of international neighbours in a particularly monocultural moment in Kiwi history, and in an oak-tree-lined Crescent named—don't you love it?—after William Massey). A lingering sense of a linguistic 'otherness' is something that's hovered over our family and, I don't doubt, has contributed in large part to my determined espousal of complex vocabulary, both as speaker and writer, and particularly as a writer for children.
But I mention it also because I've come to think that language—the having or not of it, control of it or its control of you—is at the base of my own lifelong obsession with reading, my immovable belief in—hell, I'm going to say it, despite its romanticism—my immovable belief in the redemptive power of literature.
Reading is (contemporary multimedia notwithstanding) still highly privileged in the first world. And children's literature—weirdly from page 175my point of view—is attaining almost fetishistic proportions in this age and place, dominated as it is by middle-class anxiety and what we might kindly call parental over-function.
But back in the 1960s at no. 31, the corner house of the tree-lined Massey Crescent of my childhood, books and reading had an authority beyond any other household in my extended family and peer group. We had there—and in our later house—floor-to-ceiling bookcases in our living rooms and considerable bookcases in each bedroom—big altars everywhere, you might say—and their sacred properties, though never explicitly enumerated, were nevertheless implicit in many moments and conversations in my childhood. I remember very clearly the 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica being wheeled into our house on trolleys, along with the 12 volumes of the Junior Britannica, my father watching alongside us. Is he happy? Fascinated? Proud? He is something… and I am that something, too—though, to this day, I can't quite pin down the emotion. It is something close to repletion or completeness—though in fact I think completion and repletion are always just out of reach for the obsessive book owner and rereader.
Whatever my father is in this moment as these volumes join the library he is busily gathering and reading—whatever his emotion—its origins are in the Greymouth house of his childhood, where as far as I can establish there were only three books and all three belonged to him, Rony, the youngest of five. Two were novels—that famously edifying boys' survival manual, Coral Island, and a less well-known boy's yarn, Rival Redskins, a gang story, no less—English boys with feather head-dresses, playing war over the garden fence. Later in Dad's school career there was Mount Helicon, the standard anthology of English poetry used in secondary schools at that time.
I was fascinated throughout my childhood by these books—these smaller side-altars. I loved their physical selves: hardback, red and yellow and blue-green respectively, their pages dappled with age and moisture, their desiccated crumbling spines, the woody smell, the quaint line drawings and colour plates and the bookplate in the novels: Awarded to Ronald James De Goldi, Marist Brothers, Greymouth. The particular fascination of Mount Helicon were the page after page of Os that Rony had, with his fountain pen, given eyes and a tiny page 176top-knot of hair; and the little note written in the same green ink beside Burns' poem 'Bannockburn': 'Blue & Gold checkers, black cap; H Philips, also started.' (For those of you unfamiliar with racing reports, Bannockburn was, for the young Rony, not just Robert-the-Bruce's stirring address to his troops before battle, but also a bloody good little galloper owned by a local butcher whose progress racing-mad Rony was following.)
But it was the mere threeness of these books that really fascinated me, their earlier life marooned in the otherwise bookless bedroom my father shared with his brother, the virtually bookless house he shared with his sisters and parents. The paucity of books wasn't by design, of course, but because of limited financial resources. It was the case throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s in most houses other than the middle-class intelligentsia. In my father's house, though, the cocktail of a Depression economy, work shortage, a laid-up breadwinner and five growing kids had another twist: my father's parents—Italian immigrants—refused to speak their native language to their children and spoke English… very eccentrically. How my father attained English has always been something of a mystery to me. In part from his older sisters, I assume—after they learned it at school—and then only fully when he himself went to school.
Coral Island, Rival Redskins and Mount Helicon must have represented to my father a number of things beyond mere entertainment: as prizes they signalled an important step in the long journey of Making It in the New World; as stories from and about England they were a telescope to fix on the mother culture in a household severely behind the eight-ball in things Anglo-Saxon. But above all, those books had the language, the lexicon that, in large part, eluded my grandparents but became the next generation's—and especially my father's—very ticket to ride.
No surprise then that my father read more dedicatedly, gathered books more sedulously, than a squirrel his nuts. (History, philosophy, theology, biography—no fiction: a thoroughly unreliable form in my father's eyes.) No surprise that he chose law as his profession: a discipline in which mastery of the language is sine qua non. No surprise that a defining feature of my father's engagement with the world is his peculiar—though endearing—habit of randomly page 177repeating—reciting almost—words or phrases that fascinate him. Chimborazo, Cotapaxi, Popocateptl, he used to say out of nowhere when I was young—and then he would say it again several times: a brief, bizarre litany. He would blurt, 'The great grey greasy Limpopo', and 'Ping of the Yangtze Kiang'—a kind of linguistic Tourette's. Or he would quote from the judgements of favoured English jurists, some of which I can still approximate myself: 'The substantive law is oft to be found secreted in the interstices of the procedural,' he might say while cross-legged on the floor polishing the family shoes. Or names—these were his favourite sounds and signs. The titles of English law lords, for instance—easily the most fun to be had from a legal judgement, in my view: Lord Hailsham of Marylebone; Lord Erskine of Rerrick; Lord Simon of Glaisdale; Lord Russell of Killowen; Lord Fraser of Tullybelton; and my particular favourite, Lord Keith of Kinkel. Long before I came across those gentlemen myself I knew them from Dad.
It's not difficult to make the connection between the lip-smacking and aural pleasure in owning those shapes and sounds—and their associations—and the desire to build a library. Similarly, it's absurdly easy to connect my own obsession with vocabulary to my father. Ditto, my own addiction to reading and the ownership of books.
The British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, in a charming essay about the origins of her own writing impulses, says, 'Twice in your life you know that you are approved of by everyone: when you learn to walk, and when you learn to read.' For myself, my father's guaranteed approval of my ability—and seemingly insatiable desire—to read inevitably guaranteed a devotion to the book that has outstripped all other interests.
'Could you ever really like a person who didn't read?' said Dad—outrageously—to me on one or two memorable occasions.
'God no,' I said—and believed it. Even now I have difficulty sincerely rejecting that notion. Despite my best conscious efforts—something along the lines of: there manifestly are decent, intelligent, empathic, creative human beings who do not read—in my reptilian brain the earlier credo still asserts itself—a state of affairs that has offered a considerable challenge in my relationship with my daughter who has energetically abjured reading since the age of 14… oh, how a parent's propensities fatally determine one's own embraces… (and page 178that, by the way, is a vintage bit of Susan Howatch cadence—but more about that soon…)
Of course, buried in my father's airily innocent question is the obverse speculation: I wonder if I would like you if you didn't read? There was really only ever one response to that.
By the time I was 14 I had my own substantial collection of books—some 500 Puffins and other children's imprints—lovingly supplied by my mother, a far less complicated beast in the business of books, who had the spare cash and the inclination to indulge my appetite. I've talked in children's literature forums about the significance of this bookcase—my very real sense that it literally constructed me, fashioned my identity and christened it Reader. The growth of that identity had many stages and symptoms and here I'll mention just one—but first I want to read a passage from a marvellous memoir by the English writer Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built. When I first read that title four years ago, I was momentarily outraged: he'd written my life. He hadn't quite, but very nearly—especially in the linking of reading addiction to the family psychodrama: 'when I read stories obsessively as a child,' he writes at one point, 'I was striking a kind of deal that allowed me to turn away. Sometime in childhood I made a bargain that limited, so I thought, the power over me that real experience had, the real experience which comes to us in act and incident and through the proximate, continuous existence of those we love… I learned to pump up the artificial realities of fiction from page to mind at a pressure that equalised with the pressure of the world, so that (in theory) the moment I actually lived in could never fill me completely, whatever was happening.'
The effect of those words on me was profound. It was as if someone had zeroed very precisely in on and articulated in painfully exact terms a knowledge I had long had but had been incapable of giving shape and language to. The next minute Spufford was zeroing in on the minutiae of that reading childhood, replicating uncannily my experience with my Puffin bookcase:
I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing… in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of page 179J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Rudyard Kipling and Kenneth Grahame were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducing myth in to the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as those of adults… Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes … Leon Garfield was reinventing the eighteenth century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on… There was activity everywhere…
Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were, and about where we all were in history… The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin… And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward towards enlightenment had taken place as well… the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all the international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.
For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my pocket money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was the dominance of Puffin Books… If you were a reading child in the sixties or seventies, you too probably remember how securely authoritative Puffins seemed, with the long, trustworthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above and sensitive boys'. It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative.
I quote that lengthy passage because it was a miraculous moment for me when I first read it—it squeezed my heart terrifically and made me understand more completely the child and adolescent who lay in bed scanning lovingly the piles of her horizontally stacked Puffins.page 180 Having read most of them many times over and having spent sundry hours organising and categorising them according to various personal hierarchies, I knew them all intimately: their cover compositions, the idiosyncrasies of their wear and tear—a ripped spine here, a butter-stained bottom-right corner there, The Magician's Nephew coverless through excess attention, pages 73 to 99 of Anne of Green Gables cut into three precise tassels by my sister, Margaret Mary, learning to wield scissors.
One of my most pleasurable soporifics was to lie in bed naming each book and respective author, according to the colour and design distinction of its spine (they were too distant from the bed to read the print). It was my private litany of secular saints, following hard on the more sacred and petitioning end of the nightly business. When I had asked God to bless Mum-Dad-Clare-Margaret Mary, All-the-Aunts-and-Uncles and Every-One-of-My-Forty-Two-First-Cousins, I turned my attention to that other catalogue of names. It was a creed, holy couplings that made up a system of belief I never asked blessing for because I knew somehow it was already blessed.
The Night the Rain Came In by Jennifer Wayne
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner
We Couldn't Leave Dinah by Mary Treadgold
Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn by Eve Garnett
Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt
The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
The Sprig of Broom by Barbara Willard
The Friday Miracle and other stories by—weirdly—the Save the Children Fund
And so on and so on for five shelves of books or until I was asleep, whichever came first.
I still have that library—it's the heart now of a much larger collection. I still read many of the books, too. But there are some books I read and reread with a regularity and obsessiveness that I've always known is slightly kooky. Over the years I've been inclined to say that this sort of rereading is the natural apprenticeship for a nascent writer, but that's an explanation somewhat after the fact. Or, I've told page 181myself, that's just the way I am. Certain stories—read, listened to, watched—have had the capacity to lasso me, stop me in my tracks, wheel me in again and again. As they have my sisters: we all know The Happy Prince, as narrated by Bing Crosby, pretty much by heart; ditto A Christmas Carol, with Sir Laurence Olivier as your narrator and in the role of Scrooge—because we played these records over and over in our childhood. As adults my sisters have regularly reread their formative narrative—The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder; they send each other text quiz questions about the stories: What is a nubia of wool? Who was knitting it? What new decade was celebrated on the shores of Silver Lake? What word did Pa spell the Little Town down on in the spelling bee? Etc. But even they have baulked at my kind of revisiting: going to see Star Trek: The Movie eleven times; or Gorky Park a dozen or so; or The Godfather, Part III; or My Brilliant Career over and over again, a daily habit, in the spring of 1980. They, too, like The West Wing, but don't feel the need to watch all seven series on near permanent loop.
As with film and records, so with children's books. The rhythm of my rereading is unpredictable and the order arbitrary. I don't think there is any rhyme or reason to the monotonous regularity with which my hand reaches for The Lark and the Laurel, the first volume in the incomparable Mantlemass series by Barbara Willard—and begins thus my more-or-less annual absorption in the seven books. There is no seasonal trigger for my rereading of Father's Arcane Daughter by E. L. Konigsburg, no particular emotional prompt for a return to The Family from One End Street, Pennington's Seventeenth Summer, Spiderweb for Two, The Midnight Fox and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack.
I am no longer reading for plot, of course, when I read these books. Nor am I beguiled so much on the fortieth read by the mystery of character and motivation. And while it is true that these revisited narratives do all offer the best writing in the form and I do take pleasure and instruction from that, nonetheless, I don't think that is the heart of the matter.
The literary critic Alison Lurie has written very persuasively about the classic children's writers and their arrested emotional development in her books Don't Tell the Grownups and Boys and Girls Forever. I've page 182read these books several times too, aware that I'm returning each time for some clarification in the puzzling matter of a grownup who writes for, reads, and is immersed in children's book culture. The spectres of Lewis Carroll, Kate Greenaway and James Barrie—serious oddballs all—bother me. I'm as skilled as the rest of my fraternity at listing the 'good' I think children's literature offers the child reader, and therefore the singularly socially useful act we're engaged in—and any gestures I've made in that direction are sincere. But they're not the whole truth. The truth—for me at least—as I've come to understand it, is that I write—and reread—children's books because I am on a perpetual, unachievable hunt for some kind of treasure; I am on the trail of a mystery, an eternally unanswered question… I am chasing down a lost Eden. It is not so much a place or a group of people—though it is that, in part: the Sussex weald in 1485 perhaps, Rush, Mona and Randy in New England in 1945, Lily Rose Ruggles and her siblings in 1930s London, Winston Carmichael and his troglodyte sister in 50s Pittsburgh… all of them nearby, very present, but finally, just out of reach. Nor is it a time, unless it is time past—the freeze-frame of other childhoods which were always and still are my many childhoods, in a sense. But it is something else, too: an ambience, a feeling, a state of mind—the condition of reading those stories when I first did, when, as Francis Spufford suggests, the world was potent with possibility, and I myself was a creature in the making—a tabula rasa, protean, hungry, suggestible, a fool for story—its subtle confirmations of my universe, its intimations of other.
And not just any story. These rereadings, markedly different in voice, structure, lexicon, landscape and theme, are all unified by one preoccupation: the contours and drama of family—suburban, rural, contemporary, historic, sibling relationships, parental secrets, loss, pleasure, the ache of temporary distress, long moments of cresting happiness, the comfort, above all else, of home…
And so we come to Susan… Most of you won't know it but that's a classic Susanism… and so we come to … that line or its close relatives pepper her novels because there is no time at all in any of her novels when one or other of her terrifically articulate protagonists isn't engaged in relating the story of their life. That is the stuff and page 183structure of her stories. If one reduces her novels to their material facts they are always the same. We have a first-person narrative. The narrator is caught at a crisis point in his or her adult life. The crisis is both professional (a fatal ennui is setting in) and personal (usually incipient adultery); the narrator has reached this crisis moment as the result of a series of fateful, wrong-headed decisions, taken over many years but escalating in recent times. They are sophisticated, highly educated, powerful and, above all, accustomed to keeping deep emotion at arm's length with cool wit and bitter irony. So begins the ordeal and the journey.
The great thing about Susan is her voice, that unmistakable sound she makes on the page—an almost unanalysable combination of effects, as Bill Manhire has written—of tone, cadence, texture, language and subject matter. The voice is intimately connected with point of view in her case, since her narrators are all first-person, so her voice is their voice. Susan pins her subject matter and tonal colours to the mast right off. Here are some sample openings, just so you can get the cut of her jib:
I was in London when I first heard of Dinah Slade. She was broke and looking for a millionaire while I was rich and looking for a mistress. From the start we were deeply compatible…
That's Paul van Zale, the merchant banker from 1920s New York.
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 now my life had resembled a ball of wool kidnapped by a kitten, and now, after the preliminary unraveling, I was apparently experiencing the start of the inevitable tangled mess…
That's Neville Aysgarth, Archdeacon of Starbridge in 1945.
I never meant to return to the scene of my great disaster. But one day, after yet another wasted weekend among alcoholic adulterers I took a wrong turn on the motorway and saw the sign to Starbridge… 1988page 184 dissolved into 1963… and as I hestitated at the wheel of my car, the rope of memory yanked me forward into the past…
Venetia Flaxton, erstwhile inamorata of the hapless Aysgarth.
The opening to my favourite, most-reread Susan, The Wheel of Fortune:
How seductive are the memories of one's youth! My cousin Ginevra once said she would never forget dancing with me beneath the chandeliers at Oxmoon while the orchestra played 'The Blue Danube'. Women are such incurable romantics. I was a romantic myself once but I recovered.
That's Robert Godwin, caught in the middle of an Oedipal night-mare.
But for sheer bravura—Susan at her most seductive: a baroque setting and tone, languid exchanges, distinguished protagonists with well-stocked minds, a sense of place and history, early promise of a complex set of relational dynamics, theology and sex—here is the beginning of Glittering Images, the first in the Starbridge novels which cast a typically Howatchian eye over the Church of England in the 20th century:
My ordeal began one summer afternoon when I received a telephone call from the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a hot day, and beyond the window the quadrangle of Laud's shimmered in the hazy light. Term had ended; the resulting peace provided an atmosphere conducive to work, and when the telephone rang it was with reluctance that I reached for the receiver.
A voice announced itself as Lambeth Palace and proclaimed that His Grace wished to speak to Dr Ashworth on a matter of extreme urgency. Apparently the Archbishop was still infecting his chaplains with his love of melodrama.
'My dear Charles!' Dr Lang's voice, always sonorous, now achieved a pitch of theatrical splendour. He was a member of that generation which regards the telephone as at worst a demonic intruder and at best a thespian challenge, and when I inquired diplomatically about his health I was treated to a dramatic discourse on the more tedious page 185aspects of senectitude. The Archbishop, on that first day of July in 1937, was in his seventy-third year and as fit as an ecclesiastical grandee has a right to expect, but in common with all men he hated the manifestations of old age.
'… however enough of my tiresome little ailments,' he concluded as I added the finishing touches to the mitre I had sketched on my memo-pad. 'Charles, I'm preaching at Ely next Sunday, and because I'm most anxious that we should meet I've arranged to spend the night in Cambridge at the house of my old friend the Master of Laud's. I shall come to your rooms after Evensong, but let me stress that I wish my visit to be entirely private. I have a commission which I wish to entrust to you, and the commission,' said the Archbishop, milking the situation of every ounce of drama by allowing his voice to sink to a whisper, 'is very delicate indeed.'
I wondered if he imagined he could arrive at my rooms without being recognised. Archbishops hardly find it easy to travel incognito, and an archbishop who has recently played a leading part in the abdication of one king and the coronation of another was hardly the most anonymous of clerics.
I said politely, 'Of course I'd be glad to help you in any way that I can, Your Grace.'
'Then I'll see you on Sunday evening. Thank you, Charles,' said Dr Lang, and after giving me a brisk blessing he terminated the call. I was left staring at the mitre I had sketched, but gradually I became aware that my gaze had shifted to the last words I had written before the interruption.
'Modalism appealed to the Church's desire for monotheism, but in the second half of the fourth century it was propounded that the modalist God metamorphosed himself to meet—'
The impact of Modalism on the doctrine of the Trinity seemed a long way from the machinations of Dr Lang.
I found I had lost interest in my new book.
My ordeal had begun.
Innit marvellous?! Don't you just want to dash out immediately and get it? Despite the fact that Susan H. has always been placed firmly in the B-grade ladies' historical fiction sections of the bookshop, and despite the fact that she is—or was, until she began inserting great gobs of unalloyed theology in her stories—a bestselling novelist, and that these page 186are not qualities 'literary' folk are inclined to value—which accounts for the fact that for many years I've kept my Susan habit hidden, or at least partially curtained—nevertheless she has considerable technical armoury at hand, as I hope those foregoing passages conveyed. She's a very smart, educated writer; she writes about people in cannily selected social settings: the financial sector, the upper reaches of the Anglican Church, the great estates of the English upper class; and she dissects those social groups with a gimlet eye and unflinching scalpel—she's particularly good on the glancing and substantial tyrannies of class, the minutiae of time, place and individual. She knows her history, too, and has consistently borrowed—and acknowledged—historical grids as the plot templates for her stories: The Wheel of Fortune, for instance, is a retelling of the Plantagenet family drama surrounding the Black Prince, his heir Richard II and Richard's priapic uncle, John of Gaunt. The Rich Are Different is a contemporary re-imagining of the Anthony and Cleopatra story. At the heart of the Starbridge series is—yes, an unpacking of the ecclesiastical triangle composing the modern Anglican Church: the Catholic tradition, the Protestant and the ever-English Middle Way—but also a retelling of the benighted love story of British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and Lady Venetia Stanley.
Susan herself—a little exercised by her relegation to women's fiction—sent a message to literary hierarchists in the closing pages of The Wheel of Fortune: Hal, the sixth and final narrator of the lengthy (1086 page) Godwin family history, is able to complete the restoration of the family seat, the revival of the family fortunes, and, most crucially, bring his father back to mental health, by means of his Uncle Kester's recently discovered manuscript and now bestselling family saga!
'The novels made over two million dollars in the end,' says Hal (for which read Susan). 'They're still selling. Kester wrote about people and since human nature doesn't change his observations hadn't dated. He also wrote a readable story. When I found myself turning the pages without trouble I was surprised as well as relieved.'
It's all those things that have kept me reading each new Susan for 30-odd years. But ritualistic rereading is another matter entirely.page 187 Susan Howatch is the only adult writer I reread as determinedly as I do children's books. But something more than those estimable qualities and readabilty has kept me coming back and back since I first finished Penmarric under cover of my desk in 6th-form French and immediately began it again. Something else is going on if you're prepared to drive 50km at 5pm with two small children to secure the latest Susan. Something else entirely, if you're maddened sufficiently, aged 37, to throw your sister's jacket out of a moving car because she is withholding your current Susan. (That, by the way, was another little paragraph of breathless Susan prose.)
The answer, as far as I—the madly transferring reader—can divine is threefold: Lost Edens (again), the family psychodrama (and the effect of family history), and… religion.
The Lost Eden of childhood recurs consistently in Howatch novels, and most obviously in The Wheel of Fortune, the book I've reread the most devotedly. Blasted from the idyll of his early years in the company of his beloved cousin Ginevra by the birth of his siblings, his despatch to boarding school and an unforgivable act of his father's, Robert Godwin is set on a path of self-destruction which has echoes down four generations… Ah… the echo in time—oh lamentably fruity cliché—it's the ultimate Susan trope… Given my foregoing speculations about my unbreakable attachment to certain texts of my childhood it is no big step, I conclude, to the allure of Howatch's evocations of lost innocence, of the evanescent and retreating haze of a sun-drenched strawberry patch in a long, long ago summer. Susan knows, I have always secretly believed. Just as a psychotherapist is instantly the recipient of transferred expectation—hope of clarification, of solution, of deliverance, of benediction… so a Susan story has ever offered me—misdirected or otherwise—the same service.
But more psychotherapy and more specifically: an inarguable premise at the heart of every Susan story is the journey back to the original relational dynamic: the family. Time and again our protagonist—by the good offices of therapist, secular or clerical—is brought back to the family crucible. Charles Ashworth plumbs his father's ambivalence towards him; Neville Aysgarth understands finally his mother's confusing maternal flirtations; Dinah Slade recognises the origins of her kamikaze sexual liaisons in her mother's suffragist page 188activism. Harry Godwin, locked in the predestined downward spiral of the doppelgänger myth with his cousin Kester, is released to understanding by the dedicated intervention of his therapist—and later wife—Pam… oh, transference par excellence.
Do your best: a woman who has lately confessed to an emotional yoking to her father so strong that she reads perhaps at heart to please has gotta love a writer who places understanding the family drama at the centre of life's journey…
One last thing: in a lovely mirror of the psychotherapeutic monologue, the archaeological investigation that occurs in the room—I have, as I've been writing, thinking aloud to you all, in a sense; present now as individuals, but a kind of abstract collective therapist in my mind's eye as I wrote—I have, while pursuing some notions, uncovered another—prompted somehow by your unspoken questions, or by the unspoken questions bubbling up in Susan's texts which—you can imagine—I've been studying carefully—any excuse—in preparation for this talk.
It is this: my father has always been very troubled by my adult agnosticism—my abandonment, as he so wonderfully and revealingly put it, of the Faith of my fathers. It's a canker that works away at him and erupts from time to time, and we thrash it out, though never very profitably. Moreover, it baffles him that the vacuum left by religious belief has been so comprehensively filled by literature… fiction—my new creed… Sins of the Father, Susan might say… Briefly fascinated by my obsession, Dad once read a Susan—Scandalous Risks. He was further baffled—by the book and by me.
'But it's about religion,' I said, finally, annoyed with his frowning, urging him to like it.
Ah… the penny drops. Susan herself, of course, had a famous conversion twenty years ago. Abandoning fame, fortune and the good life in America, she retired from the world for a period and lived within the Close of Salisbury Cathedral and there began the Starbridge series. It is those stories that have preoccupied her—and me, increasingly—in the last two decades: fiction and religion fusing… no great surprise in my case at least, since a reading disposition was as thoroughly endorsed in my childhood as a godly one.
I hardly understood any of this when I went to see Susan Howatch page 189in September 2004. It's a strange and parlous thing meeting a writing hero… but Susan didn't disappoint. She was as clear-headed, as informative and as playful, as any of her narratives. We had tea and talked and looked out over London. She was keen to tell me about the chair she'd endowed at Cambridge—to research the relationship between science and religion. She seemed both charmed and bemused to meet a fan from the other side of the world.
For myself, the experience was like nothing so much as a visit to a therapist. I was mostly anxious, I found, not to seem like a mad stalker, yet I couldn't shut my mouth. I couldn't stop myself asking her about certain characters, recurring motifs and preoccupations in the later books, but worse, I couldn't stop myself telling her things about her own stories.
That line, I said, that line of Bronwen's, in The Wheel of Fortune … 'there is no timetable for grief' … Susan smiled faintly.
Yeah, my sister and I say that sometimes, I said. Kind of ironically, I said, digging the hole a little deeper.
Yeah, we quote John and Harry too, I went on, wishing heartily that I would stop. 'Stand fast, hold firm,' I said, certifiably.
Would you like a signed copy? Susan asked. Of one of the earlier books?
Yes, yes, I would, I said…
You know that bit in the Robert section, I went on, following her down the hall, that bit where Margaret has sewn the tear in the felt rabbit's ear?
Mmmm? said Susan.
When they're all gathering for Ginevra's return from America?
It's a strange thing, said Susan, sometimes I can't actually remember the smaller details.
It's an even stranger thing, I said, after a while. I do remember them. All the details… Every one… Every single one…