Sunday, July 22, 2012

From Barchester to Starbridge

It seems that I get ahead of my schedule every year at about this time. This summer, I’m taking advantage of the margin I’ve built up by reading the second novel in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series, Glamorous Powers. I read the first installment, Glittering Images, many years ago, but became interested in the books again when hearing them compared to Trollope’s Barchester series: small southern English towns and lots of clerics. Sure enough, several pages into the book Howatch mentions a church warden living in the town of Allington, references that bring to the mind of the Trollope fan both The Warden and The Small House at Allington, respectively the first and fifth books of the Barsetshire chronicles. So obviously, Howatch knows what books she wants hers to be compared to. And if there’s any doubt, she even has a character say that a certain woman is more insufferable than Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie (from Barchester Towers, the second in the series).

The story of Glamorous Powers centers on an Anglican monk belonging to an order started by a fictitious member of the Oxford Movement. This monk, Jonathan Darrow, experiences a vision that he is certain has come from God as a sign that he should leave the monastery and return to the world. As it turns out, Darrow also possesses psychic powers and in addition has from time to time manifested some of the miraculous, first-Corinthians-type charisms. I’m not sure what Howatch thinks of this triple combination of supernatural elements. Darrow himself feels pretty sure he understands the relationship between the phenomena and how to tell when they come from God, when from the Devil, and when from his own psyche. But then Darrow, likeable and truly devout though he may be, is proud, stubborn, and defensive and doesn’t always know what he’s talking about, even when his subject is himself. In the very interesting first quarter of the book, as Darrow tries to defend his vision to the Abbot-General, I first saw the superior as close-minded and intolerably worldly – just as Darrow in his first-person narrative would have me see him. But by the end of the section, my sympathies had flipped. So I’m ready to find Darrow less than forthcoming about everything he tells me from now on.

The book really does remind me a lot of a Barchester novel. It’s true, I would be surprised to find miraculous healing or visions of the future in a work by Trollope. But the flawed clerics, the struggle between sincere piety and ambition, and the long conversations are all there. Howatch addresses intimate matters more frankly than Trollope, but there’s plenty of lust and sex in Barchester, no matter how Victorian their euphemisms may be.

But it’s a long way from Barchester to Starbridge. For me, the biggest difference lies in the narrative. Darrow’s dissimulating presentation of himself is interesting and entertaining, but it’s miles from Trollope’s unusual man-behind-the-curtain narration that openly portrays the characters, places, and events as figments of his own imagination. The more recent book’s Freudian dodges naturally leave me feeling wary of evil in spite of the glorious, transcendent realm it constantly refers to, while Trollope’s frank but loving tales of his imagined world leave me feeling that all is well in spite of the deep and numerous evils of our own, tangible reality. And yet we need both messages.

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