A Novelist Looks at Faith & Fiction
An Interview with Susan Howatch
by David Virtue
Susan Howatch lives in the Barbican, in the heart of London’s financial district. Her flat is spacious and comfortable. A portable typewriter rests on a table next to the sofa. She disdains computers. She tells me that she does seven or more revisions to every book before she is happy with the final product. Susan Howatch is an attentive hostess, erudite, well read, and the celebrated author of the famous Starbridge sextet of novels about the Anglican Church, its priests, their spirituality and sexuality. Over coffee we talked about her latest novel, The Wonder Worker. After an enjoyable lunch we talked further on a wide range of topics. For a number of years she lived near Westminster Abbey in London. She also lived in Salisbury opposite the cathedral, where she wrote her first group of novels with titles like Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths. Susan Howatch’s books have sold in the millions, but she does not flaunt her wealth. She has funded a million-dollar lectureship at Cambridge University to explore the relationship between science and faith. She is outspoken, attractive, and fifty-something.
David Virtue: The Wonder Worker is a serious departure from the Starbridge novels. How did you get started on the subject of healing and wholeness?
Susan Howatch: In the Starbridge books I did deal with healing. The second Starbridge book, Glamorous Powers, did touch on it. Later, in the fifth book, Nicholas Darrow ends up in a ministry of healing in London. The Starbridge series sowed the seeds, as it were. Now I became interested in the ministry of healing while I was reading Karl Barth’s theology of the Church and the Catholic tradition, and I was doing research into the Starbridge books. But in 1990 I heard a lecture by the Reverend Christopher Hamel Cooke who used to run the Marylebone Healing Center at Marylebone Parish Church in London where he had founded a healing center. And I thought, gosh, that’s a really interesting topic, and after that I kept reading about it, and finally I knew by about 1994 what I wanted to do in a big way. So I picked up the situation of Nicholas Darrow, which I had touched on in Mystical Paths and used it as a springboard to jump off for this new topic.
Virtue: Briefly, what is The Wonder Worker about?
Howatch: The Wonder Worker is not about cathedrals; it is not even about the Church of England per se, but it is about Christian themes, a connecting link with the Starbridge novels. This novel explores the nature of the ministry of Christian healing, exploring corruption, and how you keep yourself honest, a question all Christians have to ask themselves regularly.
Virtue: Healing as we have traditionally understood it has been largely the medical profession’s business, and the Church has been a Johnny-come-lately to the subject. We talk about Jesus being the Great Healer based on Luke’s Gospel, and Luke himself was a doctor. Why has there been such a gap in the Church’s history, and why is the subject so popular now?
Howatch: It is part of a growing trend to be more independent of institutions. Orthodox medicine, like the law, like the Church, was a great edifice, and you had to look up to it and respect it. Alternatives were derided. Towards the end of the twentieth century we are becoming much more open, more suspicious of authority and open to ways of trying new things. That’s the sociological explanation. The theological explanation is obviously the movement of the Spirit. In England, Bishop Morris Maddocks revived the ministry of healing in the middle of this century, and it caught on from there. It chimed with the charismatic movement, although you can do healing without being charismatic. Psychology comes into it too. We now know much more about consciousness, about the mind. If we are all linked together at some level, it makes sense to assume that we can all touch each other and heal each other on that same level of consciousness.
Consciousness is the great new thing in science. Studying consciousness is linking up with that. That’s why the Church lost track of it. Maybe it has to do with authority. The Church doesn’t like people doing their own healing outside the Church, though in The Wonder Worker I am doing it in the context of the Church of England. It’s a dangerous thing if it is done wrong. The ministry of healing is wonderful if it is done well, but of course it is a field riddled with charlatans and crooks, frauds and con men. That is why the Church became quite wary.
Virtue: The ending of The Wonder Worker seems somewhat ambivalent, would you agree? Some might think that Alice was the Wonder Worker, having captured the heart of Nicholas.
Howatch: The ending is very deeply ambivalent, which I meant it to be. You can actually read it differently. It was a happy ending. But it was potentially a great opportunity for abuse there. I like to think they would have eventually made it, but it would have been a very rocky ride, and a lot of problems to sort out, and I think he was very much bound up with his wife.
Virtue: But Alice was not very physically attractive.
Howatch: She lost the weight. Because she was integrated, because she had finally gotten into an environment that allowed her to have self-esteem and moved towards integrity and wholeness, she lost the weight. Very often for fat people eating food is a comfort. It certainly was in her case. I always imagine she was buxom. Her curves were all in the right places (laughter); she was quite sexy. She was the type Nicholas liked when he was young. She was reverting to type and was really quite attractive.
Virtue: Can we talk about sex? (Much laughter)
Howatch: Considering what gets published today, it’s not a very big deal. My books are very respectful, and not particularly explicit. Sex is a very important part of life; therefore, a novelist has to deal with it. One of the things about the Starbridge novels was that I was quite determined to deal with clergymen as real people, and that of course meant taking on board their sex lives in addition to their intellectual and social lives.
Virtue: You weren’t going to sanitize them?
Howatch: I am interested in truth, and I think sex is a part of being human, and I think if you cut out any part of being human, then you actually reduce the picture of us as man made in the image of God. So you have to be as truthful as possible about human beings, I think, in order to re-create reality, or a sliver of reality . . . to reflect the larger reality. What happens in church circles, particularly in circles where sex is in some ways taboo, where people are hung up on sex, is that they do get disturbed by it, and they get so disturbed that they don’t actually realize what I’m doing, they don’t set it in the context of what I am doing, which is the great Christian theme of sin, i.e., maybe sexual sin. My characters who do stray always repent, and they work very, very hard to put things right. So we have repentance and forgiveness.
Virtue: They are very Augustinian figures.
Howatch: Yes. Repentance, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection, and renewal, that is what my books are all about. The great Christian themes. People get so hung up on the sin that they can’t see beyond that to the repentance and the forgiveness and the redemption, because all my characters go on to serve God better than they served him before. My clerical characters go on to become better clergymen, more Christian clergymen actually. They have this spiritual crisis, or they have a crisis that arouses great problems for them, which calls on their spiritual capacity to deal with them. Very often they emerge through it to become much wiser.
Virtue: We are living in what is described as a postmodern culture. Men and women today have no sense of absolute Truth, to use the title of one of your books. You have your truths, as Spong would say, I have mine, and we’ll both be nice to one another, but no one had better dare stand up and say, “This is the way; walk ye in it.” We know who God is, however through a glass darkly we might see him. How much of this is troubling to you as you write your novels? Does the modern predicament niggle away at you as you ponder your writing?
Howatch: Yes, I think The Wonder Worker actually touches on this theme, being about the ministry of healing and wholeness. The more society fragments, the more the culture fragments and splits into postmodernism, the more we actually long for unity and wholeness. And I think that is one of the reasons why healing has become so popular. There is a deep yearning that tunes into the built-in desire to be well and to be whole.
I think fragmentation along the postmodernist line is actually deeply unhealthy and essentially leads to anarchy, if every thought is as good as every other thought. They are quite patently not. The view of a pedophile is not going to be the same as the view of a Christian. As Jesus said himself, those who harm little children should be cast into the deepest part of the sea. You cannot say those competing views are of equal worth. In ordinary everyday life we make decisions about what is better than this and what is better than that; otherwise, we could never get anything done. All the time we are making choices. Scientists make choices and they have these creative models and they test them out, and one model is better than another. So to say my worldview is as good as yours doesn’t correspond with the reality we live with day to day when we make choices. I think there is an absolute Truth, but Truth is multi-faceted, where you get the postmodern fragment—you get all kinds of fragments—but beyond that is the absolute Truth, which is God. God is a code word that can mean absolute Truth, which can mean ultimate reality. We are little fragments, but we all actually cohere and want to journey towards the absolute. Because that is the way life is: we yearn for unity.
Virtue: Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father?
Howatch: Now you have to deconstruct that. That is a very loaded theological sentence. You could actually translate that into psychology. John’s Gospel can be very interestingly translated into Jungian language. If you think of the Father as being the “Whole” and Christ as the “integrating principle,” you can say Jesus is the only integrating principle you can take to wholeness. I think Jesus Christ is the most powerful integrating principle because it is where so many archetypes meet and merge, and that is the very power of Christ and the power of the cross. All these archetypes, as Jung would say, are tremendously important to the human psyche, they are satisfied by Christianity. You might find that speaking as a Christian, yes, Christ is the integrating principle. If I were not a Christian, you get into the argument about whether there are other Christ figures who would play the role of Christ. I don’t believe all approaches are equal; for me, Christ is definitely the best way. I must have a framework. Christ is the only way to the Father.
Virtue: Do you read the Bible as literature or do you read it as the Word of God? Is it a powerful force in your life and thinking?
Howatch: It is a seminal book for any Christian. I try to go to church most days. I don’t always succeed. I go to evensong during the week, and you have readings from the Old and New Testaments, and again on Sunday. I try to hear the Bible everyday. I don’t always read the Bible everyday. I believe the Bible is of absolutely fundamental importance, but I am not a Fundamentalist. I think it is the medium through which God speaks to us. I think you need to be careful before treating every word, interpreting every word as though it were being spoken today. You have to do your homework and find out what the biblical writers actually meant. You need to read the scholars.
Virtue: How do you face the criticism that you are looking at Christianity through the lens of psychology, and not, say, through the historical/grammatical method?
Howatch: I do get letters about this. I don’t see any conflict. I think all disciplines shed light on each other. Psychology actually happens to speak to me. I find psychology very illuminating. Looking at Christianity through the lens of psychology enables me to understand it better. I regard psychology as a tool that for me opens up aspects of Christianity. Remember, I came late to it. A lot of it is quite incomprehensible to outsiders. A lot of theological language can be very dense. Christian language can be very obscure and not easy for outsiders to understand. So psychology can be a tool to open it up. So if you say to a nonbeliever who knows nothing about Christianity, “The only way to the Father is through Jesus,” he is going to say, “What the hell are you talking about?” But if you say, “Do you want to be well integrated, do you want to feel whole, happy or in tune with your deeper self?”, that they will listen to and relate to; then you can lead them on from that, you see. So psychology is a tool, a powerful, evangelizing tool that the Church hasn’t made enough of, and a tool for the well educated and intellectual who say and think that religion is outdated rubbish. But if you talk to them in the language of psychology and then you say, this is what Christianity is saying, learn the language. They are saying it another way. The Starbridge books in particular, and in this book, I make a great play with the language. I see it as an opening up tool for evangelism. Two languages integrating truth.
Virtue: I have a sense that you are moving more towards mysticism?
Howatch: I have always been interested in mysticism. That came over in the second Starbridge book Mystical Paths and the fifth novel, Glamorous Powers. The second and the fifth go together. What I wanted to do originally with the Starbridge books was to have different strands of the Church. I was doing the traditional consciousness strand, then the liberal radical strand, and in the middle was the mystical strand, which is timeless, and that was represented by John Darrow and his son Nicholas. I am very interested in mysticism, and that is how I got interested in the Catholic tradition, reading the fourteenth and fifteenth century mystics.
Virtue: Do you see any danger or innate contradiction between the psychology and mysticism you have incorporated into your faith and still being an orthodox Anglican believer affirming all the doctrines of the Christian Church? Do those doctrines still make sense to you?
Howatch: Contrary to John Spong I would absolutely have to have a church framework. I think if mystics try to operate outside a church framework, they go over the top into gnosticism and cloud cuckoo-land. You need a framework to stop you from being dishonest. In the Starbridge books the mystics had to have spiritual directors to focus—otherwise how do you know if you have it spot on or not?
Virtue: Do you have a spiritual director?
Howatch: No, not at the moment.
Virtue: Are you looking for one?
Howatch: I am always looking. I did have one but he’s retired. He’s very old now.
Virtue: So you still affirm the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds?
Howatch: Yes, but Christianity being a very superior religion, a first-class, world-beating religion has to appeal to everyone. So what I see as the Christian story, which is actually beyond the story, are great fundamental truths about life and the universe, and it is given to us in the form of a story, it is given to us in the form of a human being, Jesus Christ, so that we can understand it better. Over the years the Church has developed an intricate network of dogma and doctrines; even though dogma has a pejorative meaning, it only describes what is. There is no conflict with psychology. All roads lead to truth. If you are secure in your framework, you can step outside and explore all kinds of things because you know you can come back into the framework and feel secure. If you ditch the framework, then you are way out into the New Age, wandering about talking to mother earth and anything goes.
Virtue: (Interrupting). We have theologians in the Episcopal Church, USA that do that. . . . (laughter)
Howatch: So worship is very important. I always found worship very difficult. I came to Christianity in the early 1980s from a non-church background. I couldn’t understand what on earth worship was all about. It took me about five years, and worship was the last thing I came to. I came to Christianity via the intellect. I liked all that stuff about Chalcedon and Nicaea and the church fathers, and the whole history of the Church. So John Spong makes a very great mistake. He thinks it is all too much for the ordinary person to cope with, but that’s absolute rubbish. That’s very patronizing rubbish. I knew nothing. But I found it fascinating. So John Spong had better come and talk to me.
Virtue: I’d be delighted to send him. Many of us in the United States feel he should have been put on trial for heresy years ago and thrown out of the Church.
Howatch: I very much subscribe to church history and the church framework. What Spong seems to have lost sight of is that Christianity has had all the crap beaten out of it for 2,000 years by the best intellects in Europe, before America was invented. So before you kick over the traces and say let’s have a new reformation, which has been tried many times before, I think you have to respect the very finest intellects for over 2,000 years . . . brilliant men, some women, who have actually hammered out Christianity. Now who are we to come along and just say that is all garbage and have a new reformation? I’d rather say to Spong, “What are your intellectual credentials?” Spong as a bishop would have had a good grounding. . . .
Virtue: Don’t bet on that. . . .
Howatch: I would ask, “What is going on in your life, bishop? Why do you feel the need to rebel? What is it about you? Tell me about your father. . . .”
Virtue: It’s his daddy. . . . Theologically what are you then?
Howatch: I am not an Anglo-Catholic. I am a Protestant of the middle way. But I am very devoted intellectually to Catholic tradition. I like the Catholic intellectual strand. You get intellectual Protestants too, but they don’t have that great tradition going back to the church fathers. But when it comes to worship I am very minimalist. I find it very difficult. But having practiced it for some years, I can now sit through any service. I am quintessentially the middle way of the Church of England.
Virtue: Many of my friends in the Evangelical Anglican tradition feel you have not understood them, or given them a fair shake in your novels. There are some quite brilliant Evangelicals in the Anglican Communion, like the Reverend John R. W. Stott, Dr. James Packer, and even the present archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.
Howatch: The Starbridge books cover 1937 to 1968 with a few flash-forwards to 1988. Now, during that time the Evangelicals were at a very low ebb. They didn’t get their act together till the Keele Conference in 1967. The rise of the Evangelicals is not in the time frame I’m doing for the Starbridge novels. That is why the Evangelicals didn’t get more attention. I did have low church Protestants, but the Evangelicals were floundering. It was the rise of the Anglo-Catholics that was the great thing in the first part of this century. It would not have been historically correct to give great emphasis to Evangelicals. If I had written about the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, it would have been quite different. What I did do in the Starbridge books was to have a younger character, Charles Ashworth’s son, be a prototype of the new Evangelical coming up. I had this glimpse of things to come, but it would have been historically wrong to have done more than that. In The Wonder Worker I am not writing about the Church as such but about the very traditional ministry of healing.
Virtue: Do you have any thoughts about the rise of the charismatic movement within the Anglican Church in this country and indeed throughout the world?
Howatch: Yes, it is the work of the Spirit. It’s a great movement. But I’m rather British, although I lived for eleven years in the United States. I’m always a bit nervous of what used to be called “enthusiasm.” It suits some people. Again, we get back into psychology. How do people like to worship? What does this call forth? I myself am not psychologically suited to it. It doesn’t appeal to my psychological make-up at all. It’s fine if it is well done, but it is potentially quite dangerous and open to abuse. A charismatic preacher can have too much power, and if he is not quite on the ball spiritually, it could be dangerous. So I think it is an interesting movement and a valid way to worship.
Virtue: What do you think of the Alpha Movement that is sweeping the churches in England and abroad?
Howatch: It is obviously doing a lot of good. I have read criticisms of it too. But anything that encourages people to become interested in the gospel must be a good thing. I believe it is not too good on the cross, on the theology of redemption and atonement.
Virtue: Have you been enamored with the writings of C. S. Lewis or influenced by him?
Howatch: I am not a C. S. Lewis fan. I have a tremendous respect for Lewis. He’s had enormous influence. But I can’t read him. He doesn’t speak to me at all. His personality does not attract me at all. I tried him in the ’80s. I should really try him again.
Virtue: G. K. Chesterton?
Howatch: No. Not really.
Virtue: Malcolm Muggeridge?
Howatch: He used to be very funny. Muggeridge was very big on radio and TV. Yes, he was very literate. He is very readable. I find C. S. Lewis very unreadable.
Virtue: Who are your heroes in the world of literature, especially fiction?
Howatch: As far as English literature goes it’s the Victorian novelists. I like the big canvas. Moral issues.
Howatch: Yes, George Eliot and all that sort of thing. The ones that have the scope and the good psychology. I do like Graham Greene very much, and I like Iris Murdoch, though she doesn’t seem to be so well known in America as she is here.
Virtue: Dorothy Sayers?
Howatch: Yes, I like some of her books. I don’t like her nonfiction as much. But I did write an introduction to The Mind of the Maker recently.
Virtue: Who is your favorite writer and novelist?
Howatch: It’s very hard to say. I am very fond of Raymond Chandler. He was a very seminal influence on me when I was beginning as a mystery writer. He was a voice speaking to me. He was not a Christian, but he was a moralist. A humanist writing on moral themes. I liked his style. I have his books now for sentimental reasons. My favorite book of all time is Trollope’s, The Way We Live Now, or one of the Barchester books.
Virtue: P. D. James?
Howatch: Yes, I like her books.
Virtue: T. S. Eliot talked about the doctrine of impersonality. What did he mean by that?
Howatch: I admire Eliot tremendously. Eliot had this doctrine of impersonality. He thought the act of writing should be an act of kenosis. You should empty yourself of yourself in order to become the character you’re writing about. I subscribe to that. At the same time, honesty compels me to admit that while no judgment is value-free, you cannot actually divorce yourself from yourself when you do characters, so I think the novelist leaves his or her fingerprints everywhere. People make a great mistake when they read too much of me into my books, because I am hiding all the time. I am very elusive, you see, and sometimes it chimes with what I think and sometimes it doesn’t. And I can play devil’s advocate very convincingly, and I can write a thing that I don’t subscribe to at all. But that is part of being a novelist.
Virtue: I must confess I never saw you in particular in any of your novels. The characters were too much themselves to say this or that person is Susan Howatch.
Howatch: It’s amazing what some people will read into it though. People make assumptions and it is quite dangerous to make such assumptions. But I am not, strictly speaking, an autobiographical novelist. I have never actually written about my life as a wife or my life as a mother. I have written about wives and mothers, and obviously I have borrowed from my past experience, but I have never written directly about those things, and I have never written directly about my childhood either. So it is all filtered out. Obviously one draws on one’s experience, but I don’t re-create like a photograph what I myself have experienced. It is much more complex than that.
Virtue: Can you tell me about your next book now that you have finished The Wonder Worker?
Howatch: Yes, I am halfway through. It’s called The High Flyer.
Virtue: It sounds very American.
Howatch: I now want to write modern novels. The Starbridge series were about yesterday. This new book is set in 1990. It’s another book about St. Benet’s, the healing center. But it is coming at it from a very different angle. In The Wonder Worker we had it coming from Alice’s point of view; she was an agnostic and a reject from society with a weight problem and not a good job. Now I am tackling it from a young woman who is in her thirties who is a very, very successful, high-flying lady in the city, a lawyer in the financial district, and so I want to show how she gets drawn into Christianity. Here I am dealing with someone who finds the whole thing completely incomprehensible. But of course God can reach out to everyone.
Virtue: It sounds very evangelistic. You are dragging her towards faith. Not in the traditional Billy Graham sense, but you are doing the work of an evangelist by making the faith appealing to a complete agnostic.
Howatch: That is true, and I hope God will use it in that respect. I want to explore the role of women in modern culture, which I didn’t deal with in the Starbridge series. The woman has to deal with someone who is a total liar. It nearly dissolves her self-confidence. She is then drawn towards people for whom truth is a way of life. It is through truth that she discovers God, who is Truth.
Virtue: What makes good Christian fiction?
Howatch: It’s a vexed question. I don’t think of myself as a Christian novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes on Christian themes. I think there is a difference. A Christian novelist implies someone who thinks a Christian theme and tailors everything to fit. For me, the people come first and the Christian themes grow out of that. The important thing about Christian fiction is that first of all it should be good fiction; without that, nothing is possible. But because Christianity applies to the whole of life and the novelist’s concern should be the whole of life, if a novel is done well, it inevitably should have Christian themes in it because Christianity is dealing with the great fundamentals of life. Unfortunately many novelists today aren’t interested in broad interests or major themes.
Virtue: John Grisham, the famous potboiler storyteller of legal fiction, is a Southern Baptist, but he writes novels that have no sense of the Christian faith.
Howatch: That’s interesting. I’m not a John Grisham fan. But in Grisham’s books you see good battling against evil and the evil being vanquished; that is a fundamental metaphysical theme going on there. In his book The Firm, where the law is corrupt, you get the young hero going to set the corruption right. He may not be mentioning Jesus Christ on every page, but that’s not the point.
Virtue: Do you see a Christian novel being a kind of apologetics to a Generation X that is spiritually lost?
Howatch: I think it is extremely dangerous for any novelist to set out to evangelize, because you end up writing a Christian polemic. A novelist’s first duty is to write a story. A novelist’s second duty is to write a readable story, and without a readable story nothing is possible. You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right, the Christian themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated. In The Wonder Worker you can see the theology of healing, and you can see the business of sin and redemption and forgiveness at work. The themes are all there in the book. Once you start saying I am going to evangelize, that’s actually pride. When I had my religious conversion, one of the most important things was that I was working for years furthering my own self-interest. What I am going to do now, if I continue to write books, I am going to offer them to God to use as he pleases. That sets me free. I offer it to God and say “make of it what you wish”; otherwise you get carried away by pride.
Virtue: Thank you Ms. Howatch.
David Virtue grew up in New Zealand, in an Open Brethren family. He studied at Victoria University, London University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, and Regent College at the University of British Columbia. He has served as a staff writer for a number of Christian organizations and publications and is the author of two books on Christian faith and justice. He and his wife Mary live in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and are practicing Episcopalians.
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“A Novelist Looks at Faith & Fiction” first appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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