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Novelist Susan Howatch, Author of the Starbridge Cathedral Series

Updated on February 21, 2017

Salisbury Cathedral, Susan Howatch's Starbridge

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England
Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England | Source


Fans of Susan Howatch describe her novels as beacons of light, books to get addicted to, or soul stirring.

I first became acquainted with these novels when I bought one at a library sale. It happened to be Glittering Images, the first book in her Starbrdige Cathedral series about the Church of England, but I knew nothing about the author or this book when i bought it. I just liked the looks of it.

When I finished that book,I wanted more and read through the Starbridge series with eagerness. I then wanted to know more about the author because these books were different from any I had ever read, so I read everything I could find about her online. She has become on of my favorite novelist.

Early Life

British author Susan Howatch was born Susan Strut July 14, 1940 in Leatherhead, Surrey, England. She obtained a law degree from King's College and worked as a secretary before emigrating to the United States in 1964. In the United States she married Joseph Howatch, an American writer and sculptor, had a daughter and began her writing career. She found success almost immediately with her intricately detailed Gothic novels.

Early Novels

Susan Howatch has a writing career spanning almost forty years, beginning in 1965 with her Gothic novel The Dark Side, and ending with The Heartbreaker published in 2004. She published six Gothic novels at the rate of about one per year until turning to family sagas. In these family sagas the lives of her fictional characters closely parallel the lives of real people in history. For example, the lives of the characters in her first family saga, Penmarric, closely parallel the Plantagenet family, including Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Since these family sagas are well researched, they can also be enjoyed as historical fiction.

Gothic Novels:

  • The Dark Shore (1965)

  • The Waiting Sands (1966)

  • April's Grave (1967)

  • Call in the Night (1967)

  • The Shrouded Walls (1968)

  • The Devil on Lammas Night (1970)

Family Sagas:

  • Penmarric (1971)

  • Cashelmara (1974)

  • The Rich Are Different (1977)

  • Sins of the Fathers (1980)

  • The Wheel of Fortune (1984)

Intro to BBC Production of Penmaric

The Starbridge Series

In 1975 after separating from her husband she left the United States, residing for four years in the Republic of Ireland before returning to live permanently in England.

With her early novels Susan Howatch had developed her story-writing skills and become a successful, best-selling author. In 1980, however, after returning to live in England, she found herself, as she said in a lecture in 1994, “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live” but feeling a spiritual emptiness and questioning her life. She was living near the cathedral in Salisbury and was drawn to this magnificent building, first as an outsider since she did not have a history with the church. This association with the cathedral and her spiritual quest led her to an in-depth study of Anglican Christianity and to a spiritual epiphany. Following this epiphany, she decided to continue writing novels but to center them in the Christian faith, or, as she explains in the lecture given at Salisbury, to “set forth her discoveries in the light of faith”.

Out of these experiences grew her novels about the Church of England, not a likely subject for a best-selling novelist, perhaps. But they, like her other novels, have been very successful because of her impeccable research and first-rate story-telling skills. There are six novels in this series, five of them narrated by a Church of England clergyman, one a conservative traditionalist, one a mystical Anglo-Catholic, and one a liberal modernist, thus showing strength for the institution through its diversity. The fourth novel, Scandalous Risks, is narrated by a young woman who is having an affair with a Church of England clergyman.

These clergymen all go through different versions of the novelist's own spiritual crises. They are not pious, shallow characters with simplistic answers about faith, unlike characters in some other Christian fiction I have seen, but fully human and sinners all, their sins at times almost destroying them. They sin, repent, and are forgiven, thus embodying the Christian message. In an interview in the March/April, 1999 issue of Touchstone magazine, the novelist said, “Repentance, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection, and renewal, that is what my books are all about. The great Christian themes.”

In all of these novels there is a meshing of Christianity and psychology, which Howatch uses as a tool to perhaps reach the “well-educated and intellectual who say and think that religion is outdated rubbish.” If you talk to these people in the language of psychology, she says, “then you can say, this is what Christianity is saying. Learn the language. ... 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.”

Her Starbridge novels are:

  • Glittering Images 1987

  • Glamorous Powers 1988

  • Ultimate Prizes 1989

  • Scandalous Risks 1990

  • Mystical Paths 1992

  • Absolute Truths 1994

The first of these novels is set in the 1930s and the next two in the war years following. The last three take place in the 1960s, with the church mirroring the problems of the society during each period and managing to endure and remain relevant through the changing times. Starbridge is a fictional cathedral but is based on the Salisbury Cathedral that she lived near after her return to England. In the lecture Howatch gave in 1994 at Salisbury, she tells about her years in Salisbury and explains how she came to write these novels. This lecture has been printed in pamphlet form, Salisbury and the Starbridge Novels, but it is difficult to find. It is worth reading, though, to understand her writings better.

Carew Castle
Carew Castle | Source

St. Benet's Trilogy

In her last three books, Howatch deals with healing and mysticism. These books center around a healing center in London in the 1980s and 1990s. None of the narrators of this series is a clergyman, but all are drawn to the church in some way. All of these books also deal with Christian themes linking them with the Starbridge series. Some characters, or their offspring, introduced in the Starbridge series, reappear here. Again, the characters here are not pretty; in fact, the main character in last novel is a gay male prostitute.

  • A Question of Integrity, issued as The Wonder Worker in United States (1997)

  • The High Flyer (2000)

  • The Heartbreaker (2004)

Is That All There Is?

The last book in the St. Benet's Trilogy was published in 2004, about the time I discovered Susan Howatch. I read all of the Starbridge Series, and then the St. Benet's Trilogy. These books are not just intellectually stimulating, they are also page turners because Ms. Howatch is a gifted storyteller. When I had finished these later books, I read all of the earlier Gothic and Family Sagas just for the gripping plots.

I was a little addicted to these books for a while, but now I've read them all. Ms. Howatch reportedly retired from writing novels and lives in Leatherhead, a town in Surrey, England, back where she began her journey. Since there are no more books to read, I feel like I've lost a friend, a very wise one.

I recommed these books highly, for well-written, thrilling stories, and, for anyone with spiritual yearnings, as manna for the soul.


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      BlairBurton 13 months ago

      Very good intro to Susan Howatch, but I should point out that the fourth Starbridge novel, Scandalous Risks, is not narrated by one of the three Anglican clergymen who are the focus of the series, but by a young woman who is romantically involved with one of them.