Ultimate Prizes (by Susan Howatch)

In my slow meanderings through books I have previously enjoyed by some of my favourite authors, I decided to re-read the third in Susan Howatch’s gripping Starbridge sequence. I re-read ‘Glittering Images’ for the fourth time in 2014, and ‘Glamorous Powers’ last year.

I hadn’t remembered ‘Ultimate Prizes’ with a great deal of fondness; I last read it in 2007. I knew it featured the Archdeacon of Starbridge, Neville Aysgarth, whom I never much liked in this or the later books that featured him. When a book is written in the first person by an unsympathetic narrator, it takes a very gifted writer to make the book enjoyable. Susan Howatch succeeds admirably, however.

The novel opens with an intriguing sentence about the morning after the Archdeacon ‘nearly’ committed adultery. The first time I read the book I was hooked. This time, recalling vaguely that plot point, I realised how clever an opening it is, and how the author gently misleads the readers all through the first sections of the book, so that when the act is ‘almost’ committed, it comes as something of a shock.

Immediately after the introductory section, explaining how clergymen in their forties don’t do such things, we are taken back three years to a dinner party where Neville meets a young and rather exciting society woman known as Dido. We learn at the same time as Dido does that he is married to a wonderful woman called Grace, and has five children, and also that the book is set in the early 1940s.

Howatch uses the technique known as ‘unreliable narrator’ to excellent effect. Neville is clearly deceived about many things in his life, and is holding together several stresses (and temptations) with a tight rein. His personality is such that he lives in the moment, regularly ‘bringing down the curtain’ on unpleasant situations or disagreements, so as to present a positive face to the public. He is dedicated to winning what he calls ‘prizes’ - achievements in life, the love of his family, and as much success as he can.

It’s not long before we begin to see cracks in his life - his wife is exhausted but determined to stay on the pedestal he has put her on; his children behave as well as they can, but wish he would be more ‘real’ with them. And he has a great antipathy to Jon Darrow, an older clergyman who is more Anglo-Catholic in his leanings, with a lot of intuitive insights and apparently mystical ability. So Neville is not happy when Jon sees him at his worst…

The storyline is complex, with many subplots, some of them relating to the previous books although it’s not necessary to have read them first. We see Neville with many different characters: as the administrator to his current bishop, as a close friend of a retired bishop, with his family, and with other acquaintances and friends. I found myself feeling quite sorry for him, and as the story progressed, surprised how much I liked him despite his brusque and pragmatic approach to life. The more his past is unpacked, the more three-dimensional and sympathetic he becomes.

I was intrigued, too, at the theological clashes that pepper several of the conversations: between the high Anglo-Catholics (like Jon), the lower evangelical modernists (like Neville) and the neo-orthodox, a new movement in the mid-twentieth century. I was surprised at how the terms were used then, rather differently from how they are now. Neville takes the Bible very seriously, but not literally, even discounting some of the miracles. However he stresses the immanence of Christ, and the importance of forgiveness and compassion, in a way that the neo-orthodox (in his perception) do not.

There are many issues raised but not solved: how to deal with war, whether pacifism is a valid response or not, and what to do with those on the ‘enemy’ side who do not believe in the principles of their leaders. These are less significant than the unravelling of Neville’s own past, and the discovery of what makes him the man he is, with his many hangups and failings, but the historical context and theological discussions help to flesh out the conversations.

That probably all sounds rather dull - yet it’s an excellent book, in my view, which I was almost unable to put down at times. Howatch’s style makes it thrilling, intriguing, and ultimately very satisfying. It’s over 400 pages of quite small type, but I finished it in under a week, often reading long past my preferred bedtime, and sometimes during the daytime too.

Highly recommended.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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