Desert Isle Keeper
Glittering Images is about British clergymen. How not-exciting does that sound? And yet it is one of the most suspenseful, riveting books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
The novel centers around the institution of marriage, an institution that was undergoing change in England in the 1930s, when the book takes place. A bill had been introduced into Parliament to expand the legal grounds for divorce to include cruelty, abandonment, and mental illness. Dr. William Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and therefore leader of the entire Church of England), found it politically inexpedient to weigh in on the divorce controversy. Lang is publicly accused of fence-sitting by the fiery Alex Jardine, the Bishop of Starbridge, who supports the bill.
Lang is furious that one of his own bishops would attack him, so he turns to Dr. Charles Ashcroft, the first-person narrator of this book. Charles is a member of the clergy who achieved some renown for his theological scholarship. He is 37, a widower, and a longtime protégé of the archbishop. Lang asks Charles to go to Starbridge and basically spy on Jardine, to find out if there’s anything sordid going on in Jardine’s personal life. Lang claims that he wants Charles to make sure that Jardine isn’t vulnerable to attacks by the gutter press, but Charles suspects that his real mission is to find some handle that Lang can use against Jardine. Charles is ambivalent about this commission. He finds the idea of spying distasteful and morally murky, but he owes Lang too much to refuse. So Charles goes to the beautiful town of Starbridge (which is based upon the real town of Salisbury), to stay with Bishop Alex Jardine for a few days.
There Charles’ ambivalence grows. He meets Alex Jardine, a charismatic man whose flirtatious manner with women contrasts with his bone-deep integrity. He meets Carrie Jardine, Alex’s wife, who is clearly not her husband’s intellectual equal. And he meets Lyle Christie, a beautiful unmarried woman who lives with the Jardines. She is employed as Carrie’s companion, but Charles wonders if she and Alex are closer than they appear. After all, Charles finds Lyle irresistible; how could Jardine resist?
At this point in the novel, things start to happen that don’t quite make sense. Charles respects Jardine and doesn’t really want to spy on him, so why does he start digging into Jardine’s personal life with such zest? And why is our scholarly widowed clergyman so alarmingly unwavering – you might almost say aggressive – in his pursuit of Lyle? And why on earth…Well, I don’t want to give anything away. Wondering about all of these little discrepancies is one of the great pleasures of this novel. I will give you a hint, in the form of a little snippet of conversation between Jardine and Charles:
“Have you read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by the other, more famous Miss Christie?”
“Yes. That’s the one where one has to watch the narrator.”
“Precisely. I always find that the more I read that story, the more intrigued I become by the narrator’s omissions and evasions.”
Howatch is a superlative storyteller and this novel is perfectly paced. We rapidly progress from interest to puzzlement to an intense, burning desire to know just what the heck is going on; after which, stunning revelations cascade one after the other, leaving the reader breathless. Not a single thread is left untied; indeed, the author takes pains to dig out loose threads you might not have noticed, and tie those up, too. I could not put this novel down, and I was deeply sorry when it was over. I immediately went on a hunt for the other four novels in the series, and while I was doing that, I turned back to page one and read Glittering Images again.
I give this book my highest recommendation, because it is enthralling and delicious and really amazingly fun. However, that recommendation is not without a couple of caveats. Christianity is a powerful force in this novel. I personally found the discussions of theology and church politics to be quite fascinating, but they might be dry if you’re not interested in that sort of thing. More seriously, some readers might be annoyed at the earnest way the characters place their faith at the center of their lives. The main characters, including our narrator, strive throughout the book to behave according to God’s will; their desire to do what’s right in the eyes of the Lord is presented without irony. I wouldn’t call it an inspirational novel, or a proselytizing one, but it is a book about devout Christians struggling with the demands of their faith. If you’re not interested in deeply religious characters or are generally apathetic about religion, this is probably not the book for you.
Howatch is clearly as well-read in Freudian psychoanalysis as she is in theology, and some of her characters are presented as seething masses of subconscious desires and delusions. In the 1930s the Freudian paradigm was much more influential than it is now, and I found the psychology to be persuasive, appropriate, and intriguing; but again, if you don’t like a lot of psychological talk, this may not be a good book for you.
On the other hand, Glittering Images may be a great book for you if you’re wondering why characters in historical novels don’t ever seem to act as if God or morality were important forces in their lives. It’s a good book for you if you want to really submerge yourself in another time and place, to be completely swept away from your own concerns and into the problems of a novel. It’s a good book if, simply, you’re longing for an intelligent plot, challenging ideas, and flawed, three-dimensional characters. It’s a book I love, and I hope others will give it a try.