Absolute Truths

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Absolute Truths is the last of six novels in which Susan Howatch uses the personal conflicts and spiritual crises of members of the Church of England to explore personal relationships and religious issues. The novel’s title is repeated numerous times throughout, as are the titles of the other books in the series: Glittering Images (1987), Glamorous Powers (1988), Ultimate Prizes (1989), Scandalous Risks (1990), and Mystical Paths (1992). Each novel focuses on one of a large group of characters at a specific time, ranging from the 1930’s to the late 1960’s; although the books are interconnected, any of them can be read alone. Each title reinforces that novel’s theme: Glittering Images, for example, concerns an affair between an older, married bishop and the glamorous young Lyle, and it highlights the great chasm that can exist between a person’s image and his or her real character—a theme that is reiterated in Absolute Truths.

This final novel of the series, which chronicles events in 1965, is set primarily in the fictional English town of Starbridge, where a grand cathedral dominates both the town and the tormented inner life of Charles Ashworth, the sixty-five-year-old Anglican bishop. In the 1930’s, Starbridge was the cathedral of Bishop Alex Jardine. When Charles, then a young widower, first met Lyle, she was employed as companion to the bishop’s fragile wife but also was Jardine’s secret mistress. Charles’s inability to let go of his decades-long obsession with Lyle’s former lover continues to haunt his life. Charles and Lyle were married when she was pregnant with the bishop’s child, and much of the conflict in Absolute Truths results from Charles’s problematic relationships with Charley, who is not his biological son, and Michael, two years younger, who is.

In an attempt to prove mainly to himself that he loves both of his sons equally and does not resent Charley’s strong physical resemblance to his biological father, Charles overcompensates by favoring Charley over Michael. Charley curries favor with his father by patterning himself after Charles, even to the point of becoming a clergyman, and resents his mother’s attentions toward Michael. Michael becomes rebellious and distant: He can barely be in the same room with his father without his mother there to mediate between them, and he considers Charley a sanctimonious prig. Although Charles sees Lyle’s machinations in keeping peace between him and Michael as lifesaving efforts, the reader may conclude that her manipulations have enabled them to avoid honest communication—the authentic dialogue that they require to learn the truths hidden in each other’s souls.

The sexual freedom of the 1960’s in London and elsewhere is another source of great discomfort to Charles, a conservative who has earned the sobriquet “Anti-Sex Ashworth” for his vocal condemnation of the sexually lax behavior that is permeating the culture. In reality, however, Charles is a highly sexed man who is well matched by Lyle, who appears efficient and proper in public but enjoys and encourages Charles’s lusty inclinations. “I put a high value on sex,” Charles muses early in the novel, “which explains why I am an ardent moralist. I detest the fact that this great gift from God is regularly devalued and debased.” Several references are made, however, to Charles’s sexual misadventures in the 1930’s, after his first wife died—events that nearly derailed his priestly life. Yet his own interest in sex and previous sexual failings have not made him any more sympathetic to other people’s failings in this area.

When Charles’s beloved and passionate wife Lyle dies suddenly, his reactions include heavy drinking and severe sexual temptations, not all of which are resisted. His grief is intensified not only by his need for Lyle as a confidante, mediator, and caretaker who smooths out the rough edges of his life but also by an all-consuming sexual frustration. When faced again with his own sexual needs and eventual transgressions, Charles has to admit the truth that people cannot always live up to their ideals.

In a critical scene, Charles welcomes Desmond—a priest whose collection of homosexual pornography Charles had discovered—back to the diocese. When Desmond returns to his church after recuperating from an attack that he had suffered, he is embarrassed and expecting a harsh judgment from his...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)