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BOOK REVIEW : Dallying Dean in the Church of England : SCANDALOUS RISKS <i> By Susan Howatch</i> Alfred A. Knopf $21.95, 387 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If your copy of Trollope is in tatters, Howatch might just tide you over till it’s back from the bindery. The fourth in a projected series of six novels dealing with the intrigues, conflicts, and divisions in the contemporary Church of England, each one centers upon a dominant figure who then reappears in a cameo role in succeeding volumes. Though the books can be read independently, they are designed to enlarge and enhance each other, until the persevering reader will be able to carry on a knowledgeable conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Scandalous Risks” is told in the first person by Venetia Flaxton, a peer’s daughter who falls hopelessly in love with the venerable dean of Starbridge Cathedral. No matter that Dean Stephen Aysgarth is past 60 and Venetia a mere 26; less matter that he is her father’s closest friend, husband to the neurotic Dido and parent of adult children, a man in a highly conspicuous and vulnerable position, a bit overfond of the bottle and at chronic odds with his Bishop--he’s still irresistible to Venetia.

When the book opens, Venetia is a jaded woman in late middle age, revisiting the scene of her youthful indiscretion. Her voice is brittle and wry as she recalls the consuming passion that dominated her life; Howatch will maintain this tone throughout her witty, literate but essentially didactic book. The time is 1963, just as the waves of social change are lapping at English shores. The Beatles are still fresh-faced boys sporting Dutch bobs, skirts hover at a respectable fingertip length, and a Church of England bishop has just published a revolutionary treatise called “Honest to God,” in which the gospel of love is taken far beyond its traditional limits. This radical volume has not only caused considerable turbulence within the established church, but provided Dean Aysgarth with justification for his dalliance with Venetia.

That romance is the sum and substance of “Scandalous Risks.” Because the lovers must be so exceedingly cautious in the cathedral town of Starbridge, much of the love affair is conducted through letters. Venetia and her dean (whom she calls by his given name, Neville, because his wife calls him Stephen) write to each other daily, arranging their weekly trysts in his car and their more casual encounters on a bench in the churchyard. Because the logistics alone would hardly make riveting reading, they discuss church matters and debate the provocative issues raised by the author of “Honest to God.”

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They also make love, though not in what Howatch delicately calls “the ordinary way,” because the dean has promised his wife that his adventures will never degenerate into technical adultery. Unsatisfactory as this restraint may be, Venetia stoically endures it, abstinence only serving to make her heart grow fonder. Non-consummation combined with Howatch’s formal, elegant prose style lend the book its 19th-Century quality, a mood reinforced by the minutiae of church activity. During the course of the love affair, the dean is embroiled in a controversy involving an avant-garde sculpture he’s commissioned from another attractive young woman; the work of art is considered unsuitable, if not downright pornographic, by his ecclesiastical superiors.

Though Howatch has created a plausible and thoroughly contemporary character in Aysgarth and peppered the book with an assortment of literate supporting players, Venetia herself remains an enigma. Ascribing her passion for Aysgarth to the need for a loving and accessible father seems simplistic, yet no other rationale is offered. As evidence mounts showing Aysgarth to be manipulative, deceptive, egomaniacal and utterly selfish, Venetia’s enduring devotion to him becomes incredible. Neither the witty theological debates, the diverting and sympathetic secondary characters, nor the authentic atmosphere of the Cathedral Close can transform “Scandalous Risks” into anything but a doomed romance.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “Wish You Were Here” by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown (Bantam Books).


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