A. N. Wilson is a prolific novelist and biographer. In addition to his Lampitt saga, he has published eleven other novels and seven biographies, including lives of Jesus and the Christian writers C. S. Lewis and Hilaire Belloc. Wilson’s concern with Catholicism is pronounced in nearly all of his writing. The chapter headings in Hearing Voices, for example, are quotations from A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Approved by the Archbishops of England and Wales and Directed to Be Used in All Their Dioceses (revised edition, 1985), published by the Catholic Truth Society. The novel’s title, in fact, may be a sly reference to both religion and biography, for both the biographer and the believer claim, in some sense, to hear voices. The trouble is, of course, whether or not the voices are genuine. Fallible, sinful human beings can see only part of the truth.
The novel’s narrator, Julian Ramsey, is a would-be biographer of the Lampitt family. Eventually he will come to New York City in a one-man show that is an impersonation of James Petworth Lampitt. An actor by profession, one of the stars of a soap opera, “The Mulberrys,” Julian is used to performing roles and imitating other personalities. Yet he realizes that biography calls for something more. He wants his book to be based on data, on the Lampitt papers that have been sold to the American millionaire, Virgil D. Everett. This businessman has been evidently guided by another biographer, Raphael Hunter, who has made a career out of the Lampitts in spite of the fact that the family has shunned him. Julian suspects that Hunter has invented much of the “evidence” in his biography of James “Jimbo” Petworth, and to prove his case Julian visits the Everett archive in Manhattan.
Julian is frustrated, however, by the archive’s rules, which dictate that the papers have to be consulted one leaf at a time—a task that prevents researchers from getting a sense of the collection’s scope. Julian wants to rummage through the entire collection to see if the titillating sexual anecdotes with which Hunter studs his biography are really there. Julian solves his problem when he befriends the female librarian, who finds him sexually attractive. Between their intense lovemaking bouts on library tables, he scours the Everett collections, confirming his hunch that Hunter’s view of Jimbo is largely a fiction.
Julian then considers what to do with his knowledge. The librarian vows that she will tell her employer that he has been “sold a pup”—in British parlance, the businessman has been had. Yet when she breaks off her brief affair with Julian, he is uncertain as to what she has actually said to Everett. For Julian to tell him is to virtually admit that he has somehow circumvented the archive’s rules.
Before he can resolve his dilemma, Julian is called away to England to attend the funeral of his grandmother. Then his own personal crises get the better of him, and for a time he is hospitalized during a mental breakdown. In the meantime, Everett mysteriously falls from the balcony of his penthouse, and Hunter publishes the second volume of his acclaimed biography. Julian suspects that Hunter has murdered Everett, who has found out that his papers are largely autographs, unrevealing diaries, and letters from other people who shed little light on the Lampitts. At the end of the novel, not all the mysteries have been solved. Julian has not written his own book, and he is still trying to fathom the true history of the Lampitts. Unlike Hunter, he is close to the family, having an uncle who was best friends with Sargent Lampitt, the family’s literary light, and finding himself an invitee at important family gatherings.
What to believe—in both the biographical and religious sense is really the subject of this novel. Ramsey is not a Catholic, but he is surrounded by Catholics, former Catholics, converts to Catholicism, and apostates. This commitment to and renunciation of belief pervades the novel. Julian’s friend, Bonaventure Reilly, for example, is an ardent Dominican, but he also lusts after Margaret Mary Nolan (the target of Julian’s desire as well) and renounces his religious life to marry Julian’s former lover Persy Nolan, Margaret Mary’s sister.
Margaret Mary is herself a conundrum in the belief/doubt nexus of the novel, apparently unaware of all the men whose passion she excites. Yet she is repeatedly referred to as...
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