Hearing Secret Harmonies

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First edition cover

Hearing Secret Harmonies is the final novel in Anthony Powell's twelve-volume masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. It was published in 1975 twenty-four years after the first book, A Question of Upbringing appeared in 1951.

Completing his meditation upon the themes of time and will, the author recounts the narrative in the voice of a convincingly middle-aged Jenkins. (In the television adaptation of the novels an older actor was chosen to play Nick in the final part.)

Whilst evading the trap of tying up every plot line Powell nonetheless satisfies the reader's pent-up desire to know the fate of the principal surviving characters.

Though well received critically, Hearing Secret Harmonies has sometimes been held by academics to be the weakest of the twelve novels in the cycle. However Powell scholars like Hilary Spurling and his biographers, Michael Barber and Nicholas Birns broadly disagree.

A lyrical quality in the writing, not present in earlier volumes, has been detected, although the development of the character of the cult leader Scorpio Murtlock lends some astringency to the narrative. The sketch of university life in the late 'sixties offers a dryly satirical interlude before Widmerpool loses his final power struggle and expires in bathetic circumstances.

Plot summary[edit]

In Spring, almost another decade on, the Jenkinses act as host to a caravan of hippies led by Scorpio Murtlock, allowing them to camp on their land. One of the band is Fiona Cutts (daughter of Roddy Cutts, thus a niece of Isobel's). Murtlock is keenly interested in the nearby Devil's Fingers standing stones.

Widmerpool is appointed Chancellor of a new university, and is promptly daubed with paint by the Quiggin twins (Amanda and Belinda, daughters of JG Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine); Widmerpool is thereby converted to the current counter-culture. Nick visits Matilda Donners, and is shown the photographs of the Seven Deadly Sins tableaux of 30 years before.

The Donners Memorial Prize is established. A year or so later Nick is a member of the committee who award the annual prize to Russell Gwinnett for his biography of X Trapnel. Widmerpool brings the Quiggin twins to the presentation dinner where he makes an impromptu speech, and the twins disrupt proceedings with a stink bomb.

At a Royal Academy dinner Nick gets an account of Dr Trelawney and of Murtlock's boyhood from Canon Fenneau. Widmerpool asks the Canon to put him in touch with Murtlock.

By Spring 1970 there are hints of Widmerpool and Murtlock joining forces. At midsummer conservationists muster at the Devil's Fingers and there are reports of naked dancers there the previous evening. Gwinnett describes Murtlock's attack on Widmerpool during a pagan sex ritual at the Devil's Fingers that night.

Spring 1971 sees a family wedding reception at Stourwater. Fiona Cutts, released from Murtlock's grip, appears newly married to Gwinnett. Widmerpool, leading a run by Murtlock's cult, arrives at the reception and pays embarrassing public penance to the bride's grandfather for a misdemeanour at school. Murtlock appears and ruthlessly extracts Widmerpool and cult members from the proceedings.

The final chapter sees Jenkins in Autumn 1971 lighting a bonfire and reflecting on a recent revival in Mr. Deacon's pictures—Edgar (to his friends) has now been rediscovered as "E. Bosworth Deacon". Nick has recently attended the art gallery which is selling the Deacon paintings and where he met a now invalid Bob Duport, Polly and Signora Flores (Jean). While there he gets an inside account from Henderson (formerly one of Murtlock's followers) of life in the cult. Bithel (also part of the cult) arrives with news of Widmerpool's death on a naked run with Murtlock's followers.