What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies


As I mentioned in the post about The Rebel Angels, the first book in Robertson Davies' Cornish Triology, I had read What's Bred in the Bone years ago and had remembered only a vaguely positive view of it. Well, it is a big chunk of a book, big in that it is stuffed with great writing, lots of riveting characters, surprising turns of events, and one stunner of a coincidence. It begins with Darcourt (one of narrators of the first book) struggling to write a book about his late friend Francis Cornish and running into opposition from Arthur Cornish, (a nephew of Francis) who has by now married Maria, the other narrator of The Rebel Angels. Arthur is concerned that a close examination of Francis' life could turn up confirmation of the suspicion that he faked some Old Master drawings he left to the National Gallery.

Darcourt laments the fact that he knows almost nothing about Francis' first fifteen years of life in the Ottowa town of Blairlogie. Maria, who studied medieval history says it's a pity he can't contact the Angel of Biography named the Lesser Zadkiel and the daimon Maimas who could tell him all he needed to know. These two characters are summoned by the mention of their names and tell us that even they do not know everything about Francis, but are moved to recall the story. Now and again the two chat about the unfolding story, with the daimon Maimas expressing pride for his hand in the creation of the character of Francis.

 Francis' beautiful mother left the town of Blairlogie as soon as possible and didn't ever spend much time there; her father took her to London to be presented at court and after becoming pregnant, she was forced to marry the less than wonderful Francis Cornish. They turned out to be well-suited and had a reasonable and happy life together, though they discarded offspring without a thought. Francis was raised by his very Catholic great aunt and beloved grandfather and suffered at the hands of his loutish schoolmates. His grandfather taught him a love of drawing, reinforced by the time he spent with Zadok Hoyle, the local undertaker, in the funeral home drawing the bodies being prepared by Zadok. He discovered his "looner" half brother hidden in the attic, lovingly cared for by Zadok and the household cook. This is just the beginning of this wild tale which involves touching up paintings to be palmed off on the Nazis, working for MI5 in Europe before the war, discrediting a painter trying to pass off a painting as by an Old Master, painting two works himself that were deemed by the art world as masterpieces of another era, and it goes on.

Though the premise that "what's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh" is a concept that I don't find convincing, this was a wonderfully fun book to read. Perhaps it would be accurate to say this is a great literary romp in the art world.

Robertson Davies, What's Bred in the Bones, Viking Penguin, 1985, 436 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon. 

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