Robertson Davies’s 1985 novel, What’s Bred in the Bone
, is the second of his Cornish Trilogy
. The first book, The Rebel Angel
(1981) is about literature, and third, The Lyre of Orpheus
(1988), concerns music. Art is the theme of What’s Bred in the Bone
, which portrays the life of Francis Cornish, a gifted painter born in Ontario at the beginning of the twentieth century. After Francis dies, a scholar attempts to write his biography
, but like his only masterpiece, Francis’s life is not what it seems.
The novel opens with a prologue centering on a conversation between three characters from The Rebel Angel
: Professor Simon Darcourt, Arthur Cornish, and Arthur’s wife, Maria. Arthur’s uncle, Francis Cornish, died a wealthy man. With Francis’s fortune at his disposal, Arthur has established the Cornish Foundation, which he directs along with Maria and Simon.
Simon agreed to write a biography of Francis, but after having researched his subject for more a year, has uncovered little information. Maria, once Simon’s student, is now a Medieval literature scholar. She remarks that the lost facts of Francis’s life are in safekeeping with the Angel of Biography, known as the Lesser Zadkiel, who serves “as a metaphor
for all that illimitable history of humanity.” After scoffing at this medieval “invention,” Simon suggests that Francis was guided by a daimon, a guardian angel that nudged him, as needed, toward his destiny.
“The sound of their own names” draws the attention of Zadkiel and Maimas, Francis’s daimon, and they take over the narrative. Relying on Zadkiel’s record of the facts and Maimas’s personal insights, they begin a collaborative history of Francis’s life. Their narrative viewpoint is largely third-person omniscient
, but the angels occasionally break this convention to comment on events.
To apprehend what was “bred in the bones” of Francis, Zadkiel and Maimas begin their narrative with his grandfather, “the Senator,” who arrives in Canada from the Hebrides as a child in 1857. By age thirty, the Senator is a wealthy lumber tycoon and by forty-five, he holds a seat in the Senate. His two daughters grow up in an environment of “unimpeachable Catholicism,” but while visiting England, the elder daughter, Mary-Jim, surrenders her virtue to a handsome hotel waiter. When abortion attempts fail, marriage to a suitable admirer is arranged to maintain appearances.
Mary-Jim gives birth to a grotesquely deformed boy, the first Francis. He is such a burden that, just before Mary-Jim has another baby, the family stages the fake death and burial of Francis. Thereafter, “the Looner,” as he is called, is locked in the attic. Mary-Jim’s second child, another boy, is born in September 1909 and christened “Francis Cornish.”
The first significant moment in Francis’s life occurs when he is three. Wandering in the garden of his family’s estate in Blairlogie, he is captivated by the beauty of a flower. This “was Francis’s first conscious encounter with beauty – beauty that was to be the delight, the torment, and the bitterness of his life.”
Although Francis’s mother is distant and often absent, she, too, is beautiful, and he idolizes her. His father is also frequently away from home on assignment in “the profession.” For many years, Francis has no idea what “the profession” is, but believes his father is a man of importance. Francis is often left in the care of his Aunt Mary-Ben and develops a love for drawing.
Francis Cornish’s school days are miserable. His classmates at Blairlogie Central School cruelly tease him about everything from his name to his clothes. In third grade, he transfers to Carlyle Rural, but this makes matters worse. The boys there amuse themselves torturing frogs and bullying Francis, who is forced into physical confrontations. One particularly malicious boy alleges that Francis has a “looner” in his house, and thus Francis learns of his brother living in the attic.
Francis enjoys a respite from Carlyle when he is sent home with whooping cough. While taking care of Francis, Aunt Mary-Ben, a fervent Catholic, shows him her collection of religious art reproductions. Francis is struck by the beauty of the paintings, a “beauty [which] reminded him of his own mother, whom he saw so rarely.” This aesthetic experience, along with those provided by his grandfather’s interest in photography, precipitates Francis’s appreciation of art’s power to express the ineffable.
Francis finds companionship with the household servant Zadok Hoyle, who does double duty as Blairlogie’s mortician. When Zadok has a corpse to attend to, Francis tags along with his notebook and draws poignant sketches of the body. Zadok also looks after the “Looner” in the attic, for whom he has great compassion.
Francis then moves to Toronto to attend Colborne College. The school’s emphasis on formal religion and moral discipline adds little to his education as an artist, but it is there that he discovers the legend of the Holy Grail. The mythic perfection of the Grail resonates with Francis’s quest for his own ideal, although he is uncertain what that is. After graduating from Colborne, Francis returns to Blairlogie to find his half-brother has died, and Zadok is gravely ill. Francis has a final conversation with Zadok, and details emerge that reveal Zadok is actually the Looner’s father, although Zadok will never know this.
In England, where he goes to attend Oxford, Francis meets Ismay. Although she is selfish and opportunistic, he believes Ismay is the ideal he seeks and falls in love. She manipulates him into marrying her as part of a deceptive scheme and then runs off to be with her lover. Meanwhile, Francis’s father has schemed to get him into “the profession” of British espionage.
Francis is sent to spy on Hitler’s railroad operations in Bavaria. He is stationed at a castle with Tancred Saraceni, a renowned art restorer who is enhancing German paintings so they appear to be great works of the Old Masters. Saraceni then dupes the Nazis into swapping actual Italian masterpieces for these forgeries. When Francis begins painting alongside Saraceni, he feels a deep affinity for the old style of art and for its rich iconography. Also at the castle is a scholar of the occult, Ruth Nibsmith. Her drawing of Francis’s astrological chart elucidates how mythic archetypes give structure and meaning to the seemingly opaque elements of his psyche.
Summoning all he has learned, Francis paints a triptych in the old style. The Marriage at Cana
realizes Francis’s ideal by expressing “the myth of Francis Cornish.” Francis flees to England when WWII begins, but afterward, his triptych is recovered and declared an old-world masterpiece. Because he allows this error to stand, Francis can never paint again, for fear of exposing his own forgery. He returns to Canada, where, with the fortunes bequeathed to him by his grandfather and Tancred Saraceni, he becomes a patron of the arts.What’s Bred in the Bone
was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1986.