The Rebel Angels is a 1981 novel by Robertson Davies, the first in his Cornish Trilogy. It is a story of scholars and their peculiarities, magic and its realities, and classics and their application to modern man. Sentence for sentence, Davies’ prose is unparalleled: clear, expressive, and beautiful. The characters and story lines are delightfully absorbing. Each chapter is full of mysteries that compel you to hurry to the end, and humor that makes you wish it never ended.
Davies’ earlier Salterton Trilogy and Deptford Trilogy were named for the fictional towns which their characters call home. The Rebel Angels, on the other hand, is set in the fictional College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (“Spook”), and “Cornish” refers to a recently-deceased benefactor thereof. Three Spook professors, Clement Hollier, Urqhart McVarish, and Reverend the Professor Simon Darcourt, are charged with sorting through the late Francis Cornish’s valuable art and manuscript collection. The capable young businessman and nephew of the decedent, Arthur Cornish, is the executor of the decedent’s will and overseer of the professors’ sorting process. John Parlabane, former student and former professor and former monk, begins the novel as little more than a burdensome visitor and smooth-talking moocher. Interactions among these men tend to revolve around Mary Magdalena Theotoky, an up-and-coming Rabelais student with an exotic heritage. The story is told through two first person narratives. The chapters alternate between Theotoky and Darcourt, each narrator complementing the other to round out a picture of university, home, and inner lives in Spook.
Drawing on his career as a professor, Davies’ college faculty is full of complex men and women. Whereas many authors write academics as walking personifications of their respective fields, Spook’s faculty is composed of genuinely interesting people who have genuinely interesting things to say. At no point does their scholarly conversation feel pretentious, nor is it too intellectual to understand. The lay reader gets to be a fly on the wall for casual conversations among insightful colleagues, sharing stories and theories that might not make it into academic papers, but are nonetheless mentally stimulating. Only one of the characters truly lives by his philosophy, and everyone with whom he comes into contact finds him insufferable and patently depraved.
In What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton explained that certain primitive technologies may be replaced, but only by an assortment of what might be called “unitaskers” (not Chesterton’s word). A fire gives heat, cooks food, emits light, fends off predators, and serves as a gathering place, among other uses. Now we have space heaters, stoves and microwaves, light bulbs, fences, and televisions, but all these serve limited purposes. A heater gives no light; a fence doesn’t cook food. We progressed technologically, but the life-sustaining force of fire is greater than the sum of its parts. That which served our ancestors is often considered outdated and abandoned.
The theme of digging into the past for lost value, or “discovering the value that lies in what is despised and rejected,” permeates the narrative of The Rebel Angels. This theme is apparent in Theotoky’s resistance to her cultural background, it is central to the work of Dr. Ozy Froats, and it comes up in the doings of Hollier, Darcourt, and the team cataloging the Cornish collection. Hollier’s field of study is called “paleo-psychology;” he investigates what historical peoples thought and why they thought so. When science and culture progress and older generations die off, the wisdom embedded in their outdated beliefs is lost with them. Hollier hopes to preserve or revive that wisdom by investigating folk cultures. Darcourt sets himself to the task of becoming “The New Aubrey,” recording what the College’s brightest minds have to say and thus preserving the transient spirit of the current generation of Spook scholars. (The “Old” Aubrey is John Aubrey, who in the late 17th century wrote Brief Lives–a compilation of gossip, peculiarities, and anecdotes regarding his contemporaries and various famous figures.) While cataloging the late Cornish’s collection, the team of professors finds pieces more valuable than their deceased purchaser was aware. Less skilled or more careless archivists may have allowed such pieces to be misplaced or undervalued.
Digging into the past is both an attempt to gain value and a race against loss. The more time passes, the more substance is swallowed up into the recesses of history. Darcourt’s attempts to preserve the spirit of the College are thwarted by the death of professors; their stories go untold. Hollier seizes the opportunity to learn from Theotoky’s mother, a living relic of a dying culture. “Mamusia” thrives in the practice of her arts, but her daughter is a modern student who consciously sets herself apart from the ways of her ancestors. Hollier must glean what he can from Mamusia because he probably wouldn’t get much from Theotoky.
If the Cornish Trilogy follows the examples of Davies’ previous trilogies, What’s Bred in the Bone will probably not follow this exact cast of main characters. Instead, they will play supporting roles in the story of others in the same universe–others who figured minimally themselves in The Rebel Angels. Under Davies’ masterful hand, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies each erect a beautiful world to live in for three novels, with each novel almost wholly independent of the others. Many book series feel like a succession of volumes–Part I, Part II, etc.–but each Davies novel feels fresh, and incorporates different writing styles and points of view. I look forward to reading What’s Bred in the Bone with the eagerness one can only feel for a new book by one’s favorite author.