Review: What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

What's Bred in the Bone

1986 Penguin edition. Only complaint: used the phrase “what’s bred in the bone” often enough to stand out. Perhaps if it had a different title, I would not have noticed.

What’s Bred In the Bone is the second novel in Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy. As anticipated, 1985’s WBITB follows the life of a minor figure in The Rebel Angels, Francis Cornish, whose death in the earlier book leaves professors Hollier, McVarish, and Darcourt with the task of sorting through his massive collection of paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts. The Rebel Angels describes Francis as an eccentric, a recluse, and a respected authority on art, and WBITB explains how he got that way—from his ancestor’s immigration to Canada to the final moments of his death.

The life of Francis Cornish largely revolves around art, specifically painting. A painting has a literal image, but to the right viewer it often has a meaning that transcends the visual as well; something greater than the simple facts of planes and lines. Art takes the unknowable and translates it into beauty. That beauty is an end in itself. Francis is drawn to the symbols in art, and it is no wonder he seeks meaning in their transformative beauty. His childhood is plagued by vagueness and mystery; the truth is hidden from him at every turn. Francis’s parents keep themselves distant from him, and also keep hidden the secret of his older brother. Even his father’s work is a secret, referred to mysteriously as “the profession.” At school and at home, young Francis is taught to be afraid and ashamed of new impulses and developments in his body. Sex is a riddle, girls are a mystery, and his body is an enigma, and no authority—friends, family, teachers, or books—will provide any explanations. Francis is also exposed, through his friendship with the local undertaker, to the presence of death. Francis’s art is intertwined with the mystical qualities of life and death; he hones his drawing talents by sketching lifeless bodies as they are prepared for the grave.


Love Locked Out, Anna Lea Merritt 1890. Loved by Francis in childhood and a comfort in old age.

Religion is often a bedrock of truth for a young and curious soul, but Francis does not have this luxury. He is given strict instruction in two contrary religions and thus given a “double conscience.” This religious ambiguity renders him receptive to broader forms of spirituality. Much like Mamusia reading tarot cards in The Rebel Angels, Ruth Nibsmith casts horoscopes in WBITB. Horoscopes may be without scientific merit, but Francis’s horoscope awakens him to the archetypal positions of the important people in his life. He the renders these figures magnificent in a quasi-religious painting. (Fans of Davies’ Fifth Business will remember that Dunstan Ramsay—who makes an appearance in this novel—wanted his neighbor Mary Dempster canonized. Francis forgoes the official process and paints his family as holy figures.) Where organized religions present Francis with anxiety and guilt, art somewhat fulfills their purpose, bringing him feelings of beauty and transcendence and greater meaning. Whereas his childhood is full of uncertainties and unknowns that he longs to resolve, the uncertainties and unknowns in art are resolved by a surrender to the sublime. Francis’s heart is moved to embrace the mystery.

Davies likes to depict supernatural practices and beliefs, like tarot readings and horoscope castings, only to turn them around and demonstrate the tangible and natural reality such a supernatural tradition represents. The narrative scheme of this novel is another example of this technique. WBITB begins with a brief framing scene involving Arthur Cornish, Simon Darcourt, and Maria Magdalena Cornish (née Theotoky). These characters, familiar to readers of The Rebel Angels, discuss Darcourt’s inability to complete Francis Cornish’s biography for the simple reason that he cannot find out the facts of Francis’s life. Theotoky, the medievalist scholar, suggests that the only source of these facts may be the Recording Angel’s Angel of Biography, the Lesser Zakdiel, who “exists as a metaphor for all that illimitable history of humanity and inhumanity and inanimate life and everything that has ever been.” Reflecting on what they do know of Francis’s life, Darcourt states his belief that Cornish had a daimon, one of the “spirits of the Golden Age, who act as guardians to mortals…manifestations of the artistic conscience, who supply you with extra energy when it is needed, and tip you off when things aren’t going as they should.” This conversation sets up the narrative scheme of the rest of the novel. The Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas, “drawn by the sound of their own names to listen to what was going on,” decide to review Francis Cornish’s life, as recorded by the Lesser Zadkiel, and discuss the man’s path and destiny, as guided by the Daimon Maimas.


Critics mistake the pitchfork symbol of the Fuggers, a German banking family, for a clue to Francis’s masterpiece.

The majority of the novel is a straightforward third-person narration, but each chapter ends with a discussion between the two beings. This narrative scheme is remarkable in its nonconformity to the norms of contemporary fiction. Prior to the twentieth century, authors would often speak directly to the reader, commenting on the preceding events or digressing into more or less related anecdotes. The modern convention is that the author is an invisible presence who does not intrude into the narrative flow. In WBITB, Davies-the-author does not explicitly break this convention or address his “dear reader,” as Jane Austen might. Davies remains invisible, and the Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas take his place as narrator and cause, respectively, of the events. The beings pause the narration at intervals to discuss the preceding events in Francis’s life. This is not precisely “breaking the fourth wall;” it is more akin to an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, where the Lesser Zadkiel and Maimas reflect on the substance and meaning of what has happened. This scheme breaks the novel into meaningful pieces, and allows the reader insight into the depths of Francis’s life.

In their final dialogue, the Angel and the Daimon demonstrate self-awareness and state that “we are metaphors ourselves.” With this declaration, Davies points out that the conversing beings are symbols for that which has no tangible reality, but is real nonetheless. The Angel of Biography is not an airy cherub with a notebook and quill, but a symbol for the history of Francis Cornish that occurred without a human witness to tell its tale. The Daimon is not a spirit sitting on Francis’s shoulder, whispering in his ear, but a symbol for the events and people in his life that shaped his character and destiny. The metaphoric beings demonstrate the depth and significance of the protagonist’s life. Even though the facts are lost to his family and biographer, Francis’s life was full of doubt and love and work and beauty and curiosity, and like any life fully lived, is worthy of being told.


An Allegory of Venus and Cupid, Bronzino c.1545. A mass of symbols.

Davies writes about great painters in this book, and he also participates in the tradition of artistic metaphor they practiced. In addition to the use of metaphorical spirits discussed above, the story of Francis mirrors the mythological Quest for the Holy Grail, to which Francis is drawn in history and art. Francis’s story is remarkable for his solitude throughout. He never has a lasting wife or partner, but makes his way alone through life, taking lessons from those who have wisdom to share. The Grail Quest, similarly, is “an individual adventure in experience,” Joseph Campbell writes.

 The Grail Hero…was the forthright, simple, uncorrupted, noble son of nature, without guile, strong in the purity of the yearning of his heart…In his own deeds light and dark were mixed. He was not an angel or a saint, but a living, questing man of deeds, gifted with the paired virtues of courage and compassion, to which was added loyalty. And it was through his steadfastness in these—not supernatural grace—that he won, at last, to the Grail. (The Masks of God, Vol. III, Occidental Mythology)

These qualities are present in Francis from his childhood; he is guided by his passions and tempered by his good nature. Francis does not necessarily follow the path of “righteousness,” but he follows the path of his own destiny, and his life is whole. Indeed, in the last moments before his death, Francis is overcome by “a sense of the completeness of his life, and an understanding—oh, this was luck, this was mercy!—of the fact that his life had not been such a formless muddle, not quite such a rum start, as he had come to believe.” Though often mysterious and seemingly unlucky, Francis’s life was shaped by love—that which he received and that which he gave—and his art would survive him to express that love to later generations. Perhaps a young man will see Francis’s masterpiece and feel the transcendent pulls of beauty and love and wonder by which classical paintings captured Francis.

The Cornish Trilogy appears to be particularly artistic series. The Rebel Angels concerned itself with medieval literature, while WBITB deals with classical painting. I suspect that the third novel in the trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus, features a new set of protagonists, who are involved with a third form of art. I came away from WBITB hungry to learn about painting, art history, and Jungian archetypes. I look forward to the final novel in this trilogy and to whatever artistic enthusiasm it prompts.


One thought on “Review: What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

  1. Pingback: Queen Harvest’s 2020 Reading Recap | Put It In Your Hat

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