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

I’ve been on a minor Robertson Davies kick lately, and What’s Bred in the Bone has once again proved itself to be an example of Davies at the very top of his game. It seems to me that everytime I try to explain why he’s so great I end up dissolving into incoherency — blaasrhghghahrarhagh read it read it asdashfhsdkjhfaskdfh — but I will do my best.

The novel opens with a very fraught meeting between some members of something called The Cornish Trust, evidently a family business. Arthur Cornish has hired the Reverend Simon Darcourt, a historian, to write a biography of his late uncle, Francis Cornish. But Simon and Arthur are both getting cold feet: it turns out that Uncle Frank was perhaps a bit of a crook, and such details of his life as exist are noticeably sketchy. It may be beyond Simon’s skill as a biographer to resurrect him, and it may be beyond Arthur’s comfort zone to have the old man’s perhaps-shady past out in the open.

Enter the supernatural metanarrative element: at this point, after some discussion, the narrative of What’s Bred in the Bone is largely taken over by The Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas — Maimas being Francis Cornish’s personal daimon, and Zadkiel being, of course, the Angel of Biography. Maimas, as a daimon, was a major influence in Francis’s life — perhaps not always for the best — and he reveals Francis’s life and his own role to Zadkiel, playing them both back as if they his life were a film. It’s a bit clunky sometimes, but it largely works.

That’s the setup. But the real meat of the story, of course, is the life of Francis Cornish. And we’ve got your bastardy, and looners locked in attics, and gross artistic fraud, and spy work, and bankers, and people named things like Prudence and Ismay and Zadok and Mary-Jim, and actually some more bastardy, and the whole thing is chockablock full of those random bits or erudition & ornamental knowledge that let you know that you’re reading something penned by the inestimable Davies. Plus, Dunstan Ramsay has a cameo, which charms me.

What’s Bred in the Bone reads more like the Deptford Trilogy than any of the Samuel Marchbanks books — that is to say, it’s Davies being intelligent and ambiguous rather more than intelligent and witty, though there are certainly comic moments.  It’s smart and chunky and thrilling, and all of you should read it, aarghsdk blargh blarghoo, the end.

6 thoughts on “Review: What's Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

  1. I have ben dying to read the Deptford Trilogy for the past year, but haven't managed to get around to it. I have heard that Davies is an amazing writer and I also have the Cornish Trilogy on my shelf. Glad that you loved it, even if it did reduce you to babbling. Very Amusing review!zibilee’s latest blog post:Coventry Giveaway!


  2. I just finished re-reading the Deptford trilogy as well — oh, it's just marvellous. Next time I think I might read them in backwards order, just to shake things up a bit.


  3. it's all the above but deeply underneath it's a quest for spiritual unity – making up your soul as the book calls it – so incidentally there's a lament for the decline of Christian and classical symbolism in our culture, and that rich souls who have it are seen as eccentric in our religiously impoverished time i'm a theist and love the book for it's bolstering of religion – any atheists read this and like it? – i hope yes if only on account of Davies enchanting style (shamanstvo he aimed for) and technical aplomb (action then comment cycling)it's an elegantly written book that you feel you can trust and captures a whole yet specific world … is Davies our Joyce? yes – sans the obtuseness


  4. I just finished reading What's Bred in the Bone. My favorite line: Making up the soul isn't an end; it's the new beginning in the middle of life. (The Daimon Maimas)Now I'm moving on to The Lyre of Orpheus


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