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.