By Robertson Davies
320 pages
New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
ISBN # 0-14-006271-8

Comments of Bob Corbett
October 2002

Since I have several reviews of Davies' work I have set up a page to collect my comments and other links to Davies' work

Robertson Davies’ madcap, humorous, provocative novel centered in academic in Toronto is not only a fabulous read, but sent me scurrying to the internet to read more about the historical figures of Rabelais and Paracelsus who enter into the heart of this contemporary story.

“The story…” that’s not quite right. There are least two different stories to tell, though they interface and interlace. The more typical story line which drives events centers on several minor figures, the key one being Francis Cornish, never appears live, but his death and large bequest to the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost is the frame of the novel. Two quite wicked fellows – John Parlabane and Urquhart McVarish (now that’s quite a name!) conspire in ways that move the plot.

However, the most interesting parts of the novel for me concern the characters of two university professors, Clement Hollier and Simon Darcourt, their stunningly beautiful and astonishingly bright student, Maria Theotoky, and her fascinating gypsy mother and finally, millionaire financier nephew of the dead Francis Cornish, Arthur Cornish.

This is quite a cast of main characters and one is more fascinating than the next. Davies has a marvelous ability to create interesting and believable characters.

The minor plot line which drives the story is that Frank Cornish has died leaving a fabulous estate to various institutions including the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost. Professors Hollier, Darcourt and McVarish have been named as executors working under Arthur Cornish to catalogue and dispose of the dead Cornish’s marvelous collection of paintings and rare manuscripts. Among the treasures is an previously unknown manuscript by Rabelais including some letter by him to Paracelsus (drafts of letters) which is not only breath-taking in its own right, but the letters even hint of a joint Rabelais-Paracelsus interest in the Cabala as well.

Hollier has seen the manuscript, though only for a few minutes and wants it for Maria’s scholarly work to help advance her career. However, McVarish has stolen it and denies this. Thus a quest for the manuscript, murder and suicide motivate the plot line.

Yet the novel’s great attraction for me lay in several more philosophical issues embedded in the relationship between Hollier and Maria in particular, and Maria and Darcourt to a lesser degree, as well as how those relationships relate to Marie’s mother.

Middle-aged Hollier is deeply attracted to his young student Maria and she to him. They’ve even have had sex once, though Hollier, in deep remorse over that has never again even acknowledge it happened. Maria is convinced she loves Hollier, but isn’t quite sure what that means. To complexify matters Simon Darcourt, also middle-aged, falls in love with Maria and Maria’s magic-working gypsy mother is brought in by Maria to “help.” Things get wild!

I won’t tell much more of the plot. But there are numbers of interesting issues which do come up that I will treat independent of their plot-role.

First I was quite taken with Davies’ mode of telling the story. Two narrators, Maria Theotoky and Simon Darcourt rotate chapters through the novel. Maria’s chapters are under the heading “the second paradise.” (This theme harks back to the work of Paracelsus who said “…the striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.”) Darcourt’s chapters are called “The Next Aubury.” The historical John Auburey’s “Brief Lives” is taken by Simon as his model and allows him to write a chatty, gossipy history of his university and thus allows much of the story to unfold.

I enjoyed Davies’ use of the rotating chapters, each told from the observation point of the chapter’s author. It was refreshingly different from the omniscient author-story teller which is a much more common narration device.


A central issue is Hollier and Maria’s relationship (and to a lesser extent, the same sort of relationship between Maria and Darcourt). Professor and student work closely together. Each finds great attraction toward the other which arises from Hollier’s competence as a scholar and his motivating Maria’s intellectual interests on the one side, and Maria’s extreme brilliance and dedication to scholarship on her side. But, Maria is also young and beautiful and Hollier either ALSO develops a sexual interest in Maria or he reads his deep attraction for her in a sexual manner – or both of these. Maria is in roughly the same predicament on her side, but understanding the second drive less as a raw desire for sex than a desire to join her life to Hollier’s forever and be his life partner in a fuller sense.

The issue is ultimately resolved in a way which takes the sex – life-long theme out of the mix and decides their relationship in terms of a pure intellectual friendship.

Simon Darcourt agues to Maria that she is a “Sophia” to both Hollier and himself. Sophia is the figure of “…Divine Wisdom, God’s partner and playmate in Creation.”

Maria explains that Hollier and Simon are her “rebel angels.”

They were real angels, Samahazai and Azazel, and they betrayed the secrets of Heaven to King Solomon, and God threw them out of Heaven.

There weren’t soreheaded egoists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene – taught everything…

This bit of apocrypha and Simon’s Greek myth of Sophia give them ways to understand Maria’s relationship to both Hollier and Darcourt. But it is Maria who argues the sexual mode of playing this out would be ruinous.

I agree that I am Sophia to you, and I can be that as long as you wish, but I must be my own human Maria-self as well, and if we go to bed it may well be Sophia who lies down but it will Maria – and not the best of her – who gets up and Sophia will be gone forever. And you, Simon dear, would come into my bed as my Rebel Angel, but very soon you would be a stoutish Anglican parson, and a Rebel Angel no more.”


It is interesting to note that author Robertson Davies – rather than any character – structures this theme of the roles of men and women in such a way that one cannot escape recognizing his thesis that men and women play very different roles in existence. It isn’t one of hierarchy of men over women, but complementary but different roles – a sort of strange theory of “difference feminism.”


A last theme I want to call attention to is the radical skepticism of the characters John Parlebane and Maria’s agonies of being caught between the world of western science and her family’s occult gypsy life. The novel is filled with conflicts of an epistemological sort, a war between western scientific rationalism and other modes of knowing which are either more intuitive or even occult.

The strange scientist of the college, Ozias Froats is a minor reflection of this theme. He takes samples of human stool and analyzes them chemically to see if a rigorously controlled scientific relationship can be established between the chemical make up of one’s stool and one’s personality. When Maria shows him that Paracelsus had some very similar views, Froats is quite impressed with Paracelsus’ conclusions, but dismisses them as quite worthless since they are not “scientific.”

Parlabane is the novel’s radical skeptic concerning science and everything else.

But as a sceptic I am dubious about science as about everything else, unless the scientist is himself a sceptic, and few of them are. The stench of formaldehyde may be as potent as the whiff of incense in stimulating a naturally idolatrous understanding.

Maria is torn by a different but no less divisive conflict: on the one hand she is deeply wedded to the western rational tradition of the modern university, yet feels a very strong pull to the magic, occult and strongly motivating passions of her roots in Hungarian gypsy life.

Davis tries hard to give reality to both sides of her personality, and in places succeeds. In the end, however, Davies’ Maria seems to me to end up fairly well established inside the university culture of reason.

The Rebel Angels is a great read. Complex, funny, poignant and intellectually stimulating. A delightful novel.

See also the review of the follow up novel What’s Bred In The Bone.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett