By Robertson Davies
436 pages
New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
ISBN # 0-14-009711-2

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

See my comments on Robert Davies' earlier novel THE REBEL ANGELS Which is an earlier story of which the novel below, WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE, is the sequel.

In the first pages I was delighted to discover that this is sort of a curious sequel to THE REBEL ANGELS which I just read a few months ago, but I had no idea the two novels were connected. In Rebel Angels Frank Cornish dies, leaving a large estate. However, that book is not about Frank and we learn nothing much about him there at all. In this novel three of the same characters reappear and professor Reverend Simon Darcourt has decided to write a biography of Cornish. However, he is convinced that childhood tells most of the story of one’s life and development (thus the title -- WHAT’S BRED IN THE BONE) and he is frustrated that there is simply nothing recorded of Cornish’s early years. He’s been to the village where he grew up in Canada and checked the school for records and so on: simply nothing exists.

Maria, formerly Darcourt’s star student and a specialist in Medieval literature, tells Darcourt of the Medieval notions of a “recording angel.”

"Maria, you astonish me! Weren't your childhood years important? They are the matrix from which a life grows."

"And that's all gone?"

"Gone beyond recovery."

"Unless you can wangle a chat with the Recording Angel."

"I don't think I believe in a Recording Angel. We are all our own Recording Angels."

"Then I am more orthodox than you. I believe in a Recording Angel. I even know his name."

"Pooh, you medievalists have a name for everything. Just somebody's invention."

"Why not somebody's revelation? Don't be so hidebound, Simon. The name of the Recording Angel was Radueriel, and he wasn't just a book- keeper; he was the Angel of Poetry, and Master of the Muses. He also had a staff."

"Wound with serpents, like the caduceus of Hermes, I suppose."

"Not that kind of staff; a civil service staff. One of its important members was the Angel of Biography, and his name was the Lesser Zadkiel. He was the angel who interfered when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, so he is an angel of mercy, though a lot of biographers aren't. The Lesser Zadkiel could give you the lowdown on Francis Cornish."

Darcourt by now was unquestionably drunk. He became lyrical.

"Maria- dear Maria - forgive me for being stupid about the Recording Angel. Of course he exists-exists as a metaphor for all that illimitable history of humanity and inhumanity and inanimate life and everything that has ever been, which must exist some place or else the whole of life is reduced to a stupid file with no beginning and no possible ending. It's wonderful to talk to you, my dearest, because you think medievally. You have a personification or a symbol for everything. You don't talk about ethics: you talk about saints and their protective spheres and their influences. You don't use lettuce juice words like 'extra-terrestrial'; you talk frankly about Heaven and Hell. You don't blether about neuroses; you just say demons."

"Certainly I haven't a scientific vocabulary," said Maria.

"Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it's a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer to us - to the humble laity-for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God. The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he - because he usually doesn't know any Greek- can't pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It's the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination. But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart. You talk about the Recording Angel and you talk about his lesser angels, and we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God- another effectively named psychological fact- bless you for it.

From this point on in the novel, Darcourt, Maria and her husband Arthur disappear and the story is told by Frank Cornish’s recording angel, the lesser Zadkiel, interspersed with marvelous little dialogues between Zadkiel and his helper.

Author Davies seems to play the recording angel card for a bit of humor as well as a clever device for telling us how Cornish’s life was bred into his bones. It would be just as easy to do it with an all-seeing and knowing narrator, a quite common literary device, but this unusual tool caters to Davies’ taste for the occult, and Medieval and his delight in humor and irony. It’s quite well done allowing Davies to wow us with his arcane knowledge and encourages wonderful intellectual dialogue on art.

The story itself is very improbable, nonetheless is a page-turner, well-told with wit, intelligence, mystery, suspense and charm. I could recount the story in two or three short paragraphs, but that might spoil some of the fun – which is Davis’ masterful telling and astonishing characters and plot complexities.

However, this stylistic device had a very different impact on me than Davies might have thought. I am writing history, the history of my neighborhood, Dogtown. I face the same problem that Darcourt faces: absolute dead ends. No records of any sort known, and “surprise” data turning up only with infrequency. It would seem that much of my story is lost forever, especially since I’m not writing fiction I can’t use the all knowing and seeing narrator, and, as much as I might wish it, I haven’t yet met the “recording angel” for Dogtown.

Here we come to a separation between the historian and the novelist of historical fiction. In novels which purport to take history seriously, but yet fictionalized versions of it, the author must go far beyond the recorded data, and will create dialogues when we really have no idea what was said, and must create many events that are imaginative guesses as to what might have happened. It is an exercise in creative imagination, yet backed by serious scholarship in the better authors.

As I stopped to think of what Davies himself is doing in the name of the recording angel – telling the intimate details of Frank Cornish’s childhood, I realize that Davies must go far far beyond the known. He tells us of the local baker and how bread was baked, for example. To what extent is this baker and his process the creation of Davies’ imagination and to what extent is he just a particular fictional instantiation of a generalized notion of what bakers were LIKE at this time and place in history?

The historian must uncover and remember history. The writer of historical fiction must also uncover and remember a great deal of history – perhaps not as much as the pure historian, but nonetheless a great deal if the novel is to be believed, in addition, the author must create the rest of the details which are told.

I stand in awe of the better writers of historical fiction. I sit in my chair and think of this history of Dogtown. I know a great deal about life in general here and can tell the details. But I don’t seem to have the creative imagination to get inside individual persons (or “characters”) and reveal their thinking and development, giving them reality and identity while making them so believable to the reader that they live. Young Frank Cornish is utterly alive and real for me in these early chapters of Davies book, more so that virtually any historical figure I can think of, more so that my own memories of my own life.

What an astonishing gift. I tip my hat to the better writers of historical fiction. They enrich my world even if they may mix up my history!

This was the second Davies novel I’ve read and I was nearly as delighted with it as I was with The Rebel Angels. I can’t wait to hurry off and find more of Robertson Davies’ books.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu