WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE by Robetson Davies


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The proverb goes that ""What's bred in the bones comes out in the flesh,"" and the inventive author of High Spirits (1983) and The Rebel Angels (1981) spins the tale of how what was bred in Francis Cornish's bones--the mixture of McRory money, Cornish gentility and secrecy, and in mythological terms, Mercury (the maker, humorist, the trickster) and Saturn (the resolute)--became flesh and then turned to dust. A daimon and a recording angel are part of the machinery of myth Davies so lavishly fabricates, and although the book remains quite a splendid spectacle, there are times when the mythologies burden the reader. In fact, by the end Francis seems less interesting and less heroic than the recording angel and daimon insist he is. The vast and colorful cast of characters in the small town in Ottawa of Blaidogie includes Francis' beautiful mother and his monocled father, absorbed by the ""profession"" (secret agents) and mostly in England; his devout Catholic aunt ""with her drippings of holy water."" who covered her ravaged skull with little caps--an owl mistook her hat for a skunk and attacked her; Francis' grandfather, the Senator, who taught Francis about light and photography and left him a huge fortune; and finally Francis' surrogate parents, his grandfather's cook, stoic and good-hearted Victoria Cameron, and the embalmer Zadok, who let Francis draw the corpses while he embalmed them. As to be expected in Davies' fantastic fabrications, the attic hid the house's secret--the Looner, Francis' darker, half-human brother (whom his mother conceived before her marriage with a mysterious soldier in a hotel in London--the man being no other than embalmer Zadok). Secrecy is one of the main themes of the book: Francis takes up ""the profession""--becomes a spy. In the castle of a Bavarian Countess where the most famous art-restorer, Tacred Sareceni, teaches him the art of restoration and painting, Francis becomes involved in an elaborate hoax on the German Reich: Sareceni, assisted by Francis, ""tarts"" up mediocre German paintings for which Hitler's agents (whose task is to gather all German art) swap Italian masterpieces. All along, Francis' quest for love brings him grief: at Oxford, he falls in love with his cousin Ismay, who lies to him that she is pregnant with his baby, marries him, only to take off to Spain where she joins Charlie--the father of the child. Ruth, the governess at the castle, also a spy who becomes his lover, dies in a big fire in London. Finally, his last love, Alwyn Ross, an eager, brilliant young art critic who assisted Francis on the Commission on Art, commits suicide. Although by the end Francis becomes less interesting (in the end, he just collects art and finally dies in his eccentric and cluttered flat in Toronto) and the daimon and the recording angel get tiresome as they constantly remind us of Davis' manipulations and fabrications, this is still a delightfully playful, imaginative and witty work of fiction.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking