Robertson Davies wrote three novels about the Cornish family; What's Bred in the Bone
is the second of the trilogy. It is the story of Francis Cornish, who
might have become a great artist if only he didn't have to conceal his
identity. The story is related by two supernatural beings
— Francis's daimon, who steered him toward a destiny of
heroic deceit, and a biographical angel.
Francis has an unusual childhood. Since his parents are off doing British intelligence work and don't seem much interested in him anyway, he is raised in his maternal grandparents' wealthy home in a remote part of Ontario. The unmarried great-aunt who lives there oversees Francis's upbringing, inculcating him in Catholic pieties even though his British father wants him raised Protestant. Francis discovers he has a handicapped brother hidden in the attic. The local undertaker, who transports not only bodies but also bootlegged alcohol for Francis's grandfather, lets Francis observe embalmings; Francis develops his drawing talent by sketching the corpses.
Despite it all, Francis seems to be on the road to success, going to Oxford to study art and philosophy after college in Canada. Following in his father's footsteps, he is recruited by the British secret service and assigned to paint forgeries in an effort to scam the Nazis. In one painting, Francis attempts to reconcile the contradictions within himself. When it is hailed as a "16th-century" masterpiece, Francis not only can't claim authorship but has his own painting career derailed. He can't risk continuing to paint in the style of the forgery, but that is his authentic personal vision, and he's not able to express himself in the methods of his own time. Francis spends his later life — the shortest section of the book — as an increasingly eccentric art collector and expert.
What's Bred in the Bone is not only a tale of a life but a meditation on art and artists. Those who feel that much 20th-century art doesn't speak to them will enjoy Francis's intelligent criticism of it. He believes the symbols and methods of the Renaissance painters were more expressive and genuine.
Those wanting to begin with the first book in Davies's Cornish trilogy should read The Rebel Angels (1983). The series concluded with The Lyre of Orpheus (1988).
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