One of the distinguishing characteristics of What’s Bred in the Bone is the use of a double frame. The novel tells the story of Francis Cornish but opens with Arthur Cornish, Francis’s nephew, arguing with his own wife, Maria, and Francis’s erstwhile friend Simon Darcourt over whether Darcourt should complete the biography of Francis Cornish he has begun. Arthur has turned up evidence that Francis “faked” paintings, producing a masterpiece that has passed for a previously unknown Renaissance painting. The second, more playful framing device is an ongoing conversation between Francis Cornish’s guardian spirit (“daimon”) Maimas and the Angel of Biography, the Lesser Zadkiel.
Early influences on Francis Cornish include his grandfather, Senator James Ignatius McRory, his grandmother Mary-Louise, his great aunt Mary Ben, and his aunt Mary-Tess. His mother, Mary-Jim, and his father, Major Francis Cornish, are largely absent from his early life. His parents married for convenience: Mary-Jim became pregnant as the result of a brief, drunken encounter and thus needed a husband, and Major Cornish wished to attach himself to the affluent McRory family. In a Dickensian plot twist, their first child is born retarded and not expected to live; it is reported that he has died, and a funeral is held, but instead he is confined to the family mansion, raised by Victoria Cameron, a kind but outspoken cook.
Young Francis is subjected to a...
(The entire section is 530 words.)