What's Bred in the Bone Essay - Critical Essays

Robertson Davies

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

This novel constitutes the second part of the loosely connected Cornish Trilogy, Davies’s third trilogy (after the Salterton and Deptford trilogies). While Darcourt and Maria play considerably greater roles in the opening novel, The Rebel Angels (1981), the reader needs no knowledge of that earlier work to understand this one, nor does the third, The Lyre of Orpheus (1988), rely on the second. As with his earlier trilogies, this one revolves around a loosely constituted set of characters, and around a much tighter set of themes and concerns.

As with all his work, the issue of Canadian identity occupies a good deal of space, as do problems of artistic temperament and mode. These questions are to a large extent autobiographical. Like his main character, Davies moved between provincial Ontario and England, where he attended Oxford and worked as assistant to Sir Tyrone Guthrie at London’s Old Vic theatre. Unlike Francis, Davies made his reputation by returning to Canada, where he was editor of the Peterborough Examiner newspaper for twenty years, the first Master of Massey College of the University of Toronto, and an important playwright while he emerged as one of Canada’s greatest novelists. Like Francis, however, his artistic inclinations were not at all those of his moment. His novels tend toward the size and scope of those of the Victorian masters of the form; indeed, it is not extravagant to call his novels Dickensian, minus the sentimentalism, which Davies despised. While metafictional elements creep into this novel through the introduction of Zadkiel and Maimas, they also function to justify a nineteenth century-style intrusive omniscience that contemporary novelists typically shy away from or use ironically.

What’s Bred in the Bone, then, presents an interesting mix of traditional and modern elements. Traditional romance, Victorian narration, Jungian psychology, tarot and astrology, social analysis, and metafiction swirl together in a brew that proved highly popular with the reading public and the critical establishment.