How many fictional characters—or historical ones, for that matter—are fortunate enough to have their lives rehearsed by a recording angel? Perhaps only Francis Cornish, the hero of What’s Bred in the Bone, has had such luck. Robertson Davies’ novel is filled with formal surprises such as this one, which will bring smiles from his growing legions of avid readers. As the Lesser Zadkiel reruns the tape of Cornish’s life, he is joined by the Daimon Maimon, Cornish’s private daimon, who is always ready to take bows for prompting Francis toward his mixed fate. Between them, these eternal beings exercise a playful, Olympian control over the unraveling of the hero’s life and its meaning. The novel’s title is straightforward enough: Davies’ work explores the mysteries of human personality as shaped by heredity, environment, accident, and nudges from the spiritual realm. The display of Cornish’s unfolding destiny—which is his character—is masterful and joyous art. This challenging, ambitious novel is one of Davies’ most entertaining, and it shows his abundant skills in grand form.
What is bred into Francis Cornish? One strand is the isolation of living in the Canadian frontier town of Blairlogie as a young boy and the double isolation of being teased by other children. As a member of the privileged class, Francis finds himself in a complex exile, especially as his parents leave him to his own devices and to the ministrations of peculiar relatives and household employees. Davies gives lavish attention to this place and to his hero’s forebears.
From Francis’ maternal grandfather, James Ignatious “Hamish” McRory, the hero inherits a surprising toughness and some of his aesthetic gifts. McRory, who was brought to an untamed Canada as a boy in the middle of the nineteenth century, rises to become a lumber baron, a banker, and a member of the Canadian Senate. Francis knows him best as an amateur photographer who introduced his grandson to the magic of light. Married to Marie-Louise Thibodeau, Senator McRory works to build a liberal base of power. Although a Scot, he is Catholic, and he intends to maintain that Catholic inheritance even in the Ottawa Valley where the Presbyterian Scotch have held sway over the larger population of French Catholics and the laborer-servant stratum of Poles.
The senator’s first daughter, Mary-Jacobine, is his darling. For her he makes great plans that culminate in an appearance before Edward VII. At this pinnacle of success, Mary-Jim (as she is called), flushed with excitement, champagne, and the power of her own spectacular beauty, allows herself to be compromised by a temporary hotel employee. Her mother, in spite of her rigorous Catholicism, explores various exercises to end the unwanted pregnancy, but all the jumping and horse-riding result only in a deformed, severely retarded son.
Major Francis Chegwidden Cornish, who attends the McRorys during their London adventure, is a man with polish and practical clear-sightedness. He has a name; he needs a marriage into money to secure his future. At first, the McRorys resist his overtures, but a deal is made when they become alarmed over Mary-Jim’s condition. This marriage of convenience works well because each partner respects the other’s selfishness and leaves room for it. Each also supports the other’s drive for social prominence, and neither finds time for their children.
Mary-Jim’s unwanted child is named Francis. Some five years later, when Mary-Jim becomes pregnant by her husband, this earlier child—an ordeal and an embarrassment to the ambitious couple—is allowed publicly to die. In fact, he is alive, sequestered in an upstairs, off-limits room in the senator’s house. Mary-Jim herself has been led to believe that her son is dead, already having outlived the predictions of the family doctor.
To the major’s biological son, this first Francis becomes an emblem of feared possibilities. For the hero, this misshapen, demented namesake—even more isolated, more removed from parental care, less able to control his animal impulses—serves as a grotesque double (one of many instances of doubling in the novel). It is only when the first Francis finally dies that the second begins to blossom fully, though the image of the “Looner” haunts him thereafter—a warning of how much of what man becomes is subject to forces over which he has no control. The case of the first Francis seriously complicates the question of “what’s bred in the bone.”
Reared apart from his parents, Francis Cornish finds a spiritual mother in his great-aunt, Mary-Benedetta McRory, who serves as an upper servant in the senator’s house. Mary-Ben feeds Francis a tantalizing, partially inhibiting, but imaginatively stimulating brand of Catholicism—this in spite of the fact that Major Cornish has insisted on a Protestant upbringing as part of the deal with the McRorys. Mary-Ben’s collection of religious pictures intrigues Francis; their images and manner sink into his sensibilities. Victoria Cameron, the family cook and a stern Calvinist, is a kind of alter-ego double for Mary-Ben and the other mother figure for the hero, while...