The Rebel Angels

Few contemporary novelists possess the full range of the novelist’s skills to the extent that Canadian author Robertson Davies does. He can create a large range of distinct and unstereotyped characters within a single novel. He can give them dialogue which is clever and a delight to the reader and yet rings absolutely true. He can build suspense and elicit surprise. He can knit a plot that never drops a stitch, with all strands woven in satisfactorily. Finally, he can develop through the close interaction of character and plot a theme of relevance to any reader. His latest novel, The Rebel Angels, finds him at the peak of his form. Even granting the superb achievement of the Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, 1970; The Manticore, 1972; World of Wonders, 1975), with its brilliant narrative archaeology of assorted characters delving into their pasts, Davies’ latest work may be his finest single novel to date.

Like most first-rate novels, The Rebel Angels deals with the process of discovery, and what setting would be more fitting than a university? Indeed, this novel is full of discoveries scholarly, interpersonal, and private—discoveries not limited to a single protagonist. There are two narrators, each of whom might be regarded as the focus of the novel, as well as a third central character and several other major characters who are equally distinctive and vividly drawn.

The first narrator is identified on the fifth page of the novel. She is Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a graduate student in comparative literature at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (affectionately known as “Spook”), part of a large university in Toronto. The second narrator takes over a few pages later; he is Simon Darcourt, professor of New Testament Greek. Maria and Darcourt do not know each other when the novel opens, but their lives soon touch and become increasingly intertwined, not only with each other’s but with the lives of Clement Hollier, Maria’s dissertation supervisor, and several other unusual individuals.

Maria’s narrative sections, which alternate with Darcourt’s, are headed with the title “Second Paradise,” derived from the sixteenth century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, allusions to whom recur throughout the novel: he wrote, “The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.” As a serious scholar, Maria indeed seeks to be part of such a paradise, though as a full-blooded young woman as well, she also seeks the first paradise—that is, the paradise of love, of Eden before the fall. Darcourt’s sections, distinguished from Maria’s not only by his own voice but also by a slightly different and more traditional typeface, bear the title “The New Aubrey.” The “old” one (John) recorded fascinating details of his seventeenth century contemporaries, and Darcourt is urged by a fellow professor to do the same for Spook. This fellow professor’s death early in the novel strengthens Darcourt’s resolve and serves as a parallel for another death early in the novel, which also leaves its mark through an important legacy. Together, these two influential deaths parallel a second pair of deaths at the end of the novel, which leave significant legacies as well, as shall be demonstrated.

The second early death is that of Francis Cornish, a distinguished art and manuscript collector whose valuable bequest to the university instigates the major plot of the novel. Darcourt, Hollier, and their fellow professor Urquhart McVarish, whom they both dislike, are appointed coexecutors of Cornish’s estate, along with Cornish’s businessman nephew, Arthur. Hollier cherishes the prospect of obtaining and working on a spectacular find, some letters of François Rabelais which reveal significant connections with Paracelsus and, thus, a kind of early meeting of humanist rationalism with more intuitional approaches. The letters, however, have disappeared. An entry in Cornish’s diary suggests that they were lent to McVarish, though he claims to know nothing of them. More than one academic career is riding on the...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)


Sources for Further Study

Cude, Wilfred. “The College Occasion as Rabelasian Feast: Academe’s Dark Side in The Rebel Angels,” in Studies in Canadian Literature. VII, no. 2 (1982), pp. 184-199.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXIV, February, 1982, p. 66.

Library Journal. CVII, January 1, 1982, p. 108.

Mills, John. “Robertson Davies,” in Canadian Writers and Their Works, Vol. 6, 1985. Edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley.

Nation. CCXXXIV, April 24, 1982, p. 500.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, March 10, 1982, p. 34.

The New Yorker. LVII, February 15, 1982, p. 138.

Newsweek. XCIX, February 8, 1982, p. 78.

Saturday Review. IX, February, 1982, p. 60.

Times Literary Supplement. March 26, 1982, p. 339.