(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The plot of What’s Bred in the Bone is set in motion by the confession of a frustrated biographer, Simon Darcourt, that he is unable to get at the truth of the life of Francis Cornish. What follows is a biography as no human chronicler could ever tell it, presented by the Lesser Zadkiel, the angel of biography, and the Daimon Maimas, whose function lies somewhere between being Francis’s guardian angel and his indwelling spirit.

Darcourt lays out the central mystery of the novel when he reveals his concern that Francis may have faked some pictures that have become quite famous as having been painted by the old masters. Arthur, a conservative banker, hovers on the verge of canceling the biography altogether, while Darcourt frets that the work may be unwritable due to lack of evidence.

Davies follows his belief (made clear in his earlier novels) that childhood holds the keys to a life. In the case of Francis Cornish, much of his future is shaped by events that take place well prior to his conception. His mother, Mary-Jacobin (or Mary-Jim) McRory, becomes pregnant by a temporary staff worker at a swank hotel during her London debutante season. Frantic, the family arranges a marriage of convenience to Major Francis Cornish, a rather stiff, impoverished, but ambitious suitor. Further, the women of the family try, unsuccessfully, to induce an abortion. Their efforts only succeed in producing some monstrous birth defects in the child, subsequently known as Francis I. Officially said to be dead in early childhood, he is actually kept in an upper-story room and known to the malicious townspeople as the Looner. Francis eventually becomes aware of his brother’s existence through his association with the local undertaker and McRory bootlegger Zadok Hoyle, who turns out to be the Looner’s biological father.

Francis, a solitary child by nature, is further isolated by his...

(The entire section is 779 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

What’s Bred in the Bone is the story of Francis Cornish, an independently wealthy Canadian artist, collector, restorer of Old Masters, and sometime spy, beginning with the origins of his family in Canada before his birth in 1909 and culminating in his death in 1981. This narrative, however, is surrounded by a framing fiction. The novel opens with his nephew Arthur, now chairman of the Cornish Foundation for Promotion of the Arts and Humane Scholarship, who is concerned about the scandalous suggestions raised by a biography-in-progress of Francis by his friend the Reverend Simon Darcourt. Having overheard these concerns, two spiritual beings, the Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas, recount, and occasionally comment on, the story of Francis’ life to refresh their memories, allowing the reader an omniscient view of exactly what was bred in Francis’ bones. The close of the novel returns the reader to the present and Arthur’s decision to allow a biography to continue.

Francis Cornish’s story is presented in six sections, the first dealing with the complex history of the McRory and Cornish families and their servants, from their arrival in Canada to Francis’ birth in 1909. The second section deals with his childhood in the remote town of Blairlogie and his early education, charting the influence the bizarre family has had on the boy and establishing the roots of his future interests and conflicts. Part 3 chronicles Francis’ early manhood and further education in Toronto as he begins to separate himself, physically if not psychologically, from the world of his family.

Part 4...

(The entire section is 662 words.)