The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One could reasonably argue that there is only one character in What’s Bred in the Bone: Francis Cornish himself. Indeed, Francis is the only character whose presentation is rounded and complex. Others, Zadok Hoyle or Tancred Saraceni, for example, may occupy the stage long enough to achieve a degree of complexity, but in general, the personages of the novel flit across the story only briefly, leaving a single imprint. Francis, on the other hand, is as fully achieved as a novelist can make a man—tender, tough-minded, generous, stingy, gullible, devious, wide-eyed, cynical, creative, critical, emotionally stunted, and open-hearted in various degrees and at various times. Although Francis is difficult for other people in the novel to read, he is a richly complex psyche for those, the two immortals and the reader, capable of looking deeply into him. Such an approach makes sense in a novel whose form is overtly that of a biography. As in actual biographies, secondary characters come in for comparatively scant development, while the main figure occupies virtually every paragraph.

The characters of the novel, aside from Francis, function as plot devices, that is, as comparatively static, even symbolic figures against which the main character can react and develop. In keeping with the author’s symbolic imagination and his interest in the psychology theories of C. G. Jung, many of the characters are archetypal figures, psychological types...

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Since the novel is an attempt to show the subtle yet pervasive shaping influences of many people and events on one character, many different and varied figures have significant roles in Francis Cornish’s life; Robertson Davies attempts to elaborate on the English proverb (from a medieval Latin original): “What’s bred in the bone will not out of the flesh.” In this sense, all the characters in the novel are reflections and amplifications of some aspect of Francis.

Early divided between the vague Protestantism of his mostly absent parents and the simple and provincial Catholicism of his Aunt Mary-Ben, Francis never develops a coherent theological view. He does maintain a pervasive religious sensibility but one which is uniquely his own, allowing him always to see both sides of any issue but never to commit himself strongly to any one position. He finds a purpose and object for his life in aesthetics, not morality or ethics, from his early exposure to his aunt’s art collection, coupled with minor but genuine talent.

Francis comes to realize his more primal and bestial nature by exposure to the Looner, his defective elder brother, caged throughout his life in a hidden room in his grandfather’s house. His early contact with the family servants, principally Zadok, teaches him a reality of human contact and compassion lacking in his interactions with his eccentric and flighty family. Similarly, he comes to understand the feminine side of...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Francis Chegwidden Cornish

Francis Chegwidden Cornish, a Canadian art expert. The novel purports to tell what has been “bred in the bone” of Francis. Francis, who is from a wealthy but emotionally distant family, is a sensitive, intelligent boy. He teaches himself to observe carefully and to draw what he sees; he later discovers that his affinity in art is for the Old Masters and that he is false to himself when he tries to express himself in modern styles. His skill at observation makes him useful to the British intelligence service before and during World War II. He paints the myth of himself, an expression of what has made him what he is, in Old Master style. When the painting is discovered after the war, art experts dub it The Marriage at Cana and attribute it to the Alchemical Master.

The Daimon Maimas

The Daimon Maimas, Francis’ personal attendant spirit, the guiding force in his life. It is he who has arranged Francis’ life to make him what he is, though his control does not mean that Francis lacks freedom of choice.

The Lesser Zadkiel

The Lesser Zadkiel, the recording angel. His records provide the biography of Francis.

James Ignatius McRory

James Ignatius McRory (also called the Senator and Hamish), Francis’ maternal grandfather. A Scottish Catholic, McRory has made a fortune in the timber business. His desire to rise socially leads him to debut his daughter at court in London. He is interested in photography and teaches Francis the effects of different angles and types of light on a subject. In his will, he leaves Francis a substantial sum of money and exempts him from entering the family banking business.

Sir Francis Cornish

Sir Francis Cornish, Francis’ father. The younger son in an old family, he agrees to marry the pregnant Mary-Jacobine McRory after certain financial agreements are made. He is appointed president of his father-in-law’s bank, a figurehead position. His real work is in intelligence, and he recruits Francis to follow him in that field.

Mary-Jacobine (Mary-Jim or Jacko) Cornish


(The entire section is 899 words.)