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Robertson Davies: The Cornish Trilogy

The Rebel Angels, the first in the trilogy, is set in the University of St. John and the Holy Ghost, known affectionately as Spook. The plots are very simple. Firstly, the interestingly named Maria Magdalena Theotoky is loved by three people. As two of them are aged professors, it is not difficult to guess that the young millionaire, nephew of the eponymous and late Francis Cornish, has the inside track. Secondly, one of the two aged professors, who is also Maria Magdalena’s academic supervisor, eagerly covets a Rabelais manuscript left behind in the estate of Francis Cornish but which has mysteriously disappeared. Will it be found? And, if so, where? Davies barely hides the location from us so the only mystery is how. Thirdly, there is the estate of Francis Cornish. Cornish was independently wealthy and a great collector – of paintings, manuscripts and musical scores. The two aged profs, a third prof and the millionaire nephew are charged with executing the estate, which proves difficult both because of the lack of order and because various people want various things out of it. Last and probably least is Parlabane who opens and closes the novel. Parlabane was one of the most brilliant philosophers of his generation but, thanks primarily to sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, he has gone, in more ways than one, to pot. He has recently “jumped over the wall” of a monastery but his return to his civilization is a problem, particularly for the two aged professors (old friends) and Ms. Theotoky, whom he bugs. The question is what is to become of him now?

So, where does this leave us? Sadly, not in great shape. The plot is thin, another academic novel does not advance the genre very far, a bit of kinky sex seems tame by today’s standards and the intellectual tidbits are interesting but no more. Even when it looks as if it might get interesting, Davies blows it. Maria’s mother is a gypsy but, instead of treating her sympathetically, he does a typical gadjo parody of Maria’s mother and brother. Occasionally, it gets mildly interesting, such as when Maria and her mother are rolling about on the floor biting each other, with the brother/uncle standing over them shouting Irreverent cunts!, or Parlabane’s extramural activities but, on the whole, I found it disappointing.

The second book – What’s Bred in the Bone – is somewhat of an improvement. One of the aged profs of the previous book is to write a biography of Francis Cornish but can find out little about him, particularly his early life. The Angel of Biography intervenes (really!) and tells us the story of Cornish’s life. Anyone who has read William Gaddis’ Recognitions will be in familiar territory for, like Gaddis, Davies asks some interesting questions about art. Is “old” art valuable merely because it is old or because it is good? In other words, why is a painting in the style of an Old Master (not necessarily a specific Old Master) worthwhile if was painted in the sixteenth century and not worthwhile if it was painted last year? Is a restored painting, particularly if the restorer is somewhat creative in his restoration, as worthwhile as a grimy but unrestored painting? And when is a forgery a fake and when is it art? Davies also raises an interesting issue not touched on by Gaddis, namely the value of national art as representative of national expression. Gaddis’ approach is serious, deadly serious and while Davies can be serious as well, he cannot resist a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach to the issue.

We follow Francis Cornish from well before his birth to his death (enjoying – and that is the right word – his death agonies with him). It is clear that he is not to make it in the family business but he does inherit a lot of money, both from his family and from his erstwhile employer. He has two professions. He works as a picture restorer (and part-time artist/faker) as well as in the “profession”, i.e. British intelligence, though he plays a relatively minor role here, except for his role in sorting out the art stolen by the Nazis. He has an unhappy marriage, falling in love with his cousin but being cuckolded by her and never remarrying. But there is no doubt that the main focus of this novel is on his role in the picture restoring/faking business. Davies does not give us any clear answers but the issues he raises are fascinating.

The third book – The Lyre of Orpheus – has three main plots. The first concerns the production of the opera Arthur of Britain. This was an opera started by E T A Hoffmann (best known as the author of stories, made into Tales of Hoffmann, an operetta, by Jacques Offenbach and later made into a brilliant movie by Michael Powell, though I very much enjoy his musical composition Miserere) but never finished because he died of syphilis. The Cornish Foundation – set up by Francis Cornish in his will to fund worthy works of art – is to fund a young student, known by the shortened form of her surname – Schnak – to complete the opera. Schnak is a brilliant composer though her interpersonal skills are somewhat lacking. A lot of the plot is how Schnak becomes a human being under the friendly guidance of the Swedish musicologist, Dr. Dahl-Soot.

The first two plots are linked by Simon Darcourt, the aged prof writing Francis Cornish’s biography. Darcourt writes the lyrics for the opera. At the same time, he is writing the biography of Francis Cornish, discovering what we have already discovered in What’s Bred in the Bone, in particular the fact that the Marriage at Cana is not an old master but was painted by Cornish.

Darcourt is also involved in the third plot – the cuckolding of Arthur Cornish. He is not responsible for the cuckolding but he advises the three parties. Sadly, blandly, all turns out well and they all live happily ever after, blah, blah. The opera is a success, the bio finished and the married couple – well, you know the rest. It didn’t happen like that with King Arthur

The Arthurian theme is a key one in this trilogy, even though Davies inevitably does not treat it in a totally serious manner. The title of the trilogy, of course, recalls Arthur who was Cornish. Francis Cornish’s brother, who has only a very minor role, is called Arthur but so is the son of Arthur who plays a not insignificant role in the first and third books. Francis is fascinated with Arthurian legend in the second book while the Schnak/Hoffman opera in The Lyre of Orpheus is conspicuously entitled Arthur of Britain, just in case we had not got it. Francis Cornish is the obvious Arthurian character. He is cuckolded, though it is hard to see Charlie the card sharp as Lancelot, even if he does go off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The more apt comparison might be with King Mark, particularly as Francis’ wife is called Ismay which makes us think of Iseult rather than Guinevere (though it might make us think of Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line and passenger aboard the Titanic or Churchill’s chief of staff in the war, Lord Ismay). Arthur Cornish, of course, also plays the cuckolded Arthur in the third book (and more than one character makes this connection) and various characters in this book are compared to the various Arthurian characters. Does it matter? Probably not.

Publishing history

The Rebel Angels
First published 1981 by Macmillan, Toronto

What’s Bred in the Bone
First published 1985 by Macmillan, Toronto

The Lyre of Orpheus
First published 1988 by Macmillan, Toronto

Published as a trilogy
First published 1992 by Penguin