"What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh."
---English proverb quoted repeatedly in the novel that is the topic of this writeup.
What's Bred in the Bone is the second part of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Like its predecessor, The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone stands on its own as a novel, but is best enjoyed as part of the trilogy, each of the other books in the series (the third is The Lyre of Orpheus) enhancing the others with added plot details, context, background and character development.
Although What's Bred in the Bone begins shortly after the action of The Rebel Angels, it quickly changes gears and takes the readers back in time to tell the life story of the late Francis Cornish, the Canadian art dealer and collector for whom The Cornish Trilogy is named. To put it mildly, Cornish led an interesting life, and it makes for good reading. The Rebel Angels concerns itself with the complications and intrigue arising from the execution of Cornish's will, and the interrelationships between the deceased's executors: his nephew Arthur, a successful banker, and three distinguished scholars --- priest and Greek scholar Simon Darcourt, medievalist Clement Hollier, and Renaissance historian Urquhart McVarish. Besides the connection the four share in inspecting and cataloguing Cornish's extensive art collection, all of them are in some way involved with the beautiful, brilliant graduate student Maria Theotoky and the troublemaking ex-monk John Parlabane. At the beginning of What's Bred in the Bone, the business of the will has finally been resolved, and Professor Darcourt, now a founding member of the newly-created Cornish Foundation for Promotion of the Arts and Humane Scholarship, is writing a biography of Cornish. Of course, this project comes complete with controversy, first of all because little is known about long periods of Cornish's life, and second of all because Arthur is reluctant to allow the publication of a book that could prove embarrassing to his family.
At the end of What's Bred in the Bone, the readers are left with the full story of Cornish's life and work, the latter of which provides fodder for some lovely musings on the difference between art and craft, such as the following:
You see, in the great days of what are now so reverently called the Old Masters, art was a trade as well. The great men kept ateliers which were in effect shops, where you could go and buy anything that pleased you. It was the Romanticism of the nineteenth century that raised the painter quite above trade and made him scorn the shop --- he became a child of the Muses. A neglected child, very often, for the Muses are not maternal in the commonplace sense. And as the painter was raised above trade, he often felt himself raised above craftsmanship, like those poor wretches who painted the frescoes we were looking at earlier today. They were full up and slopping over with Art, but they hadn't troubled to master Craft. Result: they couldn't carry out their ideas to their own satisfaction, and their work has dwindled into some dirty walls. Sad, in a way.
But perhaps more important than such musings or even the memorable characters who utter them are the secrets a reader learns over the course of What's Bred in the Bone --- secrets that may or may not be discovered by Darcourt in his research, if it is even allowed to continue. Is it? To find out, you could either wait for me to finish reading The Lyre of Orpheus and review it here on E2, or you could head out to your friendly local independent bookstore or public library and check out The Cornish Trilogy today. Just don't thank me for the highly enjoyable reading experience --- it's all grundoon's fault for recommending these books to me so highly in the first place.
Davies, Robertson. What's Bred in the Bone. Penguin Books, 1985.