After being so thoroughly delighted with Davies’ Deptford trilogy, I immediately purchased this collection (it was a choice between the Cornish and the Salterton trilogy, and the Cornish won because (1) Dwight Brown recommended it and (2) the store had it). Like the Deptford trilogy, the Cornish trilogy revolves around a single character, but it works its way through the lives of many others as well.
In a sense, The Rebel Angels is two novellas that are split into the same number of chapters that you bounce between. “Second Paradise” is the story of Maria Theotoky, a PhD candidate studying the works of Rabelais, who finds herself drawn into the life of returned professor turned monk, John Parlabane. But the real issue is a secret manuscript that was purchased by the recently deceased Francis Cornish, whom her advisor, as one-third executor of Cornish’s estate, has promised to her as the substance for her doctorate. Unfortunately, the manuscript has vanished. “The New Aubrey” is told from the point of view of Professor the Reverend Simon Darcourt, another third of the multi-headed Cornish executors, who is also a professor’s of Maria’s and an old friend of Parlabane’s. Darcourt has decided to work on a biography of the university professors in the style of Aubrey, and thinks he has plenty to work with in Clem Hollier (Maria’s advisor), Parlabane, and the last third of the executors, Urky McVarish. Confused? You won’t be, because Davies is a master at handling the many threads of the story, and nothing is ever mis-placed. As in the Deptford trilogy, nothing “fantastic” occurs, although the secret manuscript is definitely a fictional device and not something that exists in our world. Maria’s mother, however, is of the old-world gypsies, and there’s a few scenes in which she shows Hollier some gypsy “magic” and fortune-telling, but in each of these cases, one can suppose that nothing extra-worldly is occurring. And, yes, there is a tie between The Rebel Angels and the Deptford books–Parlabane and Hollier are said to have attended school with David Staunton, the subject of The Manticore.
The second book, What’s Bred in the Bone, definately throws in the fantastic. After a prologue in which the characters from The Rebel Angels, who have formed a trust fund for the use of Francis Cornish’s fortune to promote art, talk about the biography that Darcourt is trying to write of Cornish. From this, two angels (the Lesser Zadkiel, Angel of Biography, and his brother, the Daimon Maimas, Cornish’s personal fiend), take over to tell the story of Cornish from his beginning as scion of the richest family in town, through his introduction to art by a singular book, his religious duology by his Catholic great-aunt and Protestant housekeeper, the art instruction by combining what he learned in the book with the subjects of the local morgue. Then it’s off to boy’s school in which he becomes a pupil of Dunstan Ramsay (the Fifth Business from the book of that name) for a time, then gets drawn into his father’s business as an English spy. All along it is art that imbues him (what is bred in the bone, as the title says), that strengthens him, and, in the end, that sustains him.
The final book picks up where the first book left off, with the Cornish Trust board of directors, Hollier, Darcourt, Maria, Arthur Cornish, and Geraint Powell, deciding to stage a reconstructed opera by one of the university students, even though there is no libretto and the student is a doctoral candidate who has never attempted something of this magnitude before. The opera, an unfinished piece by E.T.A. Hoffman, is Arthur, or The Magnanimous Cuckold, an attempt to put the story of King Arthur as a true opera (rather than the singing in a story of Camelot). The student, Schnak, they soon discover is a belligerent and odiferous genius, but nothing compared to the special advisor that is brought in from Sweden, Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. Darcourt, meanwhile, is frustrated because he is having little luck completing the biography of Francis Cornish, and now is tagged to write a libretto for this opera. Everything comes together, although never in quite the way you expect it to, which is the beauty of Davies’ novels.
To say that I like Robertson Davies would be an understatement. He has, as I’ve said to Jill, become an obsession. I have purchased the Salterton trilogy, which is begging from the shelf to be read, and I expect that you will see mention of it in the next installment. I am, however, saddened. Davies died a little over a year ago, and I know the limits of my obsession as those few books that I have yet to read. One side of me says to savor the moment, the opportunity to read them from a fresh perspective, while the reckless side of me is urging for me to get on with the business as I’m not getting any younger.
[Finished 17 January 1997]