Book Forty-Three: What’s Bred in the Bone

The second book in the Cornish Trilogy, which I am confusingly reading last, because I’m just that sort of person. In a way, I feel like this book is more autobiographical than some of Davies’ other works, and it makes me wonder about the sort of life he led and what kind of things he wished he had done.

The book is ostensibly a history of the life of Francis Cornish, and it uses the normally irritating narrative device of interspersing the action with ruminations by heavenly figures, in this case an angel and a demon. Somehow, however, Davies makes it work, perhaps because the two figures aren’t overwrought and they don’t go off on rambling lectures like they so often do in books like this. Typically, when italics appear in a book, I skip over them to avoid potential irritation, but in this case I read them amenably.

Francis Cornish is what you might call a queer fish. He grows up in rural Canada, a common theme in the work of Davies, travels to Europe to study (another common theme), and then works as a painter and art critic. His painting career, however, ends after two works, for reasons you can learn about in the book, should you so desire. I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot, now.  He also comes from money, and in the end he lets the money master him, to some extent.

He’s a far from simple man, though, with dark secrets in his past which haunt him throughout his life. Nothing terribly melodramatic, of course, but just enough to make him interesting, to turn an otherwise somewhat ordinary life into a complex and rich one, and I like that sort of thing, myself. This is a book about love, and betrayal, and art, and money, and the interaction of these themes.

I greatly enjoy the way the Cornish Trilogy is laid out, with Francis Cornish himself being an overbearing but never present figure in the other two books, which form neat bookends for this one, if you read the trilogy in order. I like that his decisions and the events of his life end up influencing the lives of others, sometimes in very complicated ways, and there’s a bit of brilliant and delicious play with characters and themes in this book.

The only thing I would criticize about the book is that it’s wrapped up a bit too neatly. In the end, Cornish finds out everything, leaving no details of his life for readers to ruminate over, and tidying things up neatly in advance of his death. And that’s sort of a bummer. I’d like to think that I’ll die with a few pressing and unsolved mysteries, just to liven things up, and it’s a pity Davies didn’t allow Cornish that luxury.


What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies. Published 1985, 436 pages. Fiction.