The Rebel Angels (1981) is told in alternating first-person accounts by characters named Maria Theotoky and Simon Darcourt.
Maria is a graduate student studying Rabelais at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed Spook) in Toronto. She’s in love with her mentor, Professor Hollier, with whom she has had one sexual encounter, a brief mistake that happened the semester before the book begins. She’s hoping he’ll love her – he’s a handsome, charismatic man – and he’s trying his best to bury his passions in lots of tweed and dusty books. She’s grasping for one particular scholarly find: a set of letters from Rabelais to Paracelsus, as well as the manuscript to a lost work by Rabelais. The letters would prove Rabelais had an alchemical bent; the manuscript would give her a massive project to work on. Either or both would allow her to establish herself as a scholar.
The other strand of Maria’s story is her background, coming out of the background. She’s a first-generation Canadian: born and raised in Toronto, of a Polish father (of Greek descent) and a Gypsy (this is the term used consistently throughout the trilogy) mother. Maria’s father expected his wife to assimilate herself to high European culture, and while he was alive she did, but after his death, Maria’s mother’s Gypsy background has reasserted itself. Madame Laoutaro and her brother Yerko live in the old ways, surrounded by all the trappings of a Central European Gypsy life. Maria is embarrassed by this: she has a complicated relationship with her heritage, loving her mother but wanting to escape into contemporary mainstream Canadian culture. Ironically, Professor Hollier prized the Laoutaro ways more than Maria does: his specialty is what he calls paleopsychology. Google that today and you’ll find a movement founded in the ‘90s, but that sounds more like what is now popularly called evolutionary psychology than what Davies is talking about. Hollier is closer to what I would call a new historicist, seeking to understand not just medieval literature but all the structures of thought, the epistemes or paradigms, through which medieval people made sense of being human. Importantly, however, Hollier and the other characters in this series don’t share the attitude of some real-life new historicists that all truth is relative and that no episteme gives access to a universal truth about humanity; rather, Davies’ contention essentially seems to be that all the old epistemes give access to universal truths about being human. More on that later; as far as it concerns Maria, it means that Hollier values her mother as a living repository of old ways of thinking, old ways that Maria would prefer to sweep under the rug.
Simon Darcourt is an Anglican priest who, after several years engaged in spiritual trench warfare, decided that his particular take on religion would be best served in a scholarly setting. He teaches New Testament Greek at Spook. He’s a colleague, therefore, and a friend of Hollier’s; he’s also one of Maria’s teachers. Through his narrations we gradually come to understand him as a spiritual free-thinker, of a type familiar to readers of The Deptford Trilogy: he takes Christianity seriously, as myth, and believes in it with more literalism than contemporary liberal intellectuals would conscion, but less literalism than contemporary religionists would demand. His Christianity is shot through with all sorts of Gnosticisms, neo-Hellenisms, and medieval alchemical philosophies. He gradually falls in love with Maria, seeing in her “Sophia, the feminine personification of God’s Wisdom.”
The plot device that brings Darcourt and Hollier, and even Maria, together is the death of the Cornish of the title, Francis Cornish, an eccentric art collector. In his will he deputed his friends Hollier, Darcourt, and their fellow Spook professor Urquhart McVarish to sort through his collection of paintings, sketches, musical scores, and other papers and make sure the right pieces go to the National Gallery, Spook, and other recipients. This is a long and complicated task, due to the extreme disorganization of the collection. In their labors these three are overseen by Arthur Cornish, Francis’s nephew, a young and fairly charming businessman: efficient and well-meaning, and quite intelligent even though he hasn’t got much of a feel for art. Arthur comes to represent the man of action, the real-world man, among the neurotic academics; it’s important to Davies’ scheme that Arthur never becomes a figure of fun. This is not a snarky intellectual’s satire of the high-finance Philistines. In fact, Maria (Sophia: wisdom) ends up marrying Arthur.
The disposal of the bequest is complicated, for our main characters, by the fact that the aforementioned Rabelais manuscript and letters belonged to Francis Cornish, and seem to have disappeared; Hollier and Darcourt are certain that McVarish, a fellow literary scholar and a cad, has stolen them, and intends to use them to advance his own career, rather than Maria’s.
As if all this isn’t enough to fuel a novel, we get a joker thrown in, John Parlabane, a former Spook professor of philosophy who left in disgrace, became a monk, ran away from the monastery, and is now back at Spook, sponging off his ex-colleagues and friends, manipulating them, playing them off one another, making passes at Maria, and just generally stinking up the joint. He’s convinced he’s a giant amont intellectual midgets, and spends much of the novel working on a vast and unreadable philosophical-autobiographical novel that he modestly assesses as the best work of its kind ever written. A landmark in the making. Of course in the judgement of everybody who sees it it’s totally unreadable, laughably jejune, and paranoid to boot.
Parlabane is the mechanism of the plot’s resolution: he kills McVarish and then himself, leaving behind a series of letters detailing how he had been McVarish’s paid sex slave for weeks, and then killed him as a means of gaining notoriety for his novel, which he now expects publishers to fall all over themselves to publish. Along the way he has procured the Rabelais materials for Hollier and Maria.
It’s a full book, as you can see, packed with enough plot and incident to fuel a whole trilogy; and there’s more to come. But The Rebel Angels is not about its story; not in the same way the Deptford books were about exploring the meaning and consequences of the rock in the snowball. No, even more than the Deptford books this is a novel of ideas. The Deptford books presented a way of looking at the world equally drawn from Jungian myth and medieval hagiography. Here we get a similar juggling of epistemological lenses, but the shades are those of medieval Christianity (not the saints, but the Biblical figures), Hellenistic philosophy, alchemy, the Tarot (courtesy of Maria’s mother), modern weird science (courtesy of a minor character names Ozy Froats, a biologist determined to prove that analyzing excrement can explain personality), and three or four others. On top of this there are enough winks at the earlier books (characters in these books are dimly aware of Boy Staunton and Dunstan Ramsay, for example) to let us know that we shouldn’t forget to think of Jung here, too. As I say, Davies’s customary stance is that all these systems are getting at something fundamental about human nature and experience: even science. He treats science as what we’d call another Master Narrative, another set of myths, but unlike a lot of the people who throw around terms like “Master Narrative,” he doesn’t think this delegitimizes science. After all, myths are truths, so why shouldn’t science be true, too? He’s not a Luddite at all.
He’s just someone who insists that there’s value in knowing and understanding the past: we’ll be wiser and more fully human if we do. You know how in every university and college there’s some professor who raves on about the value of a Liberal Education, how it’s not about getting a job or making a living but about becoming Truly Educated, about understanding Truth and what it means to be human, and how therefore studying Greek and Latin (or history or Classical Japanese) isn’t useless, but the most cosmically useful thing you could do for yourself? Robertson Davies is that guy.
This could be insufferable, even if you already agree with him (I do). But Davies is smart enough – hell, human enough: he’s one of the great humanists, after all – to leaven this apologia for the Liberal Education with some brilliant academic satire. Hollier, Darcourt, McVarish, Parlabane, Froats, and a host of minor characters are, among other things, wicked little caricatures of the kinds of people you find in The Academy, with all their pomp and foibles. You could read The Rebel Angels solely as a skewering of the academic life, and it would work.
But at the same time that he’s humanist enough to see the humor in the Liberal Education cant, he’s humanist enough not to let that make him cynical about the Liberal Education. He stands up for it. The title refers to Hollier and Darcourt, who Maria characterizes as akin to Samahazai and Azazel, apocryphal angels kicked out of Heaven for revealing its secrets to men; expelled, they went right on teaching mankind. A very positive, romantic, even heroic view of scholarship.
It’s a great book. Compulsively readable, full of the scintillating dialogue I loved so much in his earlier trilogy, and dazzling in the array of ideas and historical details Davies throws in. And it’s only the beginning.
What’s Bred In The Bone (1985) steps back to tell the life story of Francis Cornish, whose bequest set in motion the plot of the first book. It’s like the middle movement in a concerto: a little slower, more sober, contemplative (and that’s as far as my classical-music knowledge will take me: a pity, since the third book’s all about an opera and thus begs analysis in terms of musical structure: I can’t do it).
Francis is raised in Blairlogie, an inaccessible Ontario town whose main industry is logging; the main mover in the logging is his grandfather, who has grown very wealthy thereby. Francis’s mother Mary-Jacobine is a great beauty, but unfortunate: while in her debutante season in London she seduces a soldier working at her hotel, and becomes pregnant. After repeated attempts to induce a miscarriage, including drinking large quantities of alcohol, her family concludes that her only option is to marry a man named Francis Cornish, a Cornish soldier from an old and respectable but not very wealthy family who has been courting Mary-Jacobine. Mary-Jacobine does not love Francis, but he will make her respectable; in return he imposes strict terms, financial and otherwise, on her father.
Mary-Jacobine’s child is microcephalic: in the parlance of the day, a pinhead. They name him Francis, but he dies at a young age. Their second child they also name Francis, and he’s the hero of the story, the one whose bequest set the whole trilogy in motion. Francis’s parents deposit him in Blairlogie to be raised by his grandparents while they live in London; Francis Sr. has a mysterious job in the British secret service, and this and the couple’s cosmopolitan aspirations keep them away from Canada.
Francis’s life in Blairlogie is marked by religious and social tensions. His grandfather’s family is Catholic in a town where respectability is a monopoly of the Protestants; but Francis’s father made marriage to Mary-Jacobine contingent on his children being raised Anglican. In his grandfather’s home Francis is continually exposed to both the Catholicism of his grandparents and domineering aunt Mary-Benedetta and the Anglicanism of their Scottish cook Victoria, who functions more like a governess to Francis. He gets religion from both sides, then, and grows up rather god-haunted. At the same time he’s a boy raised in a house full of women, raised precious and sheltered in a town full of lumberjacks: when he starts school he’s regularly bullied.
He discovers a talent for art. This is nurtured by three unlikely influences. First, his grandfather is an avid amateur photographer in the early days of photography: he teaches Francis about light and observation. Second, Francis gets hold of an art-instruction manual by Harry Furniss, early 20th-century caricaturist. This teaches Francis how to draw quickly and accurately. Third, Francis’s grandfather’s groom, Zadok Hoyle, also drives – and embalms – for the local undertaker, and he lets Francis tag along and sketch from life (death, actually) while he prepares the bodies.
A final shaping force in Francis’s early life is his discovery that Francis the pinhead didn’t die, but is being kept in the attic, in a cage in a room with blankets on the walls. Victoria and Zadok take care of him, and everybody else pretends he’s dead. Francis is horrified, but also fascinated, and filled with compassion for this elder brother whose nature and origins he doesn’t understand.
We follow Francis as he goes to boarding school in Toronto (where Dunstan Ramsey encourages him in his art), then as he goes to Oxford to finish his education. While there he falls in love with his Cornish cousin Ismay Glasson; they make love in the ruins of Tintagel (Francis is obsessed with Arthurian chivalry at this point), and later she tells him she’s pregnant. He agrees to marry, although it’s clear that her family is trying to get their hands on his fortune. Soon after they marry, Ismay informs him the child isn’t his, but that of a radical she loved before Francis, and still does. After the birth of the baby (a girl: Charlotte), Ismay and her lover go to Spain to help in the Civil War. Francis’s heart is broken, but he supports Charlotte for life.
While at Oxford, Francis makes a start on his two careers. He follows his father into the Secret Service (at this time a mostly voluntary affair), and also becomes an apprentice to a painting-restorer, a shady figure named Tancred Saraceni, an Italian whose talent for restoring old art is rumored to slip into “improving” undistinguished old paintings for sale. Francis joins Saraceni for a three-year job in a castle in Dusterstein, Austria, where he also keeps watch on nearby trains heading for a concentration camp.
At Dusterstein, Francis helps Saraceni restore a number of paintings belonging to the Ingelheim family, masters of the castle; it is a scam, a complicated scheme to defraud the Third Reich’s art collectors. Francis reluctantly goes along, because he’s getting valuable artistic training from Saraceni. Partway through his apprenticeship, Saraceni assigns Francis the task of making an original painting in Old Master style to show how much he’s learned; Francis paints a dwarf’s portrait, based on a dwarf he’d known in Blairlogie who committed suicide after being tormented by the townspeople, but since he does it in Old Master style everybody mistakes it for a dwarf called Drollig Hansel, a semi-legendary figure from Ingelheim family history; it becomes part of the scam, and becomes quite a well-known little painting, from a hitherto unknown German master, as everyone assumes. At the end of his apprenticeship, Saraceni tasks Francis with the task of making a major work, a master-piece, in whatever style he chooses. Francis comes up with an altar triptych in Renaissance style of the Marriage at Cana; he incorporates figures from his life, including his parents, grandparents, Zadok, Ismay, Sarraceni, and above all Francis the pinhead (now truly dead) as an angel. It’s a complicated piece of personal symbolism, what the book calls Francis “making up his soul,” and Saraceni grants that it’s a masterpiece.
This painting is the climax of the book, really. From there on events move quickly. Francis goes back to London for the war, loses a lover, continues spying. After the war he’s assigned to the commission for sorting out looted artwork; his own Marriage at Cana piece comes up, and everyone takes it for an Old Master. Francis doesn’t know whether to say he made it or not – he never intended it as a fake, but he rather enjoys everyone thinking it’s real – and Saraceni, who’s also part of the commission, steps in and attributes it to someone he dubs the Alchemical Master, because the painter was clearly steeped in alchemical lore. Francis’s assistant, ignorant of Francis’s role, goes further and connects it with the painting of Drollig Hansel.
Later, Francis retires to Toronto and starts seriously collecting art; he never paints again. His erstwhile assistant makes his career as an art historian with an influential essay on the Marriage at Cana piece; Francis never contradicts him, but in the end, when the assistant, who’s now working for the National Gallery, tries to buy the piece for the nation, Francis thwarts him with no explanation. The man is ruined, and commits suicide (political pressures).
The painting. Francis’s natural metier, the language with which he can most fully express himself, is that of the Renaissance: the kind of allegorial complexity available to a Bronzino (a frequently-invoked name in the book) but not available to us moderns. Francis, like Hollier and Darcourt and other people in the book, is a man out of time, and he’s tied I think to Davies’s overall argument against mindless fascination with the present and for continued engagement with the past. Francis himself doesn’t value his painting much, because he feels he’s a fraud: as a 20th century man he should paint in a 20th century style. He can’t because it doesn’t speak to him, but he sees this as a flaw in himself. We, obviously, aren’t meant to.
As I say, it’s very different in tone from the first book, and if you’re reading straight through the trilogy it makes for quite an adjustment, because you go from a nearly madcap intellectual comedy to a sober, fairly conventional bildungsroman. But it ends up being quite powerful and all the more effective for being so focused, so serious.
It carries forward the themes of the first book masterfully. First of all the fact of Francis’s engagement with the past, and the way he ends up speaking a dead artistic language better than that to which his century expects him to cleave. Why? Partly, no doubt, because he’s a misfit, like all those dweeby academics in the first book – who, after all, remember his as an eccentric miser whose three apartments are so stuffed with paintings that he had no room to turn around. But partly, we’re given to understand, because of his upbringing.
I’m no expert on Canadian literature, but I think Davies is bidding for the Great Canadian Novel with this one. Francis’s condition – split between Catholicism and Anglicanism, the French legacy and the English, all thrown together and fermented in the Great North Woods, then plunged into an England to which he belongs by ancestry but not by temperament – seems meant to represent the Canadian condition. And Francis’s late-in-life determination to be a patron of Canadian art clearly seems to mark him as an exemplary Canadian. I don’t know how true or deep all of this would seem to a Canadian reader, but it all seems pretty resonant to me.
Davies does add one bit of mischief, which I haven’t mentioned yet. The book has the barest of frame devices. It begins with Darcourt, Maria, and Arthur at a meeting of the Cornish Foundation, an art-patronage foundation Arthur has started to use Francis’s money as he would have wished. Darcourt has undertaken to write a biography of Francis, and he’s stalled, because there are large blanks in the man’s life. Their conversation ends up musing on the medieval concept of the Recording Angel, Zadkiel, who kept track of men’s lives, and occasionally intervened as an Angel of Mercy, and daimons, a sort of guardian angel: Darcourt names Francis’s Maimas. Darcourt and the other don’t appear again until the very end of the book, but Zadkeil and Maimas pop in from time to time to discuss how Francis’s life is progressing.
The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) brings us back to the present, and again into the company of Darcourt, Arthur Cornish, and Maria. The Cornish Foundation, whose board now includes a stage director named Geraint Powell in addition to Darcourt, Arthur, Maria, and Hollier, undertakes to fund the production of an opera.
The opera is called Arthur, or The Magnanimous Cuckold: it’s about Arthur and Guinevere, and was the project Romantic composer and author E.T.A. Hoffman was working on when he died. A PhD candidate at the University, Hulda Schnakenburg, has decided to complete it, in Hoffman’s style, for her final project, and the Foundation decides not only to fund her while she’s writing it, but to finance a full-scale production of it.
The novel follows the evolution of the opera, paralleling it with several other subplots: Darcourt is still working on his biography of Francis Cornish, and gradually uncovers the secret of the Marriage at Cana painting; Parlabane’s illegitimate son tries to sue the Cornishes for withholding his father’s manuscript from publication; and Geraint seduces Maria, impregnating her and forcing Arthur to decide how he wants to handle the situation.
As we by now expect, this third volume introduces yet more layers of myth, yet more epistemes. This time we get a heavy overlay of Arthurian legend; this was foreshadowed by Francis and Ismay in Tintagel, but here it’s brought out into the open. Arthur Cornish is not obsessed with Camelot, but his Foundation meets around a round table, and everybody jokes about him being King Arthur. We immediately think he’s begging for marital trouble by financing an opera with such an inauspicious subtitle, and sure enough, Geraint turns out to be Lancelot to Maria’s Guinevere. Arthur, like his namesake, chooses to be magnanimous: he forgives his wife and his best friend, and accepts their child, for the sake of peace in the realm and amity among men and women. But of course, Davies is mischievous. Parlabane’s illegitimate son is a clear parallel with Mordred, but there’s no way he could be Arthur’s son instead of Parlabane’s: he’s too old. And if Geraint is Lancelot, what of his namesake, Sir Geraint, who was also at the Round Table? That role (a lover who takes his wife on dangerous adventures) seems to be displaced on to an American grad student named Al, who shows up to chronicle the opera, dragging his pregnant girlfriend, whom he abandons at her moment of greatest need.
Another layer of symbology comes courtesy of Hoffman. The work of his that the main characters tend to be most familiar with is Kater Murr, or Tomcat Murr, which is held up as something like a contrast between the Romantic artistic temperament and the smug, unimaginative bourgeois temperament. In the book the latter is mostly represented by Schnak’s (that’s what everyone calls her) parents, two conservative and suspicious German Lutherans. Their influence on Schnak is counterbalanced by Gunilla Dahl-Soot, from Stockholm, a well known conductor and composer brought in by the university to supervise Schnak’s work. An abrasive, imperious Artist and a lesbian, Gunilla eventually wins over the Round Table with her unflagging support of Art, although they have reservations about her affair with Schnak. This, though, is shown to the reader as a good thing; not a professor seducing a student, but a cultured person civilizing an ill-tempered, ill-tongued, literally unwashed barbarian. Schnak loves music but hates just about everything else, including herself.
If the first volume was a comedy of academic manners, the third one is a comedy of artistic manners. Accordingly, Hollier takes a back seat, and Darcourt, who is not only writing a biography but has been put in charge of the libretto, develops a writerly temperament. Most of the main characters seem to represent a different variety of artistry and artistic foible. Geraint is the actor and director and would-be impresario; he’s also a reluctant Lothario, whose good looks curse him with the admiration of women; his seduction of Maria was almost accidental, a very mysterious encounter that seems to have been willed into being by both of them, or neither. Suitably medieval. Darcourt, as writer, is something of an outsider; another Tarot reading by Madame Laoutaro convinces him that his role is that of the Fool, free and instinctual. Dahl-Soot is the lofty European sophisticate, while Schnak is the uber-provincial wunderkind; more commentary on Canada there, I imagine. Perhaps most interesting is Arthur, the Patron: he has the best intentions in the world, defers to the professional artists’ judgment even though he’s far from insensitive to music and beauty himself, and yet he still finds himself treated with disdain by the singers and actors, as if he were a filthy capitalist polluting their theater. Without him, they’re nothing, and they resent him for it. (Again, there’s Davies refusing to condemn the modern, the non-artistic, the scientific, the financial.)
Oh, and here, too, we get a Voice from the Beyond: Hoffman himself, known as ETAH because that’s Schnak’s nickname for him. We join him occasionally in Limbo to hear his commentary on the proceedings; his interest in them is vital, for it’s the incompletion of his greatest work that keeps him in Limbo. If Schnak succeeds, he might be able to go to Heaven.
Obviously, this final volume really brings home the theme of engaging with the past, to the extent of thinking in the past’s terms. Like Francis with his Cana painting, Schnak is attempting to speak in a dead language, that of Hoffman’s music, which we are told foreshadowed Wagner’s approach to opera. Schnak has to imagine a musical world in which Wagner hasn’t been written yet. Everyone gets into the spirit of the thing: the set designers and costumers decide to make things as authentically early-19th century as possible, and Darcourt constructs the libretto as a pastiche of Walter Scott and other Romantic poets. The opera doesn’t seem to be Schnak “making up her soul” as Francis’s painting was to him – in fact Schnak is a curiously minor character, a fifth business if there ever was one, there essentially to open the Pandora’s box of Arthurian legend, which then wafts out and enshrouds everyone else. The old patterns of human behavior – of leaders, of spouses, of friends, lovers, artists, patrons, seekers, followers – can’t be escaped. They’re always with us, underlying what we do.
The third book didn't hit me with quite the same force as the first two. The conversation wasn't quite as scintillating in every instance, and occasionally felt a bit chatty; the plot didn't take me quite as many unexpected placed - it started by saying it was going to follow the progress of the opera, and that's what it did. But structurally it's a perfect fit with the other two. The first and third books, for all their interest in the past, are set in the present, and are equally concerned with the present; the middle book is like a long tree-root stretching from that present into the past. In this sense, Darcourt's quest, in the third book, to unravel Francis's story is key: he's actively engaged in trying to understand a past that we, courtesy of the second book's omniscient narrator, understand better than any of the characters ever do. Nobody, including Francis, ever figures out the true nature of Francis's brother: not only was he illegitimate, not only was he damaged because of the attempts to abort him, but he was the son of Zadok Hoyle, who was the soldier Mary-Jacobine seduced. Nobody knows this but the reader. The limits of historical inquiry, of paleopsychology, are thus sketched in even as we're reminded of the value of trying. Irony is not absent in Davies.
I’ve gone into such great length about these books because I don’t want to forget them. Together they’re a masterpiece; even if I didn’t tend to use that word a little too lightly, I’d call them that. It has the feeling of an author pouring everything he knows about everything into one story; an overstuffed chair of a story, seams bursting with characters and motifs and subplots and subtexts. And like an overstuffed chair, it’s incredibly comfortable.