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The Cornish trilogy by Robertson Davies

The Cornish trilogy (original 1981; edition 1991)

by Robertson Davies, Robertson Davies

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9151613,977 (4.42)1 / 76
Title:The Cornish trilogy
Authors:Robertson Davies
Other authors:Robertson Davies
Info:London : Penguin, 1991
Collections:McKenna's Library

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The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies (1981)



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The Cornish Trilogy follows the life and legacy of noted art connoisseur (and former artist) Francis Cornish. It touches on academia, art, war, music, the history of Canada, and the gap between what we think we know about people and what we actually know.

In the first volume, Francis is dead, and his executors are attempting to sort through his massive collection of paintings, sculpture and manuscripts. Two of his executors are also professors at a University of Toronto college, so the book follows their academic life as well, including brilliant Rabelaisian scholar Maria and dissolute monk Parlabane. In the second volume, we backtrack and follow Francis's life from start to finish, with guidance and commentary from a daimon and a guardian angel who have been watching Francis's life unfold (and shaping it, too, in the case of the daimon). We are also privy to many interesting aspects of Francis's life that will remain hidden a little longer from the characters we met in the first book. In the third volume, one of Francis's executors is writing a biography of Francis and inching closer to the truths we discovered in the second volume. The charitable foundation established with Francis's estate is also putting on an opera about King Arthur with some odd real-life parallels.

This was an excellent trilogy to spend a large chunk of time with. I liked the observations on university life in the first book, the paralleling of Francis's life with the history of Canada in the 20th century in the second book, and the behind-the-scenes view of the opera in the third book. Davies experiments with different styles and narrative figures over the course of the trilogy, allowing each installment to distinguish itself but still fit in to the larger narrative. The books are also studded with excellent turns of phrase, and the different topics covered in each book may have you running to do some more reading on them (e.g. the Monuments Men's work, based on the second book, or Arthurian legends, from the third book).

If I have any quibbles, one would be that at first I had difficulty with the voice of Maria in the first book, because Maria is a young woman and Davies is neither of those things, and the voice didn't sound quite right. I also found that the culminating incident in the first book was described in rather too much detail for my liking. "Sordid" would be a good word for it. Fortunately, the other two books don't contain such incidents.

This trilogy makes a good project for people who like Canadian literature and want to dust off an older author to read. It would also appeal to opera fans, perpetual students and art buffs. ( )
1 vote rabbitprincess | Sep 8, 2016 |
The Rebel Angels - There is a lot to love in this novel: the themes, symbolism, satire... Davies is clearly a smart writer; but the point of the whole story isn't really clear to me; and I haven't had that "Aha!" moment where it all clicks for me yet. I'm thinking its merit may lie within context of the whole trilogy, so I'll be heading into 'What's Bred into the Bone' in a couple of days.

What's Bred in the Bone - The conceit of the book is that one of the executors of Frank Cornish's estate is having trouble writing a biography of FC. The narrative then becomes an actual biography of the deceased man, told from the perspective of an archangel and a daimon. [I had a little trouble with the first book in the series, 'The Rebel Angels' - but in this one, I finally stopped trying to judge the author by the book(s) he wrote; and also stopped trying to read the books by 21st-century measures.] There is a lot to unpack in this novel, arguably the jewel in the crown of the trilogy.
  Tanya-dogearedcopy | Aug 21, 2016 |
Above all, Robertson Davies is a story teller. Even at his most scholarly (and he can be scholarly), his vividly drawn characters and wizardly plotting propel his narrative forward and delight the reader. While his subjects can be serious, he writes with verve and a wonderful sense of humor.

The three books in this trilogy are linked by the characters, particularly by Francis Cornish (who is dead for the entire first and third novels), as well as thematically. They focus on art in many of its forms (literature, painting and drawing, and music and theater), explore myth and the mystical, delve into psychology, theology, and history, educate the reader about subjects as diverse as gypsy techniques for restoring violins and art restorers' techniques for matching older paints, play with ideas about what is real and what is fake, treat readers to the conversations and thoughts of daimons and souls in limbo, and poke fun at the conventional and the respectable. Davies achieves the admirable goal of making the reader think and laugh at the same time, and become fond of the characters -- the major ones and the dozens of minor ones -- and their foibles.

I am going to briefly describe each of the novels, with the caveat that each could be discussed at infinite depth.

The Rebel Angels
The first novel introduces most of the major characters of the trilogy soon after Francis Cornish, an eccentric and rich art collector and connoisseur, has died. He had appointed three of the characters, all affiliated with the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known as Spook, to essentially act as his artistic executors. That narrative of one of them, Simon Darcourt, an Episcopal priest who has become a college professor, alternates with the narrative of Maria Theotoky, a brilliant and beautiful graduate student, the daughter of a gypsy mother, who is pining away for the professor she works for (another of the executors) while pursuing her studies of Rabelais. The plot thickens with a missing and valuable manuscript and the reappearance of a disgraced former professor.

The world of academia and the world of the gypsy mother and her tarot cards provide a fertile field for Davies as he explores, in various guises, the alchemical process of creating gold from base materials (some very literal base materials, in fact). As always with Davies, the story, which veers towards the melodramatic at the end of this novel, exists on several levels -- the literal, the psychological, and the mythical -- and gives him ample opportunity to skewer academic pretension and the implacable ignorance of those who think everything must serve a practical purpose.

What's Bred in the Bone
In the second novel of the trilogy, Davies steps back to explore (with the aid of the daimon Maimas and the Lesser Zadakiel, the Angel of Biography), the life of Francis Cornish from his beginnings in a remote and backwards logging town to his time in Europe before, during, and after the Second World War, and his subsequent return to Canada. It is a story of a child learning to understand his world and its secrets, largely on his own, and largely through drawing; of a young man who is introduced to secrets of other kinds, artistic and otherwise, while suffering from discovering some of the secrets of love. Again, we the see the transformation of material objects, from paintings that are mediocre to ones that are better, to an exchange for something still better, and we see Francis's transformation into an artist and a lover, both, however, briefly. And, again, we see Davies' wit and humor, and his penetrating psychological and mystical insight

The Lyre of Orpheus
In the final novel of the trilogy, Maria from the first novel has married Arthur Cornish, Francis Cornish's nephew and heir, and they have established a foundation to carry out Francis's legacy. Their first project is supporting an unformed but brilliant young musician who is attempting to fulfill the requirements for her doctorate by completing an unfinished opera about King Arthur by E. T. A. Hoffman. At the same time, Simon Darcourt, again from the first novel, is struggling with his biography of Francis, also commissioned by the foundation, because he doesn't know, what readers of the second novel know, about Francis's wartime years in Europe.

The creation of the opera gives Davies free rein to depict the artistic and theatrical processes, explore connections between the contemporary characters and those of the Arthurian legend, introduce some wonderful new characters to the mix, and allow some familiar characters the opportunity to grow and discover themselves. Towards the very end, Davies quotes Keats: "A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory -- and very few can see the Mystery of his life." Davies' genius is that he lets us see the mystery and the allegorical aspects of his characters while keeping their feet firmly on the ground of this world.
12 vote rebeccanyc | Jul 14, 2012 |
One of the best books of the twentieth century, and always an intellectual comfort when I read it. ( )
1 vote annesadleir | May 11, 2012 |
What can you expect from Robertson Davies? Generalities discussed in great detail, erudition, irony and surprise. The Cornish trilogy delivers it all.

In The Rebel Angels I particularly like the character of John Parlabane, an appalling person, clever beyond challenge in everything but what is essential where his folly is tremendous. The alternation of two narrators, Maria and Simon is enables those characters to be observed and to observe simultaneously.

What's Bred in the Bone is more conventionally structured and puts Francis Cornish centre stage in the definite role of hero. His very interesting history explains why he is referred to as an oddity in the first book where he is merely a device to bring the others together.

The Lyre of Orpheus is, I think, the best of the three. It rounds the circle, pulling the first two books together tightly and very satisfyingly. ( )
  denmoir | Feb 6, 2012 |
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A trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus
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Woven around the pursuits of the spirits and scholars of the University of St John and the Holy Ghost, this trilogy of novels lures the reader into a world of mysticism, historical allusion and Gothic fantasy. The author also wrote "The Salterton Trilogy" and "The Deptford Trilogy".… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140144463, 0241952611

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