Saturday, December 29, 2007

What's Bred in the Bone

I first read Roberston Davies when I was a summer student working at a camp. In the evening we returned to our quarters and ate slabs of meat blackened in a cast-iron pan. Afterwards, while the rest played crib, I crawled into bed and read Fifth Business. The elegant prose warmed me as much as the food and the heat from an oil-burning space heater.

The narrator of Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay, makes a brief appearance in What's Bred in the Bone, a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker in 1986. It recounts the life of Francis Cornish, the much ignored son of a wealthy family. He spends his early life in rural Ontario, is educated at Oxford, becomes an artist, works for MI5 during and after WW2, and ends his years as a rich but odorous miser in Canada.

The title comes from an old proverb: “What’s bred in the bone will not out of the flesh.” For Francis, what’s bred in the bone is his upbringing in a loveless and hypocritical environment. His mother is presented at the court of Edward VII on her “coming-out,” after which she celebrates by having sex with a stranger. When her pregnancy is discovered, her father arranges a speedy marriage with a monocled major of “unimpeachable family descent.” The major agrees to the marriage after presenting an invoice for his services. The child, when born, is found to be mentally deficient -- the result of several comic attempts at inducing a miscarriage. The boy is kept locked in an upper room, cared for by a servant, until he dies.

Thus, the household that Francis grows up in is financially rich, yet morally impoverished, and gradually his own life takes on a similar aspect. His own marriage, for example, is a distorted reflection of his parents’. He is duped into the union by Ismay, his cousin, when she becomes pregnant. Only after they are married does she reveal the child is not his. Meanwhile, her family milks him for as much money as they can get, until Ismay “scarpers” off to Spain to be with the child’s father. Francis assumes financial responsibility for the child but nothing more.

Next, Francis’s lifelong dream to be an artist takes a wrong turn when he agrees to apprentice under Tancred Saraceni, whose m├ętier is “improving” old paintings. One of Francis's duties involves exposing a fake work of art being promoted by a competitor – a fraud exposing a fraud – after which the competitor takes his own life.

The crowning irony of his life is the death of a dear friend, Aylwin Ross, who is director of the National Gallery in Ottawa. Ross asks for money to buy a painting for the museum, a purchase that would also save his career. Francis refuses because the painting that Ross wishes to buy is a fake, painted by himself. Ross, whom Francis loves platonically, commits suicide.

What’s Bred in the Bone is an old-fashioned morality tale, gracefully told, full of wit and humour. Davies is never heavy-handed with his characters. They are deftly portrayed, and for all of their flaws, are generally likeable, or at least understandable. The prose is smooth and erudite. Discussions of art, religion and astrology are incorporated seamlessly, along with quotes from Browning and Ben Jonson, which form a kind of gloss on the story. There are many splendid lines.

She was worse than a blabber; she was a hinter.

The British have some odd talents, and writing obituaries is one of them.

If the testicles needed some stern talking-to from time to time, even more so did the penis.

The pianist had been the great Teresa Carreno, a famous matador of the instrument, imprisoned forever on a perforated roll of paper.

His breath suggested that he was dying from within, and had completed about two-thirds of the job.

Few of these horses were of the noble breed with arching neck and flashing eye; most were miserable screws, rackers, the broken-winded, the spavined, often far gone with the botts, or with nostrils dribbling from the glanders.

The Author

Roberston Davies was one of those protean figures who seemed larger than life. He looked like a character in one of his novels. He acted at the Old Vic, and helped launch the Stratford Festival in Canada. He was a newpaper editor and publisher, then taught literature at the U of T, where he was Master of Massey College. He wrote plays, and humorous essays under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks, and a stack of fine novels.

The Salterton Trilogy
Leaven of Malice
A Mixture of Frailties

The Deptford Trilogy
Fifth Business
The Manticore
World of Wonders

The Cornish Trilogy
The Rebel Angels
What's Bred in the Bone
The Lyre of Orpheus

The Toronto Trilogy (unfinished)
Murther & Walking Spirits
The Cunning Man

When Davies died in 1995, John Irving wrote a piece in Maclean’s that began by calling him the greatest comic novelist since Dickens.