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What's Bred in the Bone

(The Cornish Trilogy #2)

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  5,702 ratings  ·  263 reviews
Francis Cornish was always good at keeping secrets. From the well-hidden family secret of his childhood to his mysterious encounters with a small -town embalmer, an expert art restorer, a Bavarian countess, and various masters of espionage, the events in Francis's life were not always what they seemed.

In this wonderfully ingenious portrait of an art expert and collector of
Paperback, 436 pages
Published 1987 by Penguin (first published 1985)
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Claire Bernatas Well, it does stand alone... We did it years ago as a book group read, and found it pretty good. Then I discovered it was the 2nd book in a trilogy, s…moreWell, it does stand alone... We did it years ago as a book group read, and found it pretty good. Then I discovered it was the 2nd book in a trilogy, so read the 1st book (Rebel Angels) and I found that so many things in book 2 made even more sense having read book 1. Personally I feel they are best read in that order, which is after all, how the author has presented them. Book 3 is then the next step on, again it can stand alone, but you get much more out of it having the background from the previous books.
IMHO Of course.(less)

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This is Robertson Davies’ best book. No, really it is. And he’s written some pretty awesome ones, let me tell you. Certainly, at the very least, I can say that this one is my favourite. It has everything I want and expect from a book by Davies: a concentration on artistic and intellectual matters, exploration into the ways in which heredity and upbringing shape the soul of an individual, characters who are both ‘realistic’ and odd, witty insights into human nature and foibles at both the individ ...more
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This novel has been penned by Canadian author Robertson Davies and is the second book in the Cornish trilogy, but it can be read as a standalone novel.

I had chanced upon this book while book hunting in a second hand bookstore. I had never heard of Robertson Davies but something about the book, most probably the blurb appealed to me and I bought it.

The story starts with a meeting between the sole three members of the newly founded Cornish Foundation for Promotion of the Arts and Humane Scholarshi
Jan Rice
Jan 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Although starting with the same characters who inhabit The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, the second book of The Cornish Trilogy, is a prequel. How to tell the story of Frank Cornish, recently deceased eccentric uncle, wealthy banker and, more mysteriously, art collector and patron, when so little is known to the living characters?

Listen to this dialogue between the Anglican-priest-turned-scholar and would-be biographer Simon Darcourt and the beautiful Maria, recently wed to Frank's neph
W.D. Clarke
Sep 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020, kanadiana
Some churlish sot who goes by my name awarded this book 4 stars ten days ago, without adding a review, and I am here today to correct both of those glaring errors, cos though 20C realism is not my usual thing, I absolutely loved this book and think it among Davies' very best.

All of our Man of Letters' usual ingredients (small town Canuck origins, a Jungian concern with and respect for the mythological side of religion* (view spoiler)
Wes Christensen
Feb 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An artist friend gave this book to me, years ago when we were both in school. He didn't tell me anything about it, but since I liked him and his art work, I gave the book a try and went on to be a huge fan of the author, searching out everything I could find by him to read over the years. Being an artist myself, and painting in a rather traditional manner like the protagonist, it was bracing to read Davies' account of an artist who felt out of step in a Modern era -- much like I did, trying to m ...more
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies is my favourite novel. It is the second in the otherwise unremarkable Cornish trilogy and details the life of the second Francis Cornish from birth to death, including a confusing religious upbringing by everyone but his parents in a rural Ontario town, his education from 'Spook' to Oxford, his apprenticeship in art fraud to cheat the Nazis and his secret life as a spy. Along the way, Cornish 'assassinates' an art faker as it takes one to know one, fal ...more
What's Bred in the Bone is the second of a trilogy of books which are bound together by the life of one Francis Cornish, Canadian artist, critic, and collector, and by a host of other characters who are tied to him in one way or another. This book tells Cornish's life story, starting from a conversation between his heirs and his biographer and featuring interjections from a pair of supernatural beings, the Lesser Zadkiel (the Angel of Biography) and Maimon, Francis's personal daimon. The daimons ...more
Mar 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
Had this one on my shelves for so long I thought I'd already read it. But, nope. It's the story of a half-provincial half-royal kid from Canada who is raised by a Catholic aunt and learns to draw in the local funeral home, then turns to Renaissance painting in the face of his family's craziness during WWII. Funny and intriguing all the way through. Must read more Robertson Davies. ...more
Jun 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread, 2014, favorites, 2018, 2020
December, 2020:

As hard as these things are to say with certainty, I've thought for a while that What's Bred in the Bone could be my favorite book. This recent rereading confirms that it's certainly in play. As I read, I tried to reflect why, of all books, I like this one so much. In addition to what I've said below, I believe it's because Davies, more than most, understands the value of non-intellectual experience in life: fate, luck, intuition, emotion, and maybe even divine intervention are th
It is always a wonderful experience to re-read What's Bred in the Bone. Although I have not read Davies' entire oevre, I certainly declare this to be his best novel of those I have read, possibly of all of them. It so masterfully brings together all the themes that he has played with in fiction over his writing life (which, according to him, could not begin while his parents were alive).

Francis Cornish, whose life tale this is, is a loveable scoundrel--sometimes more loveable, sometimes more sc
Oct 12, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Prayut Chan-o-cha
Shelves: own, fiction

The other Robertson Davies I tried to read was The Cunning Man and I had to abort. It just wasn't serving my needs. This one was better. In fact, at the end of the book I liked it better, much better, than at the beginning. The novel began to get interesting for me at about the three-quarters mark. Up to that point there was too much quirk, and meandering, for my taste. Quirky books should bear a sticker, like the Oprah book club sticker but for quirk, so I know to stay away from them.

At the end
Dec 20, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A perfectly nice and entertaining literary work, but definitely not Canadian the way I understand it. If I didn’t know any better, I would think he is British, and very much imperial British. He represents everything one associates with colonial times in Canada: white, male, comfortably well-off, elitist, and monarchist. His writing is very accessible, definitely not post-modern, much more in the "by-gone" 19th century style. He draws exclusively on European tradition and good solid knowledge of ...more
Many of the same concerns as The Recognitions, but with a distinctly Canadian flavour. What is “genuine”? What is “forged”?
Aug 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014, can-con
I first read What's Bred In the Bone 25 or so years ago and the only things that I remembered from it were: Francis Cornish sketching at the autopsy of the dwarf tailor; the Drollig Hansel; and the huge triptych of The Marriage at Cana. I only remembered the art: and while this book is certainly about art, it is more about those lucky few who are able to access the deep well of common experience -- the Collective Unconscious -- and drag forth images to interpret and present as their own; it's ab ...more
Aug 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I read this ages ago, before goodreads. I don't remember much, but I loved it at the time. Imaginative, unusual, weird. ...more
Jun 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: canadian
The story of a man's life as told by the Recording Angel and the daimon who were put in charge of shaping his life and his character. An interesting plot device that Robertson Davies used to full effect. The daimon believes that adversity is what makes us who we are and has no problem confronting the protagonist with one character building episode after another. The Recording Angel provides him with the occasional and necessary relief that we all need to carry on.

This book had me hooked early on
A reminder of the pleasures (and limitations) of Davies at his best. A light novel of ideas, with perhaps somewhat schematic characters, an un-convoluted and engaging plot, and a generous helping of authorial aperçus that do not attempt to hide their provenance (i.e., they aren't clanging and unconvincing ventriloquisms from the mouths of characters).

I say "light novel of ideas" rather than "novel of light ideas" because the themes at the heart of the book (belief and the construction of the se
Apr 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was the first Davies book I ever read, during the Canadian Studies student phase of my life when all books were acquired by picking at random from the CanLit shelf at the used bookstore. I've since gone back and read the whole Cornish trilogy, and much as I love the rest of it I really never felt it was necessary for my development as a person to have read more than this book. Possibly because it's so structurally different from the other two, Bred in the Bone sticks out. Its focus holds to ...more
Sep 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
Bred in the Bone is the only book I have read by Robertson Davies, but it is not for the of lack of talent on the author's part. Davies has clear control of the plot, characters, and the English language and forms a story that is creative and believable, though not something we can relate to. (at least in this case) I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books by John Irving. There are many similarities between the two authors, especially in the way the plot follows one character for much of ...more
Apr 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have to say, the thought of Canadian governmental machinations, British secret service, and Italian art restoration did not excite me at all. And, though a slow starting book, I found myself wanting to read more and more of this one...The story ended up being fascinating, character development was adequate to the point of care, and overall, a very enjoyable read.
Oct 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Very strange and wonderful. If you're interested at all in the world or art, hermeticism, history and philosophy, this is for you. One of my favorite writers :) ...more
Simon Hollway
Sep 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: all-time-highs, 2017
One of the best books I have ever read. Kaboom!
Sheryl Dunn
Sep 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
I avoided Robertson Davies for many years, and the only reason I read this one was that a friend asked me to read it aloud to him. I'm glad I did.

While the writing style felt old fashioned to me, Davies' wit and charm, especially when he's being satiric, is extremely engaging. Sometimes we laughed out loud; sometimes we discussed the issues raised in the novel. If the satire had continued at the same rate through the entire novel, I would have given this five stars instead of four, but the novel
Oct 18, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canlit, fiction
This is the second book in the Cornish trilogy. It basically tells the life story of Francis Cornish, with side discussions by his daimon and an angel analyzing how his life is progressing. The reason for this story is that Simon Darcourt is one of a trio, including Arthur Cornish (Francis' nephew) and Maria, Arthur's wife, are tasked with managing Francis' Trust. Darcourt is having difficulties writing Francis' biography, feels there are potential scandals in his life and finds too many secrets ...more
Apr 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
I fell in love with Robertson Davies while in high school. The vivid strangeness of the worlds he creates, clothed in a style so sedate that it can be difficult to notice, captivated me entirely, especially in The Deptford Trilogy. I returned to What's Bred In The Bone after stumbling upon a tattered copy in a used bookstore, and, while I was still transported, I got to look at it a little more clearly. He definitely tells instead of showing at times, and may lay things out a little too clearly ...more
Jan 11, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although this novel has the elements and characters of any great novel including a European dimension, it is quintessentially Canadian (and in my view, only a "what's bred and bone" Canadian might realize the truth of the statement above.)
We're not talking Hockey Night in Canada here.
This is the story of Francis Cornish who emerges from a once small-town family, which has become wealthy on the exploitation of Canada's resources (human and natural) and which later, in the process, enables the fam
May 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
I'm thinking of going back and re-rating all the Robertson Davies books I've read simply because his characters are still in my head after all these years, and that's got to count for something.

So saying, "What's Bred in the Bone" is by far my favorite. (And yes, Davies does remind me a little of John Irving.)The whole story around the art forgery is fascinating.(A topic I love - see "Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of an Art Forger" by Eric Hebborn if you want to re-examine some of your ideas abo
Aug 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2012
Much as it pains me to rate this only 2 stars, especially when I love Robertson Davies so much and when most other people seem to really like this one, I just...well. This book bored the pants off of me. I didn't like the angels snickering in the sidelines about everything, and I didn't really much like the story-within-a-story framework of the novel. And I didn't find it anywhere near as humorous as Davies' other stuff. It just didn't work for me. But I hear the third book in the series is fant ...more
I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous reviews just how much I love this author. How he creates a story of improbable situations and makes it not only believable but ordinary seeming, is fascinating.

This is the story of Francis Cornish, a man who seems to drift through life doing what is expected of him and yet extraordinary things happen to him. All the mysterious glimpses of his life that have been brought up in the first book of the trilogy are now laid bare for the reader and it makes for a st
Douglas Cosby
Nov 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
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William Robertson Davies, CC, FRSC, FRSL (died in Orangeville, Ontario) was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors, and one of its most distinguished "men of letters", a term Davies is sometimes said to have detested. Davies was the founding Master of Massey College, a graduate college at the University of Toro ...more

Other books in the series

The Cornish Trilogy (3 books)
  • The Rebel Angels (Cornish Trilogy, #1)
  • The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish Trilogy, #3)

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