What’s Bred in the Bone Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1985

Type of work: Psychological romance

Type of plot: Psychological

Time of work: The mid-1980’s in the framing fiction; from the mid-nineteenth century to 1981 in the internal fiction

Locale: Primarily Canada, England, and Germany

Characters DiscussedFrancis Chegwidden Cornish

Francis What’s Bred in the BoneChegwidden Cornish, a Canadian art expert. The novel purports to tell what has been “bred in the bone” of Francis. Francis, who is from a wealthy but emotionally distant family, is a sensitive, intelligent boy. He teaches himself to observe carefully and to draw what he sees; he later discovers that his affinity in art is for the Old Masters and that he is false to himself when he tries to express himself in modern styles. His skill at observation makes him useful to the British intelligence service before and during World War II. He paints the myth of himself, an expression of what has made him what he is, in Old Master style. When the painting is discovered after the war, art experts dub it The Marriage at Cana and attribute it to the Alchemical Master.

The Daimon Maimas

The Daimon Maimas, Francis’ personal attendant spirit, the guiding force in his life. It is he who has arranged Francis’ life to make him what he is, though his control does not mean that Francis lacks freedom of choice.

The Lesser Zadkiel

The Lesser Zadkiel, the recording angel. His records provide the biography of Francis.

James Ignatius McRory

James Ignatius McRory (also called the Senator and Hamish), Francis’ maternal grandfather. A Scottish Catholic, McRory has made a fortune in the timber business. His desire to rise socially leads him to debut his daughter at court in London. He is interested in photography and teaches Francis the effects of different angles and types of light on a subject. In his will, he leaves Francis a substantial sum of money and exempts him from entering the family banking business.

Sir Francis Cornish

Sir Francis Cornish, Francis’ father. The younger son in an old family, he agrees to marry the pregnant Mary-Jacobine McRory after certain financial agreements are made. He is appointed president of his father-in-law’s bank, a figurehead position. His real work is in intelligence, and he recruits Francis to follow him in that field.

Mary-Jacobine (Mary-Jim or Jacko) Cornish

Mary-Jacobine (Mary-Jim or Jacko) Cornish, née McRory, Francis’ mother. Mary-Jacobine, a beautiful young woman, makes her debut at the court of King Edward VII in 1903; on that night, she becomes pregnant with the child of a footman who reminds her of a famous actor. She later becomes the perfect society wife but spends little time with her sons.

Mary-Benedetta (Mary-Ben) McRory

Mary-Benedetta (Mary-Ben) McRory, Francis’ great-aunt. Mary-Ben has the greatest hand in rearing Francis. She instills in Francis a romantic Catholicism and has him baptized a Catholic at the age of fourteen, even though he already has been baptized a Protestant. Her collection of prints inspires Francis’ interest in art.

Francis “the Looner” Cornish

Francis “the Looner” Cornish, Francis’ elder brother. The Looner is mentally and physically handicapped because of Mary-Jacobine’s attempts to end the unwanted pregnancy begun on her debut night. Francis’ mother and father believe the Looner to be dead; he is kept upstairs in his grandfather’s house. His existence instills in Francis a compassion for the unfortunate.

Zadok Hoyle

Zadok Hoyle, a groom for the McRory family. Unknown to him and to the McRory family, he is the Looner’s father. Zadok also assists the local undertaker by preparing bodies for burial. He allows Francis to watch him in the embalming process, teaching him a respect for individuals and the fragility of life.

Ismay Glasson Cornish

Ismay Glasson Cornish, Francis’ cousin and later his wife. Francis at first believes her to be his dream woman, the woman who will complement his masculine nature with her feminine nature to make him whole. She tricks him into marriage to cover her pregnancy by another man, then leaves the child with her parents and joins her lover in Spain. The child and Ismay’s family become a drain on Francis’ finances. Ismay is a great believer in idealistic, unrealistic causes.

Tancred Saraceni

Tancred Saraceni, an art expert. He takes Francis as an apprentice and teaches him the style, physical composition (ingredients of paints), and iconography of Old Master paintings. He is casuistic about restoring paintings to look somewhat better than they did originally. He leaves Francis his fortune and his possessions.

Ruth Nibsmith

Ruth Nibsmith, Francis’ friend and lover. She casts Francis’ horoscope seriously, wisely, and perceptively.

Aylwin Ross

Aylwin Ross, a Canadian art critic, Francis’ protégé. Ross becomes famous for his explication of The Marriage at Cana, unaware of its origin. He commits suicide after Francis refuses to buy the painting for the Canadian National Gallery.

Victoria Cameron

Victoria Cameron, the McRorys’ cook. She cares for the Looner and instills some hard, practical Calvinist values in Francis.

Dr. Joseph Ambrosius (J. A.) Jerome

Dr. Joseph Ambrosius (J. A.) Jerome, the McRory family physician. Dr. J. A. recommends the false burial of the Looner, believing that knowledge of his existence will harm Francis.

Colonel Jack Copplestone

Colonel Jack Copplestone, Francis’ contact in British Intelligence. He arranges Francis’ positions as a spy to coincide with his art activities.

The Reverend Simon Darcourt

The Reverend Simon Darcourt, Francis’ friend and biographer. In the frame fiction, he complains that he cannot find enough information to write Francis’ biography properly.

Arthur Cornish

Arthur Cornish, Francis’ nephew and executor, a banker. he is worried by the whiff of scandal about Francis that Simon has brought to him.

BibliographyBradham, Jo Allen. “Affirming the Artistic Past: The Witness of What’s Bred in the Bone.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 32 (Fall, 1990): 27-38. A study of the artistic and aesthetic preoccupations of the novel.Cude, Wilfred. “Robertson Davies and the Not-So-Comic Realities of Art Fraud.” The Antigonish Review 80 (Winter, 1990): 67-78. Examination of issues of art fraud raised by the novel.Diamond-Nigh, Lynne. Robertson Davies: Life, Work, and Criticism. Toronto: York Press, 1997. Brief biography and critical overview.Dopp, Jamie. “Metanarrative as Inoculation in What’s Bred in the Bone.” English Studies in Canada 21 (March, 1995): 77-94. A critique of the novel’s conservatism, which the author says is hidden behind the work’s apparent metafictional tendencies.Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Penguin, 1994. The first full-length biography of Davies. Includes backgrounds and critically useful information on the novel.Spettigue, D. O. “Keeping the Good Wine Until Now.” Queen’s Quarterly 93 (Spring, 1986): 123-124. A review of the novel and an overview of Davies’s fiction to date.
Categories: Characters