The Secret Life of Francis Cornish

In this essay I will use New Historicist Literary Criticism to try and understand a little better Robertson Davies What’s Bred in the Bone. This particular school of criticism lends itself quite nicely to this book because the milieu, embedded history and social components give enough material to see it through the lens of New Historicism. I will apply some of the concepts that are explained in New Historicist Literary Criticism as outlined in the book by Keith Booker. I hope to gain insight in some of the social attitudes that are drawn in What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies, in particular how respectability influences the main character of the novel, Francis Cornish.

There are a few concepts from this school of thought that I would like to delineate first. I will be referring to them in my observations I gather from the text in question. I am particularly drawn to the idea of shaping identities. I recur to the following citation to better understand Francis Cornish:

Greenblatt ultimately concludes that most of these writers shape their identities for themselves within the context of submission to some authority: ”God, a sacred book, an institution such as church, court, colonial or military administration” (9). (p.139) Booker.

Although Greenblatt is talking about writers I believe that this can also be applicable to the novel’s main character. Hence, I intend to remark on some of the social forces that shaped Francis Cornish identity during the course of this essay. I will also be recurring to the following citation as well

New historicists believe that it makes no sense to separate literary texts from the social context around them because such texts are the product of complex social ”exchanges” or ”negotiations”. Booker (138)

This last citation demands outside help for the text to support my observations. Lastly the word respectability will appear quite often so I should define that word as well. The best approach is to use the sense within the text. Respectability is then an act of keeping up with appearances. In the novel, the best example of keeping up with appearances is presented by Arthur Cornish. He absolutely abhors the idea that his uncle, Francis Cornish, might be associated with criminal activity as Arthur’s wife Maria points it out: ”Anything that challenges the perfect respectability of Cornishes stirs him up.”

I will also like to add to the definition by including what respectability has meant for this period of time. This is a synchronic view of the term taken out of The Journal of British Studies.

[Geoffrey] Best calls respectability “the great Victorian shibboleth and criterion,” a means by which to judge strangers on the basis of their appearance and behavior. Provided a person was sober, conventionally dressed, clean, and polite on Sundays, he could attain respectability and with it the sanction of society. (Cordery 1995 p.37)

Although the book’s geography is Canada, Canada has had great influence by Britain and is part of the British Commonwealth. Hence the definition applies aptly to Canada because of the long traditional and historical ties Canada has had with Great Britain.

What’s bred in the Bone

In What’s bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies we are introduced to a set of divergent issues dealing with Francis’ Cornish respectability. This can be observed right off from the start. We have a threesome discussing research for a biography of the main character of the novel, Francis Cornish. There is an impasse because the biographer, Reverend Simon Darcourt, can’t seem to get enough information about the subject at hand and worst yet there seems to be some shady background behind the man that is being researched. This shady background cannot and should not be allowed to be published because it might damage the Cornish name. Upon threatening to cancel the project, the biographer then suggests to go public by his own means and curiosity about the subject is the only thing holding the respectability of Frank Cornish untarnished. This is a curious set of events because even after Francis Cornish death the issue of respectability haunts his deceased ens. It is also curious to observe that while it is perfectly acceptable to be eccentric (Davies p.5), miser (Davies p.6) and lonely, the idea that Frank Cornish might be homosexual, a thief and a conniving liar is not because this will certainly bring about problems, specially damaging the banking industry we are told (Davies p.4). Respectability, even in an era that prides itself in acknowledging that being a poofter is aceptable, is risqué. Respectability can make or brake fortunes we are understood.

How did Francis Cornish acquire his respectability? Well, Francis Cornish was born under a rather dark and unpure ambiance that bespeaks ill deeds. All to sustain an aura of respectability. All under a period in time that prides itself for being respectable. The logic is that respectability was to be maintained by all means necessary, the norm in Victorian times. It was in order to maintain a respectable appearance that before Francis Cornish was born, the death of his brother was simulated to cover up a stain of the past, something he discovers himself later on (Davies p.58;131). However this stain was not covered up sufficiently it seems because the school that Francis attends as a child everybody seems to know that something is being hidden in the family attic. We obtain this bit of information from the lips of the bully Alexander Dagg:

D’you know what I’am going to tell yu? There is something funny about your house. People see lights where a light’s got no right to be. My Maw says there is a looner in there somewheres. […] People wonder a lot about your house. (Davies. p.94)

Alexander Dagg speaks of Francis the First. Francis Cornish brother who is hidden from public view because he was conceived out of wedlock and suffers a physical ailment that renders him anormal. The act of conceiving out of wedlock was unthinkable in an era where Victorian values still held sway over people even during the relaxed reign of Edward VII. To admit fault betrayed appearances. In order to save face this meant hiding any stain that might tarnish the name of the Cornish family and this is how Francis comes to being, out of an effort to sustain an aura of respectability. Although there was a price to pay for keeping up with appearances. Respectability has a price after all.This entailed a series of complex social ”exchanges” or ”negotiations” (Booker p.138). In order to keep Mary-Jim McRory respectable, Francis Cornish mother, the Senator, Honourable James Ignatius McRory, had to strike a deal with another seemingly respectable person, in this case Major Francis Cornish whose respectability lies solely on the pins of his titles and past. Major Francis Cornish outlined a deal that profoundly astonished the Senator’s sensibilities because ”it hit him very hard in his Highland pride” (Davies p.42) yet he went along with it in order to keep respectability intact. The other paid price was that the whole town knew there were strange and odd things going on in Francis’ house. Though this seems to matter little for the Cornish family, so long as rumors are kept in check what the town knew was of little concern.

“Ah – for Francis the Looner was a lifelong reminder of the inadmissible primitive in the most cultivated life, a lifelong adjuration to pity, and a sign that disorder and abjection stand less than a hair’s breadth away from every human creature.” (Davies p. 207)

The first parts of the novel are the backbone of the title since the omniscient voices retelling Francis Cornish life argue that in order to narrate his life it is what is bred in the bone that matters. Respectability, then, is what is bred in the bones of Francis Cornish albeit a questionable sorts of respectability though very well in tune with what society prescribed as respectable in those times. This can be discernible when Francis Cornish decides to paint the myth of Francis Cornish. (Davies p.359) He decides to go ahead and paint a fake painting and he weighs in the consequences yet for the sake of respectability he chooses to do the wrong deed.

Although this should not come as a surprise since there are all sorts of outside social forces shaping Francis Cornish life. Both exterior and interior forces. For example, the first hundred pages of the book rob him of a say in an age were William James’ stream of consciousness is an almost du riguer technique. It is a curios aspect of the novel that in order to narrate Frank Cornish life the use of an omniscient voice, or voices in this case, are used to explain who Francis Cornish is. This in fact seems to add to the illusion of maintaining respectability. By not allowing Francis Cornish to have a stream of consciousness we keep the illusion of respectability intact. He is not responsible for his acts. Had the writer resorted to stream of consciousness god only knows what ideas had we formed about Francis Cornish. One can even question the choice of the omniscient narrators for Francis Cornish. They free him of all flaws, he is nearly immaculate. Frank Cornish is an exercise in immaculateness. Indeed, there is no real assertion of independent self because all the strings are being pulled for Francis Cornish. If the demigods aren’t tinkering with his self then there are the constraints placed before him by society. The nearly absent parents, the overzealous caretaker, Aunt Mary-Ben McRory, the school and even when there is a glimpse of assertion it is Dr. J.A Jerome who gives him the permission to fight back (Davies p.89).

However, being raised under the shadows of respectability radically determines Francis Cornish identity. He learns to keep secrets and learns the codes of respectability that seem to prevail in a society steeped in Victorian values. There is no doubt that respectability manages to shape Francis Cornish identity even to his own detriment. He is a secret agent for MI5 and manages to fake paintings although he can’t acknowledge that his is the author of them. He just fantasizes to tell the truth:

It was at this point that Francis, who had been suffering for two days and a half the torments of an inflamed conscience, […] felt that he should rise to his feet and make a speech in the manner of the late Letzpfenning: ”Gentlemen, I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little paint box.” (Davies p.393)

He does tell a lie of course and he seems to pay for it dearly. He is after all considered eccentric, rumors fly about his integrity and remains a loner the remaining years of his life sharing almost a similar fate that his brother faced. The looner ended up secluded because he wasn’t respectable enough to be seen in public view. They both hide behind the illusion of respectability. Francis has many defects that need to be kept secluded as well, MI5 for example. Respectability was sown and he reaped a dark and secretive life for it.

All in all we have a set of authorities deeply shaping Francis Cornish identity. Dr. J.A, MI5, the elementary school via Alexander Dagg and other persons as well. When is Francis Cornish himself though? Oddly enough it seems almost curious to observe that the only time Francis Cornish ever is himself is through the mechanism of forgery. It is in the realm of deceit where we experience a real Francis Cornish with his own stream of consciousness. A place were Daimon Maimas and Lesser Zadkiel are tending the needs of Francis Cornish.


Booker, Keith M. A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism. Longman
Publishers USA 1996.
Robertson, Davies. What’s Bred in the Bone. Viking Penguin. Elisabeth Sifton Books. 1985

Cordery, Simon. ”Friendly Societies and the Discourse of Respectability in Britain, 1825
1875” The Journal of British Studies 34 (1995): 35-58.