The Cornish Trilogy

Cornish Trilogy Cover Image


 

The Cornish Trilogy by Canadian author Robertson Davies are three stories that cover Canadian academic life, World War II spy-craft, and the world of arts funding all beautifully woven together.  The books included in this trilogy are The Rebel Angels (1981), What's Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). 

The first book centers on three faculty members at the University of St. John and the Holy Ghost (affectionately called Spook by faculty and students) who are tasked with serving as executors of the estate of their old friend, Francis Cornish.  Cornish, a patron of Canadian artists, has an extensive collection of art and manuscripts to be cataloged and allocated to various libraries and museums.  While preparing his estate and, in the case of one of the executors starting a biography of Cornish, questions arise regarding how Cornish came by his wealth and extenisve art collection.

The second book takes a step back in time and provides a look at Cornish's life.  Told by two supernatual beings (an angel of biography and a daimon) who have monitored his unusual life from Canadian boyhood, to art restorer, to British spy, to art patron, this book fills in gaps regarding the mysteries of Cornish's life that arise during the first book as his friends try to settle his estate.

The final book follows the newly established Cornish Trust -- an arts funding foundation managed by a group that includes his nephew and some of the executors from the first novel.  Their first big attempt at funding revolves around supporting a doctoral student in music at Spook who is trying to complete an unfinished opera and mount a production of it to earn her PhD.

The stories cover academic squabling, a history graduate student and her gypsy mother, a runaway monk, a dead composer in limbo, and many other interesting characters and subplots.  I rarely re-read books  -- there are always so many things I've never read to entice me.  But this was a re-read for me.   I originally read these books in the 1980s and remembered them as something extraordinary, but with the passing of time the details had faded.  I am glad I took the time to read them again.  The stories are beautifully written and as the reviews on Amazon say, "Deliciously readable. -- New York Times.  One of the most remarkable achievements of contemporary fiction. -- Sunday Times.  Nourishes the brain while it beguiles the senses. --  Time.   A first-rate storyteller and a real moralist with a crackling sense of humour. -- Newsweek.  Davies combines elements of the fantastic with details of everyday life to show us a world in which the miraculous coexists with the mundane. -- New York Times.

Links to the catalog records for each book are above.  We also have a guide to the triology.

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