Fictional biography has one clear advantage over the real thing. Facts that are inaccessible to scholarship may simply be invented. On the other hand, a story of a made-up person can hardly rely on the fame or noteworthiness of its subject to attract and hold readers. So the writer who takes up this curious, hybrid genre assumes a mixed blessing: the freedom to fabricate reality in service of a goal that many may find inconsequential because it is not true. In his eleventh novel, Canadian Author Robertson Davies tackles precisely this problem and turns it into a triumph. What's Bred in the Bone not only shows how biography could be written, if mortals possessed supernatural wisdom. It also offers a hero portrayed so vividly that the real world seems at fault for never having produced him in the flesh.
The tale begins with an impasse. The man who is trying to write the life of the late Francis Chegwidden Cornish, a distinguished art collector and connoisseur, finds himself stymied. It is bad enough that he has turned up hints of fakery in Cornish's long and otherwise exemplary career. These suspicions, if proved and published, will offend the immensely rich and powerful Cornish family and sully the reputation of the Cornish Trust, one of Canada's most respectable financial institutions. Worse, the aspiring biographer must admit that he cannot determine the influences that molded his man. Research has led only to the impenetrable mystery suggested by the old English proverb: "What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh." The scholar despairs: "What's bred in the bone! Oh, what was bred in the bone?"
The inquirer will never know, but Davies' readers are luckier. Two unearthly spirits appear bearing privileged information. One is the Lesser Zadkiel, an assistant to the Recording Angel; the other is a daimon called Maimas, who steered Francis Cornish through his existence. Maimas insists that he was nothing so wimpish as a guardian angel, a role he describes as "detestable theological fraud." He did not shelter his charge from evil but hounded him mercilessly: "My job was to make something of Francis with the materials I had at hand."
Francis' history thus unfolds from the leisurely perspective of eternity, with frequent interruptions from the two immortals guiding the tour. Given this long view, episodes tend to cluster into something resembling a preordained pattern. Born in a backwater village in eastern Canada, Francis had his maternal grandfather to thank for his lifelong freedom from money worries. He owes his mixed Protestant and Roman Catholic training to the strictures of his British father, whose family has been Church of England "since Reformation times," and the meddling of an aunt who gives him holy pictures and sees that a priest baptizes him during a siege of whooping cough.
By the time he goes to Oxford, in the early 1930s, to polish off his Canadian education, Francis has been honed into a practical, tightfisted young man who is also a thoroughgoing romantic about art. He meets Tancred Saraceni, the world's foremost restorer of old masterpieces, and confesses a secret desire to become a painter himself. The trouble is, Francis adds, he does not find the methods of any contemporary artists compatible. Saraceni replies: "Don't try to fake the modern manner if it isn't right for you. Find your legend. Find your personal myth."