Robertson Davies Weekend 2020: The Rebel Angels

Last year for the Robertson Davies readalong, hosted annually by Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, I reviewed Fifth Business, the first volume in The Deptford Trilogy. This time I chose to read the first volume in The Cornish Trilogy, The Rebel Angels (1981). Published 11 years after Fifth Business, it shares a number of that book’s features, including a campus setting and a preoccupation with good and evil. If I can generalize about Davies from having read just two of his books, I would say that his novels engage with philosophy and the Christian tradition, and though he dives into the dark things of life his is an essentially comic vision, giving his work an attractively puckish air.

Maria Magdalena Theotoky is a 23-year-old graduate student at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed “Spook”) in Toronto. She slept with her advisor, Clement Hollier, precisely once in his office last term. Two events spark the plot: the return of Brother John Parlabane, an ex-monk and -drug addict, and the death of Francis Cornish, a local patron of the arts. Parlabane becomes a university parasite, sleeping on couches and hitting up Maria, Hollier and Anglican priest Simon Darcourt for money. Along with Darcourt and Hollier, Urquhart McVarish, Hollier’s lecherous academic rival, is a third co-executor of Cornish’s artworks and manuscripts. Rumor has it the collection includes a lost manuscript by François Rabelais, the subject of Maria’s research, and Hollier and McVarish fight over it.

They also fight over Maria – no fewer than five male characters fall in love with her over the course of the novel. A sort of Helen of Troy (her first names bring to mind the presumed harlot from the Bible, while her surname means “God-bearer”), she is so beautiful that she sows conflict and heartache wherever she goes. Maria narrates about half of the novel – the other half, in alternating chapters, is by Father Darcourt, who’s writing an everyday history of the university inspired by Aubrey’s Brief Lives – and her coming to terms with her Gypsy heritage is a key element: Maria’s mother, Mamusia, is an entertaining character who tells fortunes and administers love potions, but Maria mostly finds her embarrassing.

Gypsy culture recurs in the book. So does poop. Professor Ozias Froats does research into what effect body type (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) has on fecal samples. Rabelais was a notably scatological writer, and Maria’s mother repairs subpar stringed instruments by storing them in barrels of wool and horse dung. Hollier has an academic interest in medieval excrement therapies, and asks to go see Mamusia’s folk remedy in action. I found this strand very amusing, but it’s further evidence that this novel is not for the squeamish – it also includes one of the most hideous murder methods I’ve encountered in fiction, so beware.

Lucifer thrown out of heaven. Gustave Doré’s engraving for Paradise Lost (Public domain).

The title refers to angels thrown out of heaven, and is Maria’s shorthand for the trio of Darcourt, Hollier and Parlabane. Parlabane is explicitly likened to Lucifer and Satan, making him an embodiment of evil. For much of the book the homosexual hedonist seems harmless, yet he does engage in all the deadly sins. Gluttony and pride, especially: he has two enormous meals on Maria’s dime, and is determined to get his dense, pretentious autobiographical novel published by any means necessary. However, he carries the book, and I wanted even more of him. (They say Satan is the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, too.)

“To thine own self be true” is a message one might extract from the novel – phrased subtly differently in the Paracelsus quote that gives Parlabane’s novel its title, Be Not Another. Accepting all parts of oneself, even the hidden ones, prevents an inconvenient return of the repressed. Davies’s exploration of the types of human relationships, chaste versus base, suggests that true friendship is superior to sexual love. I greatly enjoy his novels of ideas and would recommend them to readers of Michael Arditti, Julian Barnes, D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. Shall I go straight on to the Booker-shortlisted What’s Bred in the Bone? I’m intrigued to see what characters and themes will carry over into the second volume.

Some favorite lines:

“The house stank; a stench all its own pervaded every corner. It was a threnody in the key of Cat minor, with a ground-bass of Old Dog, and modulations of old people, waning lives, and relinquished hopes.”

(this seems apt for Davies’s work in general) “some grotesquerie, some wrenching originality, is a necessary part of real scholarship, and brings a special glory with it.”

Source: Oxfam charity shop, Newbury

My rating:


9 responses

  1. Oh! I’ve read this and have forgotten the poo and horrible murder! I was going to do RD next year but I’ve decided on Anne Tyler now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I found the poo stuff pretty funny … but yes, not for the squeamish. I was reading right down to the wire and alarmed my husband by exclaiming “what a horrible way to kill someone!” this afternoon.

      So have you read all his books? Was it going to be a rereading project? I’ll be looking out for your Tyler project schedule so I can join in with the ones I own.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, do go on to What’s Bred in the Bone! Such a treat. I really want to reread the whole trilogy next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly will read it sometime; the question is just whether to do so immediately or not… Last year I went straight from Fifth Business to The Manticore, and though the latter had an interesting perspective I found it almost redundant for revisiting some of the same events, and ended up DNFing after 145 pages. So I’m not sure, maybe I should wait on WBitB.


      1. It’s not at all the same format because it goes into the life story of Francis Cornish, rather than back over the events and characters of TRA. Having those fresh in your mind would not be a disadvantage, as there are some surprises in store.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That sounds promising! Thanks. I’ll try to start it this week.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How lucky that you were able to find the first book in the series in a charity shop; I feel like I often find volumes 2 and 3 in a series that I want to read! We’ve chatted about this elsewhere, but I’ll add that I really loved the academic setting of the one. I read it before starting university and thought it was hilarious and fascinating in equal measure. My own experience was, *ahem*, perhaps not very Davies-ian. The Rebel Angels might not be an appropriate preparatory text! Like Lory, my favourite in this cycle in the one you’re about to begin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t even know where it fell in the series when I bought it, so that was lucky. My copy of What’s Bred in the Bone then came from a secondhand book haul in February. I don’t often come across his books over here, but there’s a good number of them at the university library for when I next have a hankering.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] loved Fifth Business and The Rebel Angels, read for subsequent Robertson Davies week challenges run by Lory, but made aborted attempts at […]


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