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'The Rebel Angels' is Canadian author Robertson Davies's most noted novel, after those that form his 'Deptford Trilogy'.
First published by Macmillan of Canada in 1981, 'The Rebel Angels' is the first of the three connected novels of Davies' 'Cornish Trilogy'. It was followed by 'What's Bred in the Bone' (1985), and 'The Lyre of Orpheus' (1988).
'The Rebel Angels' follows several faculty and staff of the fictional College of St. John and Holy Ghost. It did not quite attain the popularity of the Deptford Trilogy, but it is generally considered to be among his best books.
The story, like many of Davies', is notable for very strongly drawn and memorable characters — in this case the defrocked monk Parlabane, a brilliant and sinister sodomite with a thundering voice, voracious appetite; Anglican priest and professor of New Testament Greek Simon Darcourt; Maria Theotoky, a graduate student researching Rabelais; Clement Hollier, a frazzled and absentminded professor; and Urquhart McVarish, a greedy and manipulative counterpoint to Hollier.
The novel's narration alternates between Theotoky's and Darcourt's points of view. Darcourt is attempting to write a history of the university based on Aubrey's 'Brief Lives'.
Much of the story is set in motion by the death of eccentric art patron and collector Francis Cornish. Hollier, McVarish, and Darcourt are the executors of Cornish's complicated will, which includes material that Hollier wants for his studies. The deceased's nephew Arthur Cornish, who stands to inherit the fortune, is also a character.
Many of the characters (including Parlabane and McVarish) were based on college acquaintances of Davies; their stories are recounted in Judith Skelton Grant's biography 'Robertson Davies: Man of Myth' (1994) and Brian Busby's 'Character Parts: Who's Really Who in CanLit' (2003). As well, many believe that Davies based the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (or "Spook" as it is affectionately called in the novel) on Toronto's Trinity College. Evidence for this connection includes numerous similarities between the fictional and the real life college (including architectural style, layout of rooms, age, and religious affiliation); the fact that Davies taught at Trinity College for 20 years and lived across the street from Trinity while master of Massey College; and perhaps most convincingly that a picture of Trinity's central tower is prominently featured on the cover of the novel's first edition. Equally plausible is the belief that Ploughwright College in the book is patterned after Davies's own Massey College. This connection is supported by the fact that much of the fortune donated by the Massey family to the University of Toronto for the founding of Massey College was originally made in the manufacture of farm equipment. Like the real-life Massey College, Ploughwright is a graduate college where scholars are invited to partake in interdisciplinary discussions and High Table dinners.
*Brian Busby. 'Character Parts: Who's Really Who in CanLit'. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2003.
*Judith Skelton Grant. 'Robertson Davies: Man of Myth'. Toronto: Viking Canada, 1994.
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