The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Rich, and not as grateful as I thought they should be. The big recipients were glad enough to take what they liked, but made it clear that some things that were in their portion didn’t especially please them and weren’t welcome.

The National Gallery was one of these. Cornish had left them dozens of canvases, but he had stipulated that the Canadian pictures were to be kept together and placed on permanent exhibition, as the Cornish Bequest. The Gallery people said, reasonably enough, that they liked to show their pictures in a historical context, and Cornish’s Krieghoffs and other early things ought to go with their exhibitions of Early Canadian Painting; they didn’t want primitives spotted about all over their galleries. They said also that they didn’t think some of the modern pictures first-rate, whatever Cornish may have thought, and simply couldn’t say they would put them on permanent show. If there was to be a Cornish Bequest, Cornish might have discussed it with them beforehand; or might have thought of leaving money to build a special gallery for it; even if he had done so, they had no land on which to build such a gallery. The correspondence was courteous, but only just, and there were frequent hints that donors could be peremptory and inconsider­ate, and that anybody without a degree in Fine Arts was rather an amateur.

Hollier didn’t like that. He is a man of strong feelings and loyalties, and he thought Cornish’s memory was being insulted. I, with my tedious capacity to see both sides of a question, wasn’t so sure. McVarish made Hollier even angrier by being frivolous, as if the will and Cornish’s wishes didn’t matter very much.

All donors and benefactors are crazy, he said. What they want is posthumous fame and posthumous gratitude. Every college and faculty on this campus could tell a bloody tale if you asked for it. What about the family that earmarked the income from a million to found a chair of internal medicine, and then craftily snatched it back when they didn’t like the politics of the third man appointed to it — years later? What about that old bastard who gave a historical library to the University Library, and frowned everybody down and demanded an honorary degree even when it was shown that the books weren’t really his, but the property of a foundation he directed? What about old Mahaffy, who gave a bundle for a Centre for Celtic Studies, on condition that Celtic Studies meant Irish Studies and the Scots and the Welsh and the Bretons could all go and bugger them­selves? What about that miserable old hound who founded a lectureship, insisting that it be initiated in his lifetime and that the University foot the bill till he died, and then told the Presi­dent, years later, with a grin on his face, that he’d changed his mind, and didn’t like the lectures anyway? Benefaction means self-satisfaction, nine times out of ten. The guile and cunning that enable benefactors to get their hands on the dough make it almost impossible for them to relinquish it, at the hour of death. Even our dear friend Cornish — a very superior specimen, as we all know — can’t entirely relax his grip. But what does it matter, anyhow? If the National Gallery doesn’t want a picture, give it to the Provincial Gallery, who are getting lots of pictures any­how. What does another daub or so matter, in the long run? You know what the will says: anything that’s left over after specific pictures have gone to the right places may be disposed of at the discretion of Cornish’s executors. And that means us. The nephew won’t know and won’t care. Our job is to cut up the melon and get these apartments emptied.

But Hollier wouldn’t hear of that. I had known him for years in a casual way, but I had never seen very deeply into him. He seemed to me to have more conscience than is good for any man. A powerful conscience and no sense of humour — a dangerous combination.

McVarish, on the other hand, possessed rather too much humour. People tend to talk as if a sense of humour were a wonderful adjunct to a personality — almost a substitute for common sense, not to speak of wisdom. But in the case of McVarish it was a sense of irresponsibility, a sense of the un­importance of anybody else’s needs or wishes if they interfered with his convenience; it was a cheerful disguise for the contempt he felt for everybody but himself. In conversation and in the affairs of life he greatly valued what he called the light touch ; nothing must ever be taken seriously, and the kind of seriousness Hollier displayed was, so McVarish hinted pretty broadly, ill-bred. I like a light touch myself, but in McVarish’s case it was too plainly another name for selfishness. He didn’t care about carrying out Cornish’s wishes as well as could be managed; he just liked the importance of being an executor to a very rich and special man, and of hob-nobbing with people from the galleries who met his exacting standards. As has so often been my lot, I had to play peacemaker between these irreconcilables.

My special problem was with archivists. The University Library, not content with the promise of a splendid haul of manuscripts and rare books, wanted all Cornish’s papers. The National Library in Ottawa, which had been left nothing, put in a courteous but determined request for Cornish’s letters, records, papers, everything that could be found relating to his career as a collector and patron. The two libraries squared off and began, politely but intensely, to fight it out. Cornish had never, I suppose, thought that his old letters and junk might be of any interest to anyone; he kept no records, his method of filing was to throw stuff into cardboard cartons in whatever order came to hand; his notebooks — preserved simply because he never threw anything away — were a muddle of scribbled reminders of appointments, notes of unspecified sums of money, addresses, and occasional words and phrases that had meant something to him at some time. I looked through them superficially and found an entry in a book which, as it was not filled, I presumed must have been his last: it said, Lend McV. Rab. MS April 16 .

There were treasures, too, and nobody knew about them except myself, because I would not permit the librarians to snoop. There were letters from painters who had subsequently become celebrated, but who wrote to Cornish when they were young and poor, letters of friendship and often of touching need. They illustrated their letters with sketches and scribbles that were funny and delightful, and sometimes of beauty. When I explained all of this to Arthur Cornish, he said: I leave it up to you; Uncle Frank trusted you and that’s quite good enough for me. Which was complimentary but unhelpful, because the librarians were tough.

The National Library’s case was that Cornish had been a Great Canadian (how he would have laughed, for he had as little vanity as any man I ever knew) and everything about him that could be preserved should be given the archival treatment, cata­logued, cross-indexed, and preserved in acid-free containers so that it would never perish. But the University Library saw Cornish as a great benefactor of the University who had shown his esteem for its Library by leaving it a splendid collection of fine books and manuscripts; his memory should repose, so far as possible, in their hands.

Why? I asked. Were not the treasures themselves sufficient without all the rubbish, much of which seemed to me to be good for nothing but the incinerator? No, said the archivists, in control­led voices beneath which I could hear suppressed shrieks of rage and horror at my ignorance and obtuseness. Surely I was not forgetting Research, that giant scholarly industry? Students of art, students of history, students of God knows what else, would want to know everything about Cornish that could be recovered. How did I expect that the official biography of Cornish could be written if all his papers were not in responsible hands, forever?

I was not impressed. I have read two or three official lives of people I have known well, and they never seemed to be about the person I knew. They were, upon the whole, cautiously favourable to their subjects, though they did not neglect what the writers loved to call Flaws. It is part of the received doctrine of modern biography that all characters are Flawed, and as a Christian priest I am quite ready to agree, but the Flaws the biographers exhibited usually meant that the person under dis­cussion had not seen eye to eye with the biographer on matters of politics, or social betterment, or something impersonal. What I thought of as human flaws — Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth, the Deadly Seven, of which Cor­nish had scored pretty high on the latter four — rarely received any intelligent discussion. As for the Virtues — Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, some of which Cornish had possessed in praiseworthy plenty — bi­ographers never wanted to talk about them under their own names, or even under fashionable modern names. There had been no Love in the biographies of any people I had known personally, and perhaps it was impudent of me to wish that Cornish, if he were to be the subject of a Life, might have a proper measure of Love. Or Hate, or anything but the scholarly incomprehension of a professional biographer.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson