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

All you want is a lover, said the scholar in me, with scorn. And what’s wrong with that, said the woman in me, with a Gypsy jut of the hip. If you are looking for a lover, said a third element (which I could not identify, but which I suppose must be called common awareness), Simon Darcourt has lover written all over him.

Yes, but –.But what? You seem to be yearning after one of these Rebel Angels, who people the universities and have established what Paracelsus calls The Second Paradise of Learning, and who are ready and willing to teach all manner of wisdom to the daughters of men. Yes, but Simon Darcourt is forty-five, and stoutish, and a priest in the Anglican church. He is learned, kind, and he ob­viously loves you. I know; that satisfies the scholar, but the Gypsy girl just laughs and says it won’t do at all. What sort of a figure would I cut as a parson’s wife? A scholar — and you have hopes of a reputation in that work — would be just the wife for a scholar-parson. And again the Gypsy girl laughs. I tell the Gypsy girl to go to hell; I am not prepared to admit (not yet, anyway) that a Gypsy trick with a love philtre has plumped poor Simon and me into this pickle, but certainly I am not going to put up with Gypsy mockery in my present position. What a mess!

This inner confusion plagued me night and day. I felt that it was destroying my health, but every morning, when I looked in the mirror expecting to see the ravages of a tortured spirit etched into my face in crow’s-feet and harsh lines, I was forced to admit that I was looking as well as I ever had in my life, and I will not pretend that I wasn’t glad of it. Scholar I may be, but I refuse to play the game some of the scholarly women in the University play, and make the worst of myself, dress as if I stole clothes out of the St. Vincent de Paul box, and have my hair cut in a dark cellar by a madman with a knife and fork. The Gypsy strain, I suppose. On with the ear-rings and the gaudy scarves; glory in your long black hair, and walk proudly, holding your head high. That is at least a part of what God made you for.

This, I concluded, was what life involved at my age; confusion, but at least an intensely interesting confusion. Since I was old enough to conceive of such a thing, I have longed for enlightenment. In private prayer, at school, I lifted my eyes to the altar and begged O God, don’t let me die stupid. What I was going through now must be part of the price that had to be paid if that prayer were to be answered. Feed on this in thy heart and be thankful, Maria.

An unexpected sort of enlightenment broke upon me in mid-March, when Simon manoeuvred me into his rooms at Ploughwright (he thought he was being clever, but there was clearly a good deal of planning to it) and gave me coffee and cognac and told me he loved me. He did it wonderfully well. What he said didn’t sound in the least contrived, or rehearsed; it was simple and eloquent and free from any extravagances about eternal devotion, or not knowing what he would do if I could not return his love, or any of that tedious stuff. But what really shook me out of my self-possession was his confession that in his life I had taken on the character of Sophia.

I suppose that most men, when they fall in love, hang some sort of label on the woman they want, and attribute to her all sorts of characteristics that are not really hers. Or should I say, not completely hers, because it is hard to see things in some­body else that have no shred of reality, if you are not a com­plete fool. Women do it, too. Had I not convinced myself that Hollier was, in the very best sense, a Wizard? And could anyone deny that Hollier was in a considerable measure (though prob­ably less than I imagined) a Wizard? I suppose the disillusion that comes after marriage, about which so much is said now, is the recognition that the label was not precise, or else the lover had neglected to read the small print on the label. But surely only the very young, or the people who never know much about themselves, hang labels on those they love that have no cor­respondence whatever with reality? The disillusion of stupid people is surely just as foolish as their initial illusion? I don’t pretend to know; only the wiseacres who write books about love, and marriage, and sex, seem to possess complete certainty. But I do think that without some measure of illusion life becomes intolerable.

Still — Sophia! What a label to hang on Maria Magdalena Theotoky! Sophia: the feminine personification of Wisdom; that companion figure to God who urged Him on to create the Universe; God’s female counterpart whom the Christians and the Jews have agreed to hush up, to the great disadvantage of women for so many hundreds of years! It was overwhelming. But was it utterly ridiculous?

No, I don’t think so. Granting freely that I am not Sophia, which no living woman could be except in tiny measure, what am I in the world of Simon Darcourt? I am a woman from far away, because of my Gypsy heritage; a woman, I suppose, of the Middle Ages. A woman who can in some measure talk Simon’s language of learning and the kind of speculation learning begets. A woman not afraid of the possibilities that lurk in the background of modern life, but which so much of modern life denies utterly — a woman whom one can call Sophia with the certainty that she will know what is being said. A woman, in fact, whom a beglamoured man might think of as Sophia without being a fool.

Ah, but there is the word that pulls me up sharp — be­glamoured. The word glamour has been so battered and smeared that almost everybody has forgotten that it means magic and enchantment. Could it really be that poor Simon was a victim of my Gypsy mother’s cup of hocussed coffee, and saw wonders in me because he had been given a love philtre, a sexy Mickey Finn? I hate the idea, but I cannot say with absolute certainty that there is no truth in it. And if I cannot say that, what sort of Divine Wisdom am I, what possible embodiment of Sophia? Or is it not Sophia’s part to split hairs in such matters?

Whatever the answers to these hard questions, I had the gumption to tell Simon that I did indeed love him, which was true, and that I could not possibly think of marrying him, which was also true. And as he could not consider doing anything about a physical love without marriage (for reasons that I understood and thought greatly to his credit, though I did not share his reluctance) that was that. The love was a reality, but it was a reality within limits.

What astonished me was his relief when the limits had been defined. I knew, as I don’t suppose he did for a long time after­wards, that he had never in the truest sense wanted to marry me — didn’t even want unbearably to make sexual love to me. He wanted a love that excluded those things, and he knew that such a love was possible, and he had achieved it. And so had I. When we parted each was richer by a loving and enduring and delight­ful friend, and I was perhaps the happier of the two because in the hour I had wholly changed my feeling about Hollier.

The knowledge of Simon’s love made it easier for me to endure the painful tensions in Hollier’s rooms from this time until Easter, and to respond whole-heartedly when Simon tele­phoned me shortly after seven o’clock on the morning of Easter Sunday.

Maria, I thought you should know as soon as possible that Parlabane is dead. Very sudden, and the doctor says it was heart — no, no suspicion of anything else, though I feared that, too. I’ll attend to everything, and there seems to be no reason to wait, so I’m arranging the funeral for tomorrow morning. Will you bring Clem? We’re his only friends, it appears. Poor devil? Yes, that’s what I said: poor devil.


Hollier, Darcourt, and I drove back from the funeral happy because we seemed to have regained something that Parlabane had taken from us. We were refreshed and drawn together by this shared feeling, and did not want to part. That was why Hollier asked Darcourt if he would come up to his rooms for a cup of tea. We had just finished a long, vinous lunch but it was a day for hospitality.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson