Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a former police surgeon with "a high degree of cunning," is shocked when St. Aidan's Father Hobbes drops dead during church services. What made the good--and perfectly healthy--clergyman die so suddenly? To solve the mystery, Dr. Hullah whisks us on a fascinating tour of his own rich and highly observant life.
The Cunning Man is a clever story, part mystery, part bildungsroman, part family saga and a bit of a romance, that keeps you reading to find out how the life of Jonathan Hullah, the cunning and wise doctor at the center of the book, will turn out and how those of the characters whose drama fills his life will also conclude. The doctor is a cunning man in the sense used by Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, a seventeenth century compendium of information about the subject of melancholy. Thus the cunning man is a sort of wizard who is as much a doctor of the soul as he is a doctor of the body. From Dr. Hullah's early days learning from a wise Indian woman called Mrs. Smoke through his years in medical school and as medic in the army he develops both expertise in traditional medicine and sometimes mysterious abilities to look into his patients' souls. The result makes for a unique career. Throughout the story the reader is treated to the differences between high and low church Anglicanism, how one deals with a journalist in the family and, most of all, how the cunning man spins his web of masterful medicine through it all.
I think it would be fair to say that this was not Robertson Davies’s finest novel, although that still leaves considerably scope for it to be very good. Similar in narrative form to ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’, it begins with a stark account of the death of a close friend of the narrator, in this case, an Anglican priest who succumbed to a seizure while assisting the celebration of mass at a High Anglican church in Toronto. The narrator is Doctor Jonathan Hullah, and the priest had been one of his lifelong friends, first encountered when they both attended a classy boarding school in Toronto in the years between the First and Second World Wars. One of their teachers is Dunstan Ramsay, himself the narrator of Davies’s ‘Deptford Trilogy’ and also a peripheral character in ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ and ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, and a character whom I have always thought of as an archetype for Davies himself.
In the days following the death, Hullah is approached by a local journalist (who happens also to be the fiancée, and subsequently wife, of his other close schoolfriend), who is eager to build up a picture of the dead cleric’s life, and in particular the truth behind stories from earlier in his life in which he was considered to have wrought a miracle. The novel takes the form of Hullah trying to set straight his memories, in order to avoid any risk of misrepresenting his friend.
This gives Davies the opportunity to recount a potted history of Canada’s cultural life from the nineteen-thirties onwards, and allows him to loose his own acute (and occasionally stinging) barbs at a number of politically and socially prominent figures. Although Hullah is a doctor by profession, he is, like so many of Davies’s protagonists, a Renaissance man, with a deep insight into the arts (especially the theatre), theology and philosophy, and we are given a glittering romp across the academic disciplines.
This was the last book that Davies published. It has close resonances with ‘Murther and Walking spirits’ and is widely believed to have been the second volume in what would have become yet another trilogy. We will never know how that would have worked out, but it may explain why I felt that there was something missing. ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ works perfectly, both as a self-contained novel, but also as the pivotal novel in ‘The Cornish Trilogy’. With ‘The Cunning Man’ I was left feeling that there were underlying themes that were not properly resolved. That is not to say that it was not a very good, entertaining and satisfying novel, which it was, but I feel we have been robbed of its full splendor … unless, of course, that was all part of the great mage’s scheme. I certainly wouldn’t have put that ast him.
Dr. Jon Hullah practises an unusual form of medicine where he diagnoses what ails patients that have bewildered other doctors. The good doctor is referred to as The Cunning Man hence the title of this book. His office is in an old stable that was part of the Glebe House (what I would call a manse and others might call a rectory or a parsonage) for St. Aidan's Anglican church. St. Aidan's is very high Anglican and the pomp and ceremony of the services are what attracts Hullah. Also his close school friend, Charlie Ireland, is a priest of the church. Hullah served as a field doctor during World War II and there he met his aide/helpmeet/nurse/receptionist, Inge Christofferson. An accredited nurse Christofferson is also a skilled masseuse and Hullah's patients often benefit from her ministrations. The Glebe House is now owned by two English lesbians who left England precipitously when one was about to be married. Chips and Dear One (as they are most frequently called in the narrative) are artists and try, somewhat in vain, to raise the level of art in Toronto. These are the main characters in the book which is written as a sort of diary by Dr. Hullah.
There is quite a bit of humour but philosophy and religion are the main ruminations for Dr. Hullah. Having now read The Merry Heart which is a collection of Davies' essays and speeches from 1980 to 1995 I can see that there is a lot of autobiography in this character. There is a common thought game that asks people to choose a certain number of people to have dinner with and the guests can be alive or dead and fictional or real. I am sure the fictional character would have been fascinating to have to dinner but I would choose the creator to have at my dinner table.
This book is told almost entirely through the first person narrator Dr. Jonathan Hullah. (The letters from a lesbian artist who is Dr. Hullah's neighbor are a welcome break, even if it is never properly explained how they came to be part of his text.)
My problems with the book are largely based on the fact that I found Hullah to be basically unbelievable as a character and as a witness to the events and personalities he describes. He comes across - whatever Davies' intentions - as a bore and prig, rather intelligent in many ways but full of deceit about others and about himself. I kept on hoping that he would receive his "comeuppance" but alas it never came.
(This could be a "textbook" example of the difficulty of writing a novel of significant length with an utterly unreliable narrator. By contrast, I think Iris Murdoch managed to pull it off in what may be her finest book, "The Sea, The Sea.")
This book is nonetheless of some interest as a summary of Robertson Davies' literary and cultural creed, and includes some amusing bits about religion, theatre, and provincial society - even if he does "lay it on a bit thick" at times. Interesting for what Davies had to say about Toronto, and Canada! Definitely a "late" work, though.
While "Murther and Walking Spirits" tells tales of a Canadian Methodist family, the second book in the unfinished Toronto Trilogy concerns a very different form of protestantism, as it concerns the clergy and congregation of Saint Aidan's, an extremely High Church Anglican parish in Toronto. The story is told by Jonathan Hullah, the Cunning Man, best friend of Brocky Gilmartin, lover of Brocky's wife and and godfather of his son Gil (the protagonist of "Murther and Walking Spirits"). Jonathan is a doctor who becomes involved with the church when he sets up his practice in the grounds of a house next to the church and finds that another of his old schoolfriends is a curate there. His landladies are a lesbian couple, both artists, and part of the story is told through letters from one of them to an old friend in England, whom I gradually realised was Barbara Hepworth the sculptor. In fact Chip's lively letters and the descriptions of her humorous illustrations were the best part of the book. I preferred "The Cunning Man" to "Murther & Walking Spirits" because it had more of a plot, a couple of mysteries to keep me interested, and some interesting characters.
But it is much more than that. It turns into what the narrator, Hullah, says he wants to avoid, a Bildungsroman or Novel of Development: in this case the development of Hullah's character, but also the development of Toronto and Canada itself, from a wild-and-wooly backwoods place to an cosmopolitan, but very quirky, society.
The cast of characters is brilliant.
Hullah himself is interesting, if a little stuffy. But Pansy Todhunter, one of "The Ladies," whose letters he quotes in full, is a wonderful offset: slangy, funny, malicious, hearfelt.
Charlie his never-quite-holy priest friend is fabulous: tormented and visionary and fanatical and sad.
Mrs. Smoke, the cranky Indian shamaness who saves the 8-year-old Jonathan by magic spells and awakens him to The Other.
Darcy Dwyer, the aesthete banker who opens him to music and the visual arts, but also ruthless inquiry and even espionage.
Lt. Commander Daubigny, the high-school teacher with a multi-national and even cannibalistic past.
Even Esme, the relentless young reporter with whom Hullah becomes, shockingly, smitten.
All are wonderful in themselves, yet emblematic of larger elements of a changing society.
Instructive, thoughtful, funny. A wonderful read.