The rebel angels

by Robertson Davies

Book, 1981



Call number


Call number



New York : Viking Press, 1982, c1981.

Original publication date


Physical description

326 p.; 22 cm

Local notes

A goodhearted priest and scholar, a professor with a passion for the darker side of medieval psychology, a defrocked monk, and a rich young businessman who inherits some troublesome paintings are all helplessly beguiled by the same coed.

Davies weaves together the destinies of this remarkable cast of characters, creating a wise and witty portrait of love, murder, and scholarship at a modern university.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
I think my first reaction to this book was to marvel at how such erudition can be made so fun. This is not at all a heavy read, and yet it's a novel of such depth and breadth as rarely goes into a modern novel. The Rebel Angels is playful and intelligent, witty and wise, sincere and cerebral all at
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All that I've read of Robertson Davies so far has shown me someone I'd love to be like myself one day. He is widely read, sincere, kind, and clear-sighted. He doesn't subscribe to the all too common idea that the only real intelligence is critical, if not scathing. The ideas he explores through his characters are fresh and full of truth.

So here's the set-up: a university, complete with scholars. Our two narrators are Maria, a student of the works of Rabelais, and Simon Darcourt, a professor and priest. The lives of both become involved with certain other characters, including two men who serve as the villains of the piece: Parlabane, an ex-monk, a repulsive and utterly original character; and Urquhart McVarish, slimy and full of intellectual spite. Another professor has died, leaving behind enormous quantities of art and manuscript all of varying degrees of value, uncatalogued and an enormous mess. Amongst all this is found an otherwise unknown and very precious manuscript by Rabelais himself. This is the catalyst that sets off the many events that follow, all complicated and not needing to be described here.

This book is an uncommon thing in my experience - a scholarly page-turner. One must read on to see what happens next. One cares for the characters in an immediate, human kind of way. There are twists and surprises of the type which could be attributed to fluffy adventure stories. And yet every word and sentence is a fine work of both language and ideas. A work of art.

Oh, and humour. I nearly forgot humour, it's so intrinsic to the book. This is not a satirical academic comedy, or a campus drama, or any of those neatly-ticked boxes that so many books slot neatly into. But it is set at a university, and it's funny, and it's dramatic. It's everything the perfect novel should be (in my humble opinion).

Some unfashionable ideas are explored here so marvellously well that it was a real experience for me to read them. I was touched and fascinated by the depiction of a fat oldish man's overwhelming plunge into love for a beautiful young woman. Every word of it breathes truth. It's full of poetic sincerity and also the realistic self-awareness and conscious absurdity of an intelligent man in this situation. It's beautiful. And in another section, we read about a professor who is studying human faeces, and believe me, Davies makes it fascinating.

In brief, I love this book. It's virtuosic, sensitive, gripping, and wonderfully clever.
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LibraryThing member browner56
Robertson Davies was a prolific author and a man of considerable professional breadth (novelist, newspaperman, academic, actor/playwright). Above all else, though, he was a remarkable story-teller. Few have been able to match his ability to combine the humor, erudition, and insights into human
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nature that mark all of his work. At their best, Davies’ novels are both enlightening and highly entertaining; they are the kind of books that, as one critic put it, you cannot wait to tell your friends about.

“The Rebel Angels” is the first volume in the author’s celebrated Cornish Trilogy and it is a wonderful example of the Campus Novel. Set in a fictional Canadian college—apparently based on University of Toronto, where Davies spent many years on the faculty—the plot revolves around the disposition of a considerable estate that has been bequeathed to the school by an eccentric patron of the arts. A highly coveted unpublished manuscript by Rabelais has gone missing, which leads to love, lust, considerable mayhem and, eventually, murder. Along the way, the reader is introduced to an unforgettable cast of characters, including a defrocked monk, academics of various merits, a priest, a graduate student and her gypsy relatives, a violin restorer, and a scatology expert.

I really love this book. I have savored it on multiple occasions over the years and if there is such a thing as the written equivalent of comfort food, this would be it for me. I learn something new each time and the morale of the story—“Be not another if thou canst be thyself,” which comes courtesy of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus—never fails to resonate on a different level. In fact, when asked whether he ever read the same book a second time, Davies himself remarked: “Nobody ever reads the same book twice.” That is certainly true for me with this one.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
A few years ago, in fact not very before his death in 1995, I had the privilege of meeting Robertson Davies when he gave a reading from his then newly-published novel The Cunning Man. Davies looked like a character from one of his own novels - tall, slightly stooped and sporting a proper mage's
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beard, long and white and redolent of Merlin. Despite his appearance of fragility he gave a stirring performance, bringing his work to life.
The Rebel Angels is one of his finest books and gives a marvellous insight into the joys of academia, and some of the wonders glimpsed by the Hermetic scholars. Against a backdrop of modern day Toronto three scholars grapple with the medieval cultures of filth and renovation, aided by Roma insights from the beautiful Maria Theotoky and her gypsy mother, counterbalanced by the musings of the Reverend Simon Darcourt, would-be latter day Aubrey.
Often grotesque but always engaging.
Robertson Davies excelled himself with this novel, the first volume in his Cornish trilogy, though its successor, "What's Bred in the Bone" is even finer.
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LibraryThing member lilyfathersjoy
I had always meant to read Robertson Davies; my undergraduate English degree hadn't included Canadian literature. (And frankly, I tended to stick to Drama and Poetry for the lighter reading load...) One day I bit the bullet and this novel was the most readily available. I was enchanted by wit and
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quirkiness. When the man himself came to do a reading at the University of Victoria a couple of years later, I brought my ragged paperback copy along for him to sign. I don't think his agent was at all pleased; she wanted us to bring brand-new hardcovers of his latest publication. But this book started it for me, and I believe I've read everything he's written.
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LibraryThing member frederick0t6
A novel about graduate students, monks, academics and more. I enjoyed this novel a great deal as it is so consciously set in the academic world. Davies' style here is still stimulating, but I found it more accessible than his much more famous novel, "Fifth Business."

Davies' musings on Christianity
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- on how Protestants and Catholics relate - and how traditional Christianity interacts with different traditions is one of the parts of this that I really liked.

It is set, not quite so secretly, at a fictional college of the University of Toronto.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
This was recommended to me by Dr. Barbara Newman of Northwestern, but I have never managed to get interested in it.
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Enjoyed this, interesting characters and Davies usual overly-erudite craziness.
LibraryThing member thorold
This is a book that really feels like the first volume of a trilogy-of-ideas: there are all sorts of different intellectual threads being laid out for us to follow through the next two books. But it's also an extremely playful book, with a parody of a conventional romantic plotline mixed up with a
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parody of a murder mystery against an Oxbridge-style collegiate background (at one point we even get a sketch plan of where the guests at an academic dinner were sitting). And for good measure we also get a bizarre twist on the literary cliché of the missing manuscript.

From time to time it all gets a bit much, and you wonder whether it's Matthew Arnold with ear-rings or Inspector Morse with maple syrup, but on the whole I think Davies is a writer more than good enough to get away with occasional excesses. If anything, you end up wishing that you knew a bit more about Rabelais and Paracelsus. And looking forward to the next two parts of the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
Good Lord. Such a collection of dirty old men and their nasty goings-on. I suspect there is a point here that I have missed out, and that strikes me as too bad since Davies's writing sits well with me and I've always thought of him as someone I would enjoy thoroughly once I got around to him. Not
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without redeeming qualities, but I have to say I feel not a little scummy having read it and not at all enlightened.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
One of my favorite Davies books it's chock full of of great characters stuck in the quicksand of his wry wit.
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
The word "erudite" appears in nearly every positive review of this novel, and what that means to me is this: if you're not familiar with Rabelais and Paracelsus you're not going to get the most out of reading it. It is true "literary fiction", and not the drivel that passes for that so often these
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days. But I couldn't say I enjoyed reading Davies this time. Aside from missing so many of his references, a single line from one reviewer kind of sums up my reaction to his characters: "For some reason, I felt a little dirty after I finished this one." I have a feeling that some of the distasteful bits are the parts where other readers have found humor, but since no one gave examples of what they considered funny, I can't be sure of that. I've never appreciated scatalogical humor, although I realize its appeal is wide and ancient in human culture generally, and in literature specifically. I feel a little like that kid watching the Emperor's parade...I see that the Emperor has clothes, but I just don't like them very much.
Review written in 2013
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LibraryThing member lschiff
This trilogy, and all of Robertson Davies' books, are among the funniest pieces of literature I've read.
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