The Cunning Man was the last novel Davies wrote, and it seems a fitting cap, as it deals with many of the themes and structures developed in his other fiction: the growth of the individual, the necessity of recognizing the spiritual facets of life, and maintaining a sense of proportion.
Imaginative and thematic links run through his novels, which combine to form a larger commentary on life and art—separating the two seems futile at best for Davies. His novels tend to have protagonists whose most significant exploits and understanding occur when they are well into middle age, and yet their understanding and exploits is often rooted in earlier experience. Unlike many authors, Davies eschews elevating a youthful golden era that is wistfully examined through hindsight. (A recent author I cared little for used this method). Instead, youth sets the stage for additional revelations and intelligence.
If there are a few lines that can sum up Davies’ philosophy and ideas, it’s probably the last paragraph of The Cunning Man, which I will repost here, for they are as accurate a summation of existence as any: “This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”
He is conscious of life being a show, as my earlier post on his biography indicates, and he has a theatrical sensibilities in his novels that comes out through techniques like habitually using odd narratives devices to comment on the action; in The Cunning Man a series of epistles gives perspective The Ladies, and in The Lyre of Orpheus a dead composer caught in a kind of purgatory or limbo steps in to speak at times. Two lesser demons comment in What’s Bred in the Bone. The latter two novels, both from The Cornish Trilogy, are both theatrical to begin with and the interruptions function as a chorus, which fits well with Davies’ habit of rehabilitating the past and making it his own, even if he ends up creating unfashionable and perfectly lovely art. In Murther and Walking Spirits a man is murdered in the first sentence and his ghost narrates the rest of the novel, which mostly consists of historical scenes in a movie theater.
The contrast between later novels like Murther and The Cunning Man and Davies’ first novels shows his own growth. The Salterton Trilogy is clearly Davies’ weakest collection of novels, though the last one, A Mixture of Frailties, demonstrates increasing mastery of both form and content. Davies better expresses complex emotion and growth in A Mixture of Frailties than in the earlier two novels, which lack the control and advanced characterization; his protagonist, Monica Gall, is more of a person and less of a placeholder or type than the characters in the first two.
Davies traces Gall’s journey away from rural Canadian roots, which is a theme treated still more heavily in The Deptford Trilogy. In both parallels to his own life are evident, as he went from Canada to Oxford and back, learning much of European sophistication while retaining an essentially Canadian mindset while there. Perhaps this is why the best writing in A Mixture of Frailties comes out through the most important passages of Monica in London. But the novel still demonstrates some of the immaturity of the first two Salterton novels in the frame story surrounding the circumstances of Monica’s financing in England. The first sections surrounding the will of Mrs. Bridgetower, the passively domineering mother of newly minted professor Solly Bridgetower, portended more of strained highjinks of Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice. But A Mixture of Frailties swiftly transcends the weaknesses of the first once the action shifts to London because Monica is so much more real, and the events seem much more significant.
The plot is hardly new: country girl goes to the Big City (London in this case) and leaves much, but not all, of her old life behind, and in particular she discards puritanical morality in favor of the city’s mores. But the twisted morality of church and country never fully leaves her, as one can no more fully leave one’s past than leave the bonds of time. Monica falls for a genius composer whose wild and randy life she cannot fully enter, and the denouement requires some resolution of their relationship. The end is unusual, and I will that there is no marriage as there were in old-fashioned comedies and many Victorian novels, but the marriage plot that arises is delightful and natural. The ambiguous end leaves open as to whether there might be marriages later.
The Cunning Man follows the life of a doctor who synthesizes Western medicine and spiritual/indigenous ways of fighting disease. This peculiar doctor’s work helps transcend Western medicine while not bashing it. The medical plot itself, however, represents a deeper movement or growth into understanding of human beings, who the Cunning Man of the title would not acknowledge cannot be nourished by bread alone and are creatures whose heads affect their stomachs and all other parts of them. Understanding and applying that to often recalcitrant or unusual or dilatory patients that cannot be fixed by other doctors is his specialty, and in that way he acts as an advisor beyond the traditional doctor’s interest merely in the body. The last novel effectively continues the themes developed in his earlier works while expanding on them. It is the work of a master and I can only read in awe at such a performance after so many other remarkable novels.