The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man

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by Robertson Davies

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"Should I have taken the false teeth?" This is what Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a former police surgeon, thinks after he watches Father Hobbes die in front of the High Altar at Toronto's St. Aidan's on the morning of Good Friday. How did the good father die? We do not learn the answer until the last pages of this "Case Book" of a man's rich and highly observant life. But

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"Should I have taken the false teeth?" This is what Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a former police surgeon, thinks after he watches Father Hobbes die in front of the High Altar at Toronto's St. Aidan's on the morning of Good Friday. How did the good father die? We do not learn the answer until the last pages of this "Case Book" of a man's rich and highly observant life. But we learn much more about many things, and especially about Dr. Hullah. From an early age, Jonathan Hullah developed "a high degree of cunning" in concealing what his true nature might be. And so he kept himself on the outside, watching, noticing, and sniffing, most often in the company of those who bore watching. Among them, flamboyant, mystical curate Charlie Iredale; outrageous banker Darcy Dwyer; cynical, quixotic professor Brocky Gilmartin, whose son Conor, also Hullah's godson, makes a fateful and too brief appearance in Robertson Davies's last novel, Murther & Walking Spirits. Hullah also lives in close proximity to Pansy Freake Todhunter, an etcher in Toronto. Indeed he becomes privy to her intimate letters to British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is "Chips," as she is called, who writes Dame Barbara: "The doctor is a bit of a puzzle. Long and cornery and quiet and looks like a horse with a secret sorrow." As the Cunning Man takes us through his own long and ardent life of theatre, art, and music, varied adventures in the Canadian Army during World War II, and the secrets of a doctor's consulting room, his preoccupation is not with sorrow but with the comedic canvas of life. Just as Dr. Hullah practices a type of psychosomatic medicine "by which I attempt to bring about changes in the disease syndromes through language," so does Robertson Davies intertwine language and story, as perhaps never before, to offer us profound truths about being human.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Admirers of Davies who may have felt somewhat of a falling off in his last two books can be reassured: The Cunning Man is a superb return to the high form of the Deptford trilogy and What's Bred in the Bone. It's a novel in which Davies' clear-sighted humanism, irony and grasp of character are on vivid display. The hero, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, is a Toronto doctor of decidedly unorthodox opinions and practice who regales the reader with an account of his family and educational history, and his relationships with a group that includes a noble priest who dies mysteriously at the altar, a far-from-noble one who quite justifiably declines into drink and despair, an untidy Scottish journalist who is a splendid foil to Hullah, and a lesbian couple who offer the provincial Canadian city the equivalent of a Parisian salon on the basis of cucumber sandwiches and cream cakes. Everything revolves around a church much more Roman, in its rituals and music, than it should be; an apparent miracle; and a nosy woman reporter. Davies's command of both his material and his elegant first-person narration is absolute. He achieves a remarkable sense of uncloying elegy in his vision of a group of people who are far more complicated than they appear, yet always utterly believable. To call a book the work of an infinitely civilized mind might seem starchy; to add that it is also wonderfully funny, poignant and never less than totally engrossing should redress the balance. (Feb.)
Library Journal
It is always a pleasure to read works that manage to be both entertaining and intelligent. Throughout his long career, Canadian novelist Davies (e.g., What's Bred in the Bone, LJ 11/15/85) has successfully combined these two elements. His latest protagonist, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, is a holistic physician-a cunning diagnostician who is often able to get to the root of problems that have baffled others. A young reporter's query about the circumstances surrounding an Episcopalian priest's death at the high altar on Good Friday leads the doctor to reflect on his own life and career. While the issues addressed are those that have long preoccupied Davies-the nature of friendship, religion, faith, and artistic life-the approach is anything but pompous and dry. Davies's characterizations are rich (and just a bit quirky) and his commentary filled with humor (e.g., deconstructionism "comes from France, as so many brilliant and short lived notions do"). One of those rare novels that can be wholeheartedly recommended for libraries of every type and size, including high schools. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/94.]-David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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One of the joys of Robertson Davies' fiction is its easy commerce with the full sweep of western culture from the ancient Greeks to the present. Another is its vigorous, talky characters, whose challenges, exhilarations, defeats, and ultimate destination are bodied forth in telling details. And a third is an old-fashioned, attention-grabbing theatricality. The Cunning Man is as broadly learned as its predecessors, as replete with vividly realized characters, and as dramatic in its presentation.

Dr. Hullah, the story's chief narrator, takes the view that to understand a city's cultural past it is necessary to understand the people who created it. And so he tells the life stories of a number of the key figures, and provides capsule histories for many others. The life he explores most richly is his own. His account makes it entirely plausible that he should introduce many of the novel's learned references. He is comfortable with the thinking of Paracelsus, Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, and Sir William Osler, and refers easily to a wide range of novels and poetry. Without saying so directly, he makes it obvious that he himself has been a major contributor to The Toronto That Used To Be. So too was his old schoolfriend, Charlie Iredale, priest of St. Aidan's, passionate high Anglican and lover of its ritual and fine music. But Iredale's life had gone off the rails, and he was exiled to a minor parish, slid into alcoholism, and, after a brief period of reprieve, into death.



Robertson Davies (1913-1995) was born in the village of Thamesville, Ontario (the Deptford of three of his novels), where he lived for five years. His parents were remarkably like those of Brochwel Gilmartin in The Cunning Man—great readers, talkers, and singers, but unhappy in their marriage and eager to win his allegiance.


"This is a wise, humane and consistently entertaining novel. Robertson Davies's skill and curiosity are as agile as ever, and his store of incidental knowledge is a constant pleasure. Long may he continue to divert us." — The New York Times Book Review



This conversation took place shortly before Mr. Davies' untimely death on December 2, 1995.



  1. The story of Dr. Hullah's life and times emerges in reaction to a series of interviews with the young journalist Esme Barron. What does she add to the story? What happens to shift Hullah from his initial mistrust of her to "love?"

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