Robertson Davies (3836 words)

  • Jordan Anthony Berard (University of Ottawa)

Famous for his biting wit, wry sense of humour, and flowing white beard, Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s most beloved authors. Though his present reputation is built almost entirely on the success of his novels, his complete corpus of written work is astonishingly eclectic. Canada’s “Grand Old Man of Letters” was a prolific writer of journalistic pieces, literary reviews, cultural criticism, essays, novels, plays, satire, operatic libretti, and even a few poetic fragments.

William Robertson Davies, also fondly known as Canada’s “Wizard of the North”, was born in Thamesville, Ontario, on August 28, 1913. His Welsh father, William Rupert Davies, was a newspaper magnate and politician (eventually a senator), who moved his family around the province as he took over the ownership, editing, and publication of newspapers in Renfrew, Peterborough and Kingston. Robertson Davies’s mother, Florence, was a strict Presbyterian, and in his diaries and personal essays Davies often expresses his doubts about her love for him: “I sometimes wondered if my fearful and life-defying mother hated me in the womb and marked me for life?” (qtd. in Skelton Grant 47). Readers familiar with the Salterton Trilogy will instantly recognize the manifestation of the profound psychological scar that this tortured relationship with his mother caused Davies in the figure of the resentful and malicious Mrs. Bridgetower in his 1958 novel A Mixture of Frailties. Despite his mother’s psychological and often physical absence, Davies grew up surrounded by books, and he inherited from both of his parents a love of music, storytelling, theatre, and academic pursuit that shaped his later life and literary career. Indeed, Davies’s fictional works frequently have protagonists who are artists or academics: his pages are populated by journalists, painters, professors, students, composers, singers, critics, magicians, and actors.

When his father moved the family to Renfrew, Ontario, after purchasing the town’s newspaper, the five-year-old Davies discovered that his family’s academic precociousness and quiet lifestyle had earned them the status of outsiders in the community. As a result, Davies was left with a bitter opinion of the town and its inhabitants. The ignorance and materialism that Davies associated with Renfrew are reflected in his novel What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), and the conflict between the world of the imagination and the philistinism that Davies associated with small Canadian communities like Renfrew is a recurrent theme in Davies’s critical work as well as his novels and plays.

Davies and his family moved to Kingston in 1925 after his father purchased the city’s newspaper, the Kingston Whig-Standard. The family was much happier in Kingston than in Renfrew, and the city became the model for many of the settings and characters in his play Fortune, My Foe (1949) and the novels that make up the Salterton Trilogy. In 1928, Davies started boarding at Upper Canada College in Toronto where he became known for his brilliant acting, playwriting, and editing of the College’s newspaper. He also became a notoriously eccentric student who “delighted in being different”, and his penchant for the theatre extended beyond the stage and found its way into his dramatically flamboyant choice of daily “costume”, and the cultivation of a theatrical personality “that dazzled his fellows” (Skelton Grant 110). He did not impress everyone, though, and many of his peers and instructors “saw him as arrogant, haughty, intimidating, and deliberately odd” (110). It was at Upper Canada College that “theatre assumed a prime importance in his life”, and Davis first began to dream of an acting career: “he enjoyed successes as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, as well as in roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas” (Diamond-Nigh 7). After Upper Canada College, he returned to Kingston to study at Queen’s University from 1932 until 1935. Because he achieved a remarkable score of “0” on his mathematic entrance examinations, Davies was unable to matriculate directly to Queen’s and had to be admitted as a special non-degree student. At Queen’s he continued to write and act, sang in the university’s Glee Club, and took over the book review column in the Queen’s University Journal. He also fell fiercely in love with a woman name Eleanor Sweezey.

Although he loved Eleanor desperately, he loved the theatre more, and in 1935 Davies moved to London, England, in order to pursue a career as an actor. After being granted permission to work towards a Bachelor of Literature degree, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford, and subsequently joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society, where he worked as a stage manager, writer, and actor. He suffered a major breakdown during his first year at Oxford, and began to seek psychological help. Although the primary cause of his depression was his breakup with Eleanor, it also became evident that Davies still harboured a great deal of psychological damage as a result of his relationship with his mother. He became fascinated with his own treatment, and his consequent studies of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis influenced much of his later writing – particularly his remarkable use of Jungian archetypes in the Deptford Trilogy. In 1938, Davies received his Bachelor of Letters degree from Oxford, and, a year later, his widely respected thesis, Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, was published.

After graduation, a career in the theatre once again called when Sir Tyrone Guthrie of London’s prestigious Old Vic Repertory Company offered Davies work at the Old Vic as an actor, researcher, writer, teacher of theatre history, and (eventually) director. Through the Old Vic, Davies met Brenda Newbold, who had been working as Guthrie’s stage manager, and the two married in February 1940. They would have three daughters. When WWII forced the closure of London’s theatres, only a month after their marriage, the two sailed to Canada.

Upon his return to Canada, Davies’s writing career became much more diversified, but the theatre always remained an important part of his life and literary career. Indeed, in the 1950s Davies became a major figure in Canadian theatre, and an important producer of topical plays about Canadian identity and the nation’s artistic sensibilities. As Judith Skelton Grant points out, a recurrent theme in Davies’s plays is “Canada’s cultural aridity” (Skelton Grant 305). This is particularly true of his plays Overlaid (1948); Eros at Breakfast (1948), which was named best Canadian play of the year by the 1948 Dominion Drama Festival; Fortune, My Foe (1949), about an immigrant from Prague who wants to start a puppet theatre in Canada; and At My Heart’s Core (1950), an exploration of artistic shortcomings in Canada through the historical figures of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, whom Davies celebrates for their willingness to sacrifice personal needs for cultural goals. In 1950 Davies was asked by the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (the Massey- Lévesque Commission) to provide a summary of the major problems facing the development of theatre in Canada. In his report, Davies tackles the question of “whether the theatre exists at all in Canada”, and laments the “provincial” naiveté of Canadian theatre audiences (“Memorandum” 4, 5). He also suggests the need to reform Canada’s education system in order to expose more people to “unfamiliar classics”, and argues for the greater promotion of both amateur and professional theatre programs throughout the country (9). More visibly, Davies was a major influence in the creation of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He sat on the festival’s board of governors from 1953 to 1971, and this position allowed him to renew his friendship with Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the festival’s first artistic director.

Although his plays were all fairly well received by audiences and critics, by the late 1950s Davies was seriously considering abandoning the life of a playwright. By this time, his Salterton Trilogy had brought him far more acclaim than any of his plays had, and when a theatrical version of the second novel in the trilogy, Leaven of Malice (1954), bombed on Broadway in 1960 (under the rather inscrutable title Love and Libel; or, The Ogre of the Provincial World), he followed his instincts and turned his attention towards the creation of novels. It should be noted, however, that Davies never completely abandoned the theatre: it remained the subject of many of his critical essays, he continued to write plays well into the 1970s and 80s, and many of his novels are distinctly theatrical in subject manner and structure. Interestingly, Davies’s “latest” work – produced several years after his death – brings his career full circle and back to the theatre: in April 1999, the Canadian Opera Company produced an opera called The Golden Ass, based on The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, for which Davies had written the libretto.

It is one of the great ironies – and an unfortunate blind spot – of Canadian literary studies that the man who helped create the country’s most successful theatre festival, and who wrote dozens of plays that explore the perennial question of the importance of arts in the creation of Canadian identity, is best known for his non-theatrical work. Nevertheless, Davies always found much more success with Canadian readers with his journalism and fiction than he did with his plays. Following his father’s example, Davies has a distinctive career as a journalist after his return to Canada in 1940. His weekly analysis of Canadian culture and human folly, written under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks, made his father’s paper The Peterborough Examiner one of the most frequently quoted papers in Canada. Marchbanks, a curmudgeonly bachelor from Skunk’s Misery, Ontario, became the ironic and exaggerated voice through which Davies vented his own frustrations about the puritanism of Canadians. In a satiric voice reminiscent of his favourite Canadian author, Stephen Leacock, Davies muses on everything from an artist’s inability to create in the harshness of the Canadian weather to taxes and corrupt politicians. Davies continued to write the Marchbanks columns until 1953, and the column became so popular that Davies found it lucrative to publish the collected columns over a series of several books: The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Marchbanks’ Almanack (1967). Quite cleverly, The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985), a “scholarly edition” of the most popular columns from the three earlier volumes, is edited with explanatory notes by Marchbanks’ old academic “friend”, Robertson Davies.

Although Davies critic Lynne Diamond-Nigh writes that Davies “did not set out to write trilogies per se”, it was with his trilogy of trilogies (Salterton, Deptford, Cornish) that Davies found fame as a writer, and it is almost exclusively his novels that he is best known for today (Diamond-Nigh 20). Unsurprisingly, his first novel, and the first book of the Salterton Trilogy, Tempest-Tost (1951), was written while Davies was deeply immersed in his report on the lamentable status of Canadian theatre for the Massey- Lévesque Commission, and while he was writing his deeply satirical Marchbanks columns. Indeed, the novels that make up the Salterton Trilogy are markedly different from the rest of Davies’s novels because of their use of social satire to expose the artistic limitations and cultural immaturity of small-town Canada. At the centre of Tempest-Tost is a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Salterton’s little theatre group. What makes this comedy of manners quite clever is the way Salterton’s group of “rude mechanicals” (with their roots in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) allow their own narrow-minded prejudices and personal ambitions to supersede the aesthetics of their production. The group is much more interested in resolving its own inter-personal conflicts, and in the historical veracity of their costumes, than they are in creating an enjoyable and memorable rendition of Shakespeare’s most fantastic play.

The Salterton Trilogy continues with Leaven of Malice (1954), a novel that reflects Davies’s career in the newspaper business. The novel explores the effects of a malicious prank on a community and on individuals when a false engagement notice is published in the Salterton newspaper. Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace hardly know each other when the engagement notice is published, but it serves as a catalyst for Solly’s questioning of his own desires and bachelor lifestyle. He is ultimately able to break away from his dominating mother (Davies’s relationship to his mother finds its greatest outlet in this book) and the two do indeed marry at the novel’s end. Darker in its psychological explorations of dysfunctional families and issues of hurt pride and insecurity than Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice is nevertheless an irresistible comedy and social satire, and the novel earned Davies the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1955.

With A Mixture of Frailties (1958) “Davies moves to a higher plane, both in terms of novelistic and stylistic complexity and in sounding new depths of the human psyche” (Diamond-Nigh 23). Characters become much more psychologically detailed, and the book follows the traditional patterns of a Künstlerroman. The book – undoubtedly the most serious of the trilogy – begins and ends in Salterton, but it focuses on Monica Gall, a young Salterton woman sent to England to train as an opera singer. As in Tempest-Tost, the small-town values of Salterton are juxtaposed against the universal values of art that Monica is exposed to in England. The development of the artist for Davies, then, is one that involves an integration of home, art, education, and wisdom. Monica must come to terms with the perennial question of what it means to be Canadian, and learns the importance of maintaining close ties to home and heritage while abroad.

In 1960, Davies was approached by Vincent Massey who asked him to become the founding Master of the first male residential College in Canada, Massey College. Davies was also appointed as a full professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, and it was during his time at Massey College (he retired in 1981) that Davies wrote his most critically acclaimed novels. Chief among these is Fifth Business (1970), the first novel of the Deptford Trilogy, and the novel that established Davies as one of Canada’s most important writers. Fifth Business is Davies most popular novel – a canonical staple of most introductory Canadian literature courses in high school and university. The book takes the form of a long letter written by a retired schoolmaster, Dunstan Ramsay, in order to clear his name from the slander of his colleagues. A Victoria Cross recipient and specialist in hagiography (the study of Saints), Ramsay’s life has been a struggle to recover a sense of wonder in the world and to celebrate the fantastic, marvelous, and mystical elements of human experience that contemporary society encourages us to rationalize or ignore. The first section of the book is famous for exactly the kind of marvelous event that has shaped Ramsay’s own life: a snowball containing a rock is thrown at a ten-year-old Ramsay by his friend and rival, Boy Staunton. It misses its target and instead hits Mary Dempster who prematurely gives birth to a son, Paul, and is said to have been made “simple” by the accident. Ramsay refuses to see Mary as “simple” and instead begins a lifelong quest to have her named a Saint, a woman “who lived by a light that arose from within” (Fifth Business 48). He believes that she has performed numerous miracles since being struck by the rock including the resurrection of his brother, and appearing to him as a vision of the Madonna during a battle in Passchendaele. In his pursuit of hagiography, Ramsay encounters many more examples of the marvelous in the modern world: circus performers, magicians, mechanical toys, and a “devil” named Liesl Vitzlipützli all play important roles in the novel and function as the means through which Davies explores the themes of myth and history, fantasy and rationalism, materialism and spirituality. The book is remarkably Jungian in its use of archetypes and archetypal characters. For example, Ramsay’s search for self-knowledge is very similar to Jung’s process of individuation, and Mary Dempster can be read as Ramsay’s anima, while Boy Staunton is his shadow, the repressed side of his self.

Jungian psychology also plays an important role in The Manticore (1972), the second novel of the Deptford Trilogy. Here, Boy Staunton’s son, the eminent lawyer David Staunton, suffers from a nervous breakdown after his father’s death and undergoes psychoanalysis at the Jungian Institute in Zurich. In the process, David tells his father’s story in a series of notebooks as he works through his treatment, and thus offers what often amounts to a completely different perspective of the snowball-related events of Fifth Business. Although not as popular as Fifth Business, The Manticore was awarded the Governor-General’s Literary Award in 1972.

World of Wonders (1975) is the story of Paul Dempster, the prematurely-born son of Mary Dempster. Known professionally as Magnus Eisengrim, Dempster reflects on his journey from snowball victim in Fifth Business to his subsequent transformation into Eisengrim, a world-class magician, through a series of interviews with Dunstan Ramsay. Once again, Davies invites us to question the role of the magnificent and marvelous – the world of wonders, as the title suggests – in our everyday world.

Davies’s reputation in Canada and abroad expanded greatly with the Cornish Trilogy. The Rebel Angels (1981) is a wonderful satire of academic life and the nature of the university. According to Diamond-Nigh, “its university setting is the logical place to discuss issues relating to language and texts; the pursuit of knowledge and the nature of wisdom; the use and misuse of education and the intellect; and the power hierarchies that are implicit in the professor-student relationship” (33). The story is narrated by two characters – Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a graduate student researching Rabelais, and Simon Darcourt, Anglican priest and professor of New Testament Greek. The events of the book are set in motion by the death of eccentric art collector Francis Cornish, a character who stands at the centre of the entire Cornish Trilogy.

Cornish’s biography is the foundation for the second novel in the trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone (1985). The novel consists primarily of a conversation between the Recording Angel, who provides a narration of Cornish’s life, and a daemon who occasionally interrupts with explanations about how he worked to make Cornish a great man and a master painter by providing him with adversity throughout his life. What’s Bred in the Bone was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1986.

The third novel of the trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) returns to the stories of Maria Magdalena Theotoky and Simon Darcourt. As the heads of the “Cornish Foundation”, Maria and Simon are given the task of funding artistic projects with money left after Francis Cornish’s death. Their first act of patronage is to support an eccentric composer in the completion of an unfinished opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann (who provides his own commentary on the novel’s events from his perspective in Limbo), and then bring it to the stage at Stratford, Ontario. Cleverly, the opera’s archetypal characters become reflected in the lives of those involved in the opera’s creation.

Before his death, Davies wrote two more interconnected novels, and critics speculate that had he survived to write a third volume, this new trilogy would likely be known as his “Toronto Trilogy”. Murther & Walking Spirits was published in 1991. It is a ghost story, a genre that Davies had already experimented with in a short story collection published in 1982 called High Spirits. After being murdered at the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, “Gill”, attends a surreal film festival where the films retrace the history of his ancestors. He watches and learns and begins to understand how the lives of his ancestors – and the sacrifices that they had to make – have shaped his own life. The book was not well received critically, and suffered from very poor sales. Finally, The Cunning Man, published in 1994, is Davies’s final novel. The book is the memoir of Toronto native, Dr. Jonathan Hullah. Hullah is a holistic physician – a doctor who treats both the body and the soul – who has become a famous diagnostician for solving medical problems that have stumped other doctors. Through its discussion of miraculous medical cures, the book explores a common theme in Davies’s novels: the role of the fantastic in everyday life.

Robertson Davies died from a stroke in 1995. His career was marked with numerous awards and honours. In addition to the aforementioned Dominion Drama Festival Award for best Canadian Play in 1948 (for Eros at Breakfast), the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1955 (for Leaven of Malice), a Governor General’s Award in 1972 (for The Manticore), and a shortlist nomination for the Booker Prize in 1986 (for What’s Bred in the Bone), Davies was also awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1961 for his literary accomplishments, and the Molson Prize in 1988. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972, and, in 1980, was the first Canadian to become an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1986 – the same year that he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – he was also shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature (subsequently bestowed to Wole Soyinka). He has been the recipient of many honorary degrees, but the most prestigious is undoubtedly the D. Litt degree bestowed on him from Oxford in 1991. Canadian critic Robert Fulford summarized the loss of one of the country’s finest and most respected writers by likening Davies’s death to “the abrupt disappearance of a mountain range from the Canadian landscape” (qtd. in Diamond-Nigh 49).

Works Cited

Davies, Robertson. At My Heart’s Core. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1950. Print.
---. The Cunning Man. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994. Print.
---. The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1947. Print.
---. Eros at Breakfast and Other Plays. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1949. Print.
---. Fifth Business. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970. Print.
---. Fortune, My Foe. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1949. Print.
---. High Spirits. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.
---. Leaven of Malice. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1954. Print.
---. The Lyre of Orpheus. Toronto: Macmillan, 1988. Print.
---. The Manticore. Toronto: Macmillan, 1972. Print.
---. “A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada.” Royal Commission Studies: A Selection of Essays Prepared for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951. 192-200. Print.
---. A Mixture of Frailties. Toronto: Macmillan, 1958. Print.
---. Murther & Walking Spirits. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1988. Print.
---. Overlaid: A Comedy. Toronto: Samuel French, 1948. Print.
---. The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1985. Print.
---. The Rebel Angels. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981. Print.
---. Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967. Print.
---. Shakespeare’s Boy Actors. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1939. Print.
---. The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1949. Print.
---. Tempest-Tost. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1951. Print.
---. What’s Bred in the Bone. Toronto: Macmillan, 1985. Print.
---. World of Wonders. Toronto: Macmillan, 1975. Print.
Diamond-Nigh, Lynne. Robertson Davies: Life, Work, Criticism. Toronto: York Press, 1997. Print.
Fulford, Robert. “Robertson Davies: Writer of Majestic Talent.” The Globe and Mail 04 Dec. 1995: C1. Print.
Skelton Grant, Judith. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Viking. Print.

Berard, Jordan Anthony. "Robertson Davies". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 02 March 2012
[, accessed 22 August 2017.]

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