My Canada, 83/150: The grand man of letters

In my last year of high school, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business was required course reading. While part of it was set in a small town — the fictional Deptford, based on Thamesville, where Davies lived as a child — it and its protagonist, school teacher Dunstan Ramsay, travelled the globe: from the battlefields of the Second World War to saint shrines around the world.

I was hooked, delighting in Dunstan’s rich life as revealed in a series of letters he writes to his school’s headmaster after Dunstan takes umbrage at what he dubs the “idiotic piece” written about him upon his retirement as Senior History Master at private boys’ school. I wanted to read more by this author. What was there?

How did we ever manage an author-hunt in those pre-Google days? Those “Books by” lists printed opposite the title page were the best jumping off point: It showed me Davies had already written three books centred on “Samuel Marchbanks” (a comic character who, I later learned, first appeared in a newspaper column Davies wrote) and three novels: Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties — what is now known as his Salterton Trilogy, Salterton being a small fictional Canadian city based on Kingston, Ontario. Davies had also written several plays and other books about the theatre, including three volumes, co-authored with Sir Tyrone Guthrie, that documented the Stratford Festival‘s first three years of operation.

A trip to the library card catalogue let me know he had also written two more novels that, with Fifth Business, comprise the Deptford Trilogy: while Dunstan and other characters appear in all three, The Manticore focuses on the story of David Staunton, son to Dunstan’s lifelong “frenemy” Boy Staunton, and World of Wonders follows the life of Paul Dempster, another son of Deptford who transforms himself into Magnus Eisengrim, an illusionist and magician.

I gulped it all down, learning something of Davies’ biography at the same time. He came from a newspaper family and, as a young man, he wanted to be an actor: certainly by the time I met him, he had perfected the role of Wise Grand Man. Davies worked for many years as a newspaper editor and publisher in Peterborough before moving to Toronto to become a literature professor and, for many years, Master of Massey College, a graduate students’ residence at the University of Toronto where Davies’ love of ritual must have been put to excellent use.

When I was at university, I saw a brochure from the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake that advertised a package weekend to see plays and hear talks by Robertson Davies. Apparently I was born old: I was thrilled at the idea of getting that close to such a man of letters.

I wasn’t the only lit geek out there: while most of our group were full-on grown-ups, there were two other young women like myself, English majors, who saved up to make the trip. Davies’ wife Brenda made sure we sat at their table for a dinner that was part of the package: “You sit next to Rob,” she said, motioning to me and one of the other students. “I sit with him all the time.”

It’s been a few years since that dinner, and I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, other than I was further delighted by the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Over the years, I read everything Davies published, from a collection of essays and speeches to yet another trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus, connected by the art and life of collector Francis Cornish). I read Judith Skelton Grant’s 1994 doorstopper of a biography of Davies — 787 pages — Man of Myth.

As I grew older, I still appreciated how Davies’ work celebrated education and the arts, how people could come from humble beginnings and be transformed through learning and culture, an aspiration and inspiration for me. I learned much more about just how instrumental he and Brenda were in developing professional theatre in Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s. I also began to hear grumblings about Davies’ old-fashioned attitude toward women and how, in his professorial days, he had made female students uncomfortable when he remarked on their decorative, rather than scholarly, worth.

Davies’ works are still on the recommended list for novels to study in Ontario high-school English courses. They can be wickedly funny, funnily old world, and are crammed with capital “C” characters, as my mom would have put it. But, especially in his two best-regarded novels, Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone, there is an emotional rawness as his characters travel wide and deep in their inner journey, even if their public life appears constrained and mundane. My assumption has been that Davies’ characters could not have made those kind of challenging journeys unless Davies, himself, had done the same, underneath the mannered and grand persona he presented to the world.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen with Brenda and Robertson Davies outside the Pillar and Post Inn, Niagara-on-the-Lake.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris Moorehead says:

    Who’s the nun in the photo with Davies and his wife? 😉


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