Elspeth Davie 1919–-1995
(Born Elspeth Dryer) Scottish short story writer, novelist, and memoirist.
In her short fiction, Davie strived to expose the inner workings and undertones of daily experience. She employed an idiosyncratic prose style, converging realism, impressionism, and a symbolist surrealism. Her stories depict a world of obsessions, outsiders, identity, and objects, all within the traditional forms of realism.
Davie was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland on March 20, 1919, the daughter of a Scottish minister and Canadian mother. Davie spent a portion of her childhood in England and returned to Scotland where she attended Edinburgh University and Art College. Davie did not, however, take a full degree, but qualified as a teacher and taught art in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. She lived in Belfast with her husband, philosopher George Elder Davie, who taught at Queen's College, from 1945 to 1969. Davie began her professional writing career by publishing stories in literary journals such as the Transatlantic Review and London Magazine. Davie was honored in 1978 with the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her short story “The High Tide Talker.” She died on November 14, 1995.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Davie's first volume of short stories, The Spark and Other Stories (1968), is populated by characters who are insular and neurotic. Davie used these individuals to explore the notion of epiphany, which in her fiction takes the form of a fateful accident or an interaction with another character. Yet, typically Davie's characters do not undergo any lasting transformation. In “Family House,” from The Spark, Davie manifested her preoccupation with odd characters and the use of interiors. Here, fate takes the form of an accident when a family member, Edith, is hit by a mantel clock while in the attic. Edith is bedridden and the family discovers dry rot under the attic floor which forces them to move out of the home. Davie often used children as “spark characters”: individuals who through imagination may reach the genuine nature of others, thereby affecting an epiphany. Much of Davie’s work includes realistic and detailed descriptions of nature and interior settings, both in terms of character and place. Davie’s reliance on color was a consequence of her familiarity with painting, and her skill at observation is evident in all of Davie’s stories, turning symbolic in later collections. In Davie’s second volume of short fiction, The High Tide Talker and Other Stories (1976), themes of truth and meaning are quite pronounced. Most of the characters in the collection’s stories seek some metaphysical actuality, and the volume contains Davie’s favored motifs of object-obsession and the associated character identity-formation. Davie’s The Night of the Funny Hats and Other Stories (1980) portrays a fractured society and is more symbolic than past collections. In this volume she used varying techniques like direct and indirect speech, narrative within narrative, and oral storytelling styles. A Traveller’s Room (1985) is pessimistic in nature and addresses themes of aging and death, as well as the common Davie themes of traveling and order. With Death of a Doctor and Other Stories (1992) Davie magnified the moral direction of her fiction, resulting in stories that read as modern folk parables. Here Davie combined her interest in reality and the fantastic, creating multifarious tales that illustrate the pursuit for meaning and identity in a fractured world. The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books and Other Stories, a collection of selected short stories by Davie, was published in 2001, and Alex Clark in the Times Literary Supplement termed the volume “elegant and intelligent.”
Critical reaction to The Spark was mixed. Commentators noted Davie's use of odd, forlorn characters who often exhibit an obsessive fondness for objects and struggle with reality. As Davie became more familiar to critics and the public, the response to her work grew more positive, as evidenced by the reprintings of The Spark and her first two novels in both England and America. Much of the critical evaluation of A Traveller's Room was favorable, but reviewers disliked Death of a Doctor. They viewed the volume's dogged moralism as a weakness and remarked that the collection more resembled modern folk parables than short stories. Seen by some as self-consciously ambiguous, abstract, and moralistic, Davie's prose is more often lauded for its thematic unity and spare, tightly controlled phrasing.
The Spark and Other Stories 1968
The High Tide Talker and Other Stories 1976
The Night of the Funny Hats and Other Stories 1980
A Traveller's Room 1985
Death of a Doctor and Other Stories 1992
The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books and Other Stories 2001
Providings (novel) 1965
Creating a Scene (novel) 1971
Climbers on a Stair (novel) 1978
Coming to Light (novel) 1989
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SOURCE: “Brand Loyalties.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3494 (13 February 1969): 151.
[In the following review of The Spark, the critic praises Davie for her ability to create a sinister, macabre atmosphere in her stories, but criticizes her for failing to produce strongly defined characters.]
Miss Elspeth Davie is expert at picking the sinister out of the ordinary and at heightening normal situations into something obsessive or macabre. One of the best stories in this collection [The Spark], “The Siege”, begins with a new widow sensibly determining that just because her husband has died she isn't going to halve the intake of her household supplies. After all, the bargains come in the big packets. As shopping gradually takes over her life we watch the stores filling her flat till, notwithstanding a brief sally as a glum advertisement lady for a new breakfast biscuit of which she has bought a record number, we leave her, absolutely alone with her eerie hoards of food and polishes.
Where Miss Davie sticks to a single theme like this she is a compelling writer and she is particularly good on lonely people, isolated by their own peculiarities. She is less successful when she has to differentiate between a number of characters. Sometimes this fault is not crucial—as in “Family House”, where there is a unifying force in the house which dominates all its...
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SOURCE: Price, R. G. G. “Short Stories.” Punch 256, no. 6705 (12 March 1969): 398.
[In the following review, Price offers high praise for The Spark, calling it a brilliant volume of fiction.]
The Spark is so intelligent, many-sided and, I'm afraid, brilliantly written that my lack of response makes me feel guilty, almost gauche. Somehow its great merits mean only that the kind of thing which people have been doing for a generation or more is done better than ever. Funny, disquieting and showing every sign of hard work, it sparkles but doesn't linger in the mind. What it lacks is what Lawrence had, thirst for life and the courage to keep the vivid phrases to heel.
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SOURCE: Bailey, Paul. “‘Stuff’ and Nonsense.” London Magazine 9, no. 14 (May 1969): 108–12.
[In the following review, Bailey faults the stories collected in The Spark for containing poor dialogue and characterization, as well as lack of variety.]
The Spark and Other Stories is very much a bloom from the literary hot-house. Mrs Davie is a gifted writer—she can ‘place’ a landscape, an eerie house, a seaside hotel with enviable accuracy.
It's her people—particularly the way they speak—that worry me. When they open their unidentified mouths, it's usually to utter dialogue of the kind that is only heard in experimental plays when performed in draughty drill-halls: Meaningful Conversations, in short. It really is impossible, from one story to the next, to differentiate between the characters: the very young, the old, the middle-aged are all given the same way of speaking. Otherwise clever effects are ruined because of this lack of substance. There is, in truth, only one story in this book (Mrs Davie appears to be obsessed with the manner in which objects assert themselves in people's lives) and it is told 19 times without much in the way of variation. One ends up admiring the author's use of words, and thinking how much more interesting the stories would have been minus so many of them.
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SOURCE: Barnes, Anne. “Exact and Eccentric.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3889 (24 September 1976): 1198.
[In the following review of The High Tide Talker, Barnes derides Davie for creating weak characters in her stories.]
Elspeth Davie's The High Tide Talker is more concerned with eccentricity. Here the short story form is used, not as a focus on familiar details of personality, but as an excuse for contorting situations and pressing them into strange new shapes. As a result her characters are affected and unlikely but also oddly predictable. Often they are promising as ideas, like the landlady whose lodger is averse to eggs, or the irate mother of a child whose favourite toy has been lost, or the man who goes out looking for reality because his colour television has broken down, but they are all clumsily handled.
The least ambitious stories are the most successful. There is one about a man looking over a flat who assumes that the woman arriving at the door at the same time is a rival prospective buyer to whom he can talk freely. He elaborates his horror of the previous occupant's lifestyle up to the point when he realizes, much too late, that the person to whom he is talking is the owner. It is simple and neat, and the man's self-indulgent harangue is subtly encouraged by, at first, the woman's passivity and then her bewildered fascination. But this, like other...
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SOURCE: Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Bourgeois v Bohemian.” New Statesman 99, no. 2558 (28 March 1980): 483.
[In the following review, Shrimpton considers The Night of the Funny Hats a disappointing collection of stories.]
Elspeth Davie won the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1978 for her story ‘The High Tide Talker’. Seen in that perspective her new collection, The Night of the Funny Hats is, frankly, disappointing. At times her painterly sense of landscape strengthens the character sketches and small parables in which she specialises. Only one story, however, really stands out and that is ‘The Foothold’, an eerie tale set in a shoe shop which cunningly reverses our initial expectations of its imagery.
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SOURCE: Rudman, Frank. Review of The Night of the Funny Hats, by Elspeth Davie. Spectator 244, no. 7916 (29 March 1980): 25.
[In the following review of The Night of the Funny Hats, Rudman lauds Davie's stories, which he considers charming, humorous, and beautiful.]
The Night of the Funny Hats is by Elspeth Davie, winner of the Katherine Mansfield Prize. These new stories have cunning, charm, comedy and beauty. Perhaps the best is the title story, which is also the longest and describes the moods and attitudes of a group of passengers on a coach journey from Perth to Adelaide along a route that is one of the longest and loneliest stretches of the Australian continent. The claustrophobic atmosphere and the sudden death of the driver shrivel the nerve ends.
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SOURCE: Review of The Night of the Funny Hats, by Elspeth Davie. Publishers Weekly 218, no. 7 (15 August 1980): 43.
[In the following review of The Night of the Funny Hats, the critic celebrates Davie for the imaginativeness of her short fiction.]
An air of ominous expectancy permeates these 15 short stories [The Night of the Funny Hats] by Scottish writer Davie, her third collection. Through all of them there is a deep, sometimes desperate sense of loneliness and alienation, a grasping after the mystery of existence. The characters represent abstract forces. Some have the responsibility of guiding or showing the way, some of holding things together. Some represent nemesis, others are angels of truth. Some are passengers in transit on a journey representing life. Some are talkers, others are listeners—and all are questing after an inexpressible assurance about the meaning of things. Like Wordsworth, Davie believes that in childhood one sees life clearly; in later years “some light” leaves the eyes, and though one begins to understand the “appalling complexities” of love and other relationships, it may be impossible to discover “who or what they were in the very core of their being.” Davie is remarkably skilled in elucidating these parables, and it is a pleasure to read her neat but subtly weighted prose and to enter the country of her compelling imagination.
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SOURCE: Fitton, Toby. “Accomplices to Nothing.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4281 (19 April 1985): 434.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Fitton asserts that most of the stories in the volume are excellent, if judged individually, but that, as a group, they lack variety.]
A Traveller's Room is Elspeth Davie's fourth collection of short stories, gathering together work published mainly in 1982-4. There is an impression of concentration on similar themes, and a similarity of conception and manner, that detract from the overall effect, even when most of the stories, taken individually, are excellent. Just as encountering one or two works by a minor master in a provincial gallery can be a refreshing experience although a whole gallery of the artist's work is much less rewarding, so the delicate incisiveness of Davie's refined technique seems somehow less impressive when its results are multiplied and gathered in this way. Pace is here, and so is tension, and it is part of her skill that her effects can be achieved without unduly stretching either; but the resemblances between the grouped stories are such that the spring so lightly flexed seems to lose some of its resilience.
One tale concerns a weird woman who is preoccupied with feeding birds on a lake. Somewhere in her past lies an unspecified criminal history that seems menacing but enticing to a group...
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SOURCE: Caless, B. W. Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. British Book News (April–May 1985): 361.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Caless regards Davie's stories as excellent works of fiction that are imaginative and intelligent.]
This [A Traveller's Room] is Elspeth Davie's fourth collection of short stories and surpasses her previous work—excellent as that was—in skill and poise. She is a writer who uses traditional narrative methods but extends the range of short fiction with the sheer scale of her imagination. There are nineteen stories here, and each one is a gem. ‘Lines’ is written from a child's perspective and concerns a thoughtless group of teenagers who plan a revenge on an old lady only to have the tables uncomfortably turned on them. ‘The Gift’, ‘In the Train’ and ‘A Field in Space’ are stories that demonstrate succinctly how misleading impressions can be, while ‘A Botanist's Romance’ is a sweet-sour picture of a lonely academic obsessed with Hamlet's Ophelia.
‘Greenhead’ is a bizarre tale about a boy whose head sprouts grass and flowering shrubs, but it is redeemed from the usual fantasy dimension by the very real points about compassion and understanding made by the author. In ‘The Free Fur Coat’, ‘Kiosk Encounter’, ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Out of Order’, Davie writes about human dilemmas of...
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SOURCE: Frame, Ronald. “Adventures in Prose.” Books and Bookmen, no. 356 (June 1985): 31.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Frame maintains that Davie's tales address the theme of communication between individuals.]
[The] title story of Edinburgh writer Elspeth Davie's fourth collection, A Traveller's Room, concerns a teenage girl staying with her parents in a guest-house in a Perth of years ago. She is given the room of the absent ‘traveller’. She invents for him a life of drama, adventure and discovery. Then she begins to investigate his belongings: in a narrow drawer she finds two pairs of gloves, one for best and one for wearing. “They made me feel for the first time how vulnerably expressive hands were—sometimes confident and commanding, sometimes exhausted and hopeless.” She finds other things: “frail clothes”, and worn slippers “kneaded into the shape of knobbled toes”, and a book of recipes, “milky and beige and bland”. The girl's disappointment at the man is less than her disappointment at herself in not understanding him better. She fearfully awaits his return: her fear is not of the man (a ‘commercial’ traveller, and harmless in himself), but “of those totally unexpected reversals in life”. She suddenly realises much: “how all adventures can be flattened at one blow, how heroes are simply tired men, how I myself was only a stupid...
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SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “From North of the Border.” Observer, no. 10105 (9 June 1985): 24.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Thwaite considers Davie's fiction as very Scottish and observes that her stories find the extraordinary in ordinary lives.]
Many of Elspeth Davie's settings, in A Traveller's Room, are Scottish, and she shares with Dunn a liking for isolating the extraordinary within the ordinary. But stylistically she tends to be more elaborately formal, indeed ‘poetic.’
This works best in such pieces as the title-story, in which a young girl on holiday with her family in a Perth boarding-house has romantic delusions that the room she is given belongs to an absent voyager of a dashing kind, rather than (as he eventually turns out to be) a timid brush-salesman. And she has a nice line in fantastic and often funny verbal confusion, as in ‘Bulbs’ (another boarding-house setting), in which everything turns on the proprietress's determined misapprehension of what her guest wants—the iris/hyacinth kind, or the 100 watt.
Ms. Davie is a wilder fantasist too. ‘Green Head’ almost matter-of-factly follows through the implications and actions that result from a young man's shaming discovery that his hair has begun to sprout grass and, later, flowers. In some stories, such as ‘In the Train,’ it's deliberately obscure...
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SOURCE: Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. Publishers Weekly 227, no. 25 (21 June 1985): 96.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, the critic describes Davie's stories as brief tales that reveal a profundity beneath the superficies of commonplace lives.]
These brief, laconic tales [in A Traveler's Room] reveal how extraordinary the commonplace can be, what profundities lie beneath the surface. In direct, clean prose, the author, delineating not her characters but the events that shape them, shows us in “A Botanist's Romance” a horticulturist so obsessed with Hamlet's Ophelia that he flees upon mention of a woman with the same name and, because he is convinced that she has drowned, throws flower petals into the river. “The Gift” tells of a headmaster's 50th birthday party, to which all the teachers save one bring presents, or so the head-master thinks, but he is wrong. “The Green Head” is that of a young man whose hair was replaced by grass and flowers which, when he died, covered his grave perennially; “The Stamp” tells of another young man who, if he had neatly and squarely affixed the stamp on a letter to his lady friend, would have married her instead of her companion. Although the voice in all the stories is muted, it echoes with resounding clarity.
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SOURCE: Tuck, Sherrie. Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. Library Journal 110, no. 14 (1 September 1985): 212.
[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Tuck perceives Davie's fiction as modern parables in which everyday objects symbolize the fragility and uncertainty of existence.]
This collection of 19 short stories [A Traveller's Room] by a British writer is marked by Davie's use of everyday objects—light bulbs, flowers, a postage stamp—as symbols for the fragility and uncertainties of life. At their best, as in the title story or in “Bones and Bouquets,” the symbols reveal an insight into character. At times, however, as in “The Gift” or “Green Head,” they remain obscure, so that the stories resemble modern parables that the reader has trouble interpreting. A few stories (“A Field in Space,” “Kiosk Encounter”) are so brief that they seem to be undeveloped sketches. However, all are informed by thoughtful observations of human experience.
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SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Where the North Wind Blows.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4639 (28 February 1992): 25.
[In the following review of Death of a Doctor, Mangan offers a mixed assessment.]
Elspeth Davie's native Edinburgh has furnished much of the background of her fiction since her first novel, Providings (1965), and there seems to be a sense in which the divided personality of the city has shaped her imagination. In her last novel, Coming to Light (1989), it figured prominently enough to overshadow the less memorable characters; and in her fifth collection of stories, Death of a Doctor, it inspires a telling image for a conflict that preoccupies her in several other guises:
It was the combination of wild and formal in this city: these heavy thuds and batterings on a windy night, in contrast to the absolute calm within. … Who were the hosts and hostesses who could turn not a hair while birds and scraps rose to their sills, who could converse politely while staring out calmly to the stormy pavement and garden below?
The stiff confines of convention are constantly being menaced or overwhelmed, in Davie's world, by larger forces of nature that often prove more benevolent. Death breaks the thick ice of habit in the title-story, when the news of a doctor's sudden decease loosens the tongues of...
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SOURCE: Poggi, Valentina. “Vision and Space in Elspeth Davie's Fiction.” In A History of Scottish Women's Writing, edited and introduced by Douglas Gifford and edited by Dorothy McMillan, pp. 526–36. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Poggi discusses a cardinal theme of Davie's fiction, as defined by Poggi: “the primacy of space and vision in the perception of reality.”]
Reading Elspeth Davie's stories and novels is like visiting a retrospective exhibition of paintings or drawings by the Bolognese artist Giorgio Morandi: in both cases the dominant impression is of sameness combined with variation, familiarity allied to strangeness; with Morandi it is simple household objects, with Davie it is commonplace settings and situations that come to be invested with symbolic and metaphysical meanings. It is not known whether Davie—a teacher and connoisseur of art, as any reader could surmise even in the absence of biographical data1—ever came across and liked Morandi's paintings, nor is it meant to suggest that he inspired her to write the way she did. However, an interesting affinity can be found between her aesthetic approach to reality and Morandi's peculiar blend of abstractism and realism. Wandering through a Morandi exhibition one sees on all sides homely shapes like vases, glasses, jars, and especially his celebrated bottles: squat or slim, lying...
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Clark, Alex. “For Sensual Readers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5154 (11 January 2002): 21.
Positive review of The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books and Other Stories
Gifford, Douglas. “The Vital Spark: The Vision of Elspeth Davie.” Books in Scotland, no. 16 (autumn 1984): 9–10.
Consideration of Davie's visionary approach.
Hulbert, Ann. Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. New York Times Book Review 90 (8 September 1985): 24.
Review of A Traveller's Room.
MacIntyre, Lorn. “The Anatomy of a Short Story.” Weekend Scotsman 13 (April 1985): 4.
Discussion of Davie's short fiction.
Massie, Alan. “The Art of Elspeth Davie: Metaphysics with Reason.” Weekend Scotsman 31 (January 1981): 1.
Deliberation on Davie's writing.
Mellors, John. “Clash Points.” Listener 104, no. 2692 (18 December 1980): 867.
Criticizes Davie for the tone of detachment in her stories.
Mellors, John. “Home Truths.” Listener 96, no. 2488 (16 December 1976): 799.
Praises Davie for her inventiveness, but criticizes her for the monotonous tone of her narrative voice.
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