Davies, Robertson August
Robertson Davies August 28, 1913–December 2, 1995
(Full name William Robertson Davies; has also written under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks) Canadian novelist, dramatist, essayist, journalist, short story writer, editor, and critic.
For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 7, 13, 25, 42, and 75.
A leading figure in Canadian literature and one of the first Canadian novelists to gain international recognition, Davies is best known for the three novels that comprise The Deptford Trilogy (1983): Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). Typical of his fiction, these intricate narratives incorporate religious symbolism and the supernatural, underscore the mystery and wonder of life, and are infused with a Jungian sensibility that informs the individual's quest for identity. Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario, and attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, before enrolling in Balliol College, Oxford, England. After graduating in 1938, he served with a theater troupe for two years before returning to Canada. In 1942, Davies assumed editorship of the Peterborough Examiner, a newspaper for which he also later served as vice-president and publisher. During his twenty-year tenure at the Examiner, Davies wrote under the pen name Samuel Marchbanks, adopting a curmudgeonly persona for his humorous and extravagant attacks on provincial life, Canadian politics, and contemporary culture. In 1960 Davies began teaching English literature at Trinity College in Toronto, and the following year was appointed first master of Massey College, a graduate school at the University of Toronto, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. In the 1950s Davies began writing novels, the first three of which—Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958)—comprise The Salterton Trilogy (1986), which examines life in the small university town of Salterton, Ontario. While The Deptford Trilogy begins with a seemingly inconsequential snowball fight, the three novels variously examine the extent to which the individual must accept the irrationality of the self in order to achieve mental and emotional well-being. The dominant themes in these books stem from Davies's fascination with the search for identity and his belief in the moral value of living a well-examined life. The Cornish Trilogy, like his first three novels, explores the lives of individuals living in a Canadian college town. Comprising The Rebel Angels (1981), What's Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988), Davies's third trilogy has been hailed by several critics as the culmination of his literary philosophy, which, they argue, largely eschews the aesthetics of contemporary fiction for nineteenth-century Romanticism. Remarking on Davies's works, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Davies "has created a rich oeuvre of densely plotted, highly symbolic novels that not only function as superbly funny entertainments but also give the reader … a deeper kind of pleasure—delight, awe, religious intimations, a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life."
Shakespeare's Boy Actors (nonfiction) 1939
Shakespeare for Young Players: A Junior Course (nonfiction) 1942
The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (journalism) 1947
Overlaid (drama) 1947
At the Gates of the Righteous (drama) 1948
Eros at Breakfast (drama) 1948
Fortune, My Foe (drama) 1948
Hope Deferred (drama) 1948
Eros at Breakfast, and Other Plays [first publication] (drama) 1949
The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (journalism) 1949
At My Heart's Core (drama) 1950
King Phoenix (drama) 1950
∗Tempest-Tost (novel) 1951
A Masque of Aesop (drama) 1952
Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953 [with Tyrone Guthrie and Grant Macdonald] (nonfiction) 1953
A Jig for the Gypsy (drama) 1954
∗Leaven of Malice (novel) 1954
Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1954 [with Tyrone Guthrie and Grant Macdonald] (nonfiction) 1954
Hunting Stuart (drama) 1955
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1955 [with Tyrone Guthrie, Boyd Neal, and Tanya Moiseiwitsch] (nonfiction) 1955
∗A Mixture of Frailties (novel) 1958
†Love and Libel (drama) 1960
A Voice from the Attic...
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Clyde H. Farnsworth (essay date 15 December 1994)
SOURCE: "A Land Apart: A Canadian Looks South Sourly," in The New York Times, December 15, 1994, p. A4.
[In the following essay, which was based on an interview with Davies, Farnsworth presents the novelist's views on Canadian culture and politics.]
When American invaders crossed the Niagara frontier during the War of 1812, they came upon the family farm of one of the forebears of the author Robertson Davies and were astonished to find angry youths shooting at them from the farmhouse windows.
"They thought we'd be delighted to lay down the hateful British yoke, but they didn't think they were bringing another kind of yoke with them," said the man some consider to be Canada's greatest living writer.
Four of his ancestors fell in that engagement, the Battle of Stoney Creek, and he is proud that it helped to turn the tide against the invaders.
That Canadians are distinct from Americans is a subtheme of his novels, the most famous of which are the Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders. In the 11th and latest novel, The Cunning Man, the aging hero—not unlike his 81-year-old creator—rues the withering of Canada's British connection and the growth of the American connection "under the caress of the iron hand and buckskin glove."...
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Obituaries And Tributes
Jane Gross and Craig Turner (obituary date 4 December 1995)
SOURCE: An obituary in Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1995, p. A16.
[In the following obituary, Gross and Turner provide an overview of Davies's life and career.]
Robertson Davies, one of Canada's most celebrated novelists and the master of multiple, eclectic careers in theater, journalism and academia, has died.
Davies died Saturday night of a stroke at the age of 82. He had been hospitalized with pneumonia.
Davies' breakthrough as a novelist came with the 1970 publication of Fifth Business, the first work in the renowned Deptford Trilogy, which traced the interconnected lives of three men in the fictional town of Deptford, Ontario, the province where the author was born, spent most of his life and died this weekend.
In the 1970s and again in the 1980s, he produced two more well received trilogies. His last work of fiction, The Cunning Man, was published in 1994.
Explaining how so many of his novels came to be trilogies, Davies said, "I found almost as soon as I had finished that it wasn't all I wanted to say."
Although he wrote plays, criticism and essays, his reputation rests on dense novels full of mysticism, absurdity and Canadiana.
He has been praised as a gifted storyteller who favored...
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Reviews Of Davies's Recent Works
Anthony Bailey (review date 17 November 1991)
SOURCE: "How the Dead See It," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1991, p. 9.
[Bailey is an English-born journalist, nonfiction writer, novelist, and critic. In the review below, he discusses Murther & Walking Spirits, remarking on the unexpected turns in Davies's plot and the protagonist's development.]
The epigraph to Robertson Davies's new novel, Murther & Walking Spirits, is as apt as can be. It comes from the Samuel Butler who was a 17th-century poet and satirist: "Printers finde by experience that one Murther is worth two Monsters, and at least three Walking Spirits. For the consequence of Murther is hanging, with which the Rabble is wonderfully delighted. But where Murthers and Walking Spirits meet, there is no other Narrative can come near it."
Mr. Davies wastes no time in putting into effect this antique prescription for a best seller. His protagonist narrator, Connor Gilmartin, the entertainment editor of The Colonial Advocate ("the very good newspaper" in Toronto), is murdered in the first sentence. A few lines later, his spirit is on the loose, if not actually walking then flitting and eventually sitting for some days alongside his murderer, one Randal Allard Going, the paper's theater critic, who is also known as the Sniffer, from his habit of sniffing out...
(The entire section is 6296 words.)