Study Guide

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201643-Davies.jpgRobertson Davies Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Robertson Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario, and spent his earliest years there. His father was the owner and editor of the town’s newspaper. Davies’ career as a writer seems to owe much to the early influence and encouragement of his parents, and a journalistic interest in community life is evident in many of his best novels. Davies read voraciously from an early age and wrote his first newspaper article at the age of nine. His family was also active in the Presbyterian Church, and Davies seems to have been sensitive to the denominational diversity found even in the smallest communities.

When Davies was twelve, the family moved to Kingston, where they lived in a supposedly haunted house. Kingston was a large enough community to offer Davies much greater exposure to the worlds of art, drama, and music. At the age of fifteen, he earned a scholarship to a prestigious boys’ school in Toronto, where he distinguished himself through his unconventional mode of dress and behavior. Academically unsuccessful, he began to be known as a conversationalist and actor and availed himself of Toronto’s many theaters. In 1932, his father took him on a summer trip to Great Britain, where Davies was able to immerse himself in drama from William Shakespeare to the contemporary period, giving him at a young age a remarkable grounding in his chosen trade. He continued his dramatic endeavors as a special student (nondegree seeking) at Queen’s University, including directing an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which seems to have contributed significantly to the events in his 1951 novel Tempest-Tost. Davies continued his formal education at Oxford’s Balliol College, where he became active in the Oxford University Dramatic Society, stage-managing several successful performances. During this period, Davies became familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud and converted from Presbyterianism to the Anglican faith. He earned his bachelor of literature in 1938.

By this time, Davies was writing. He published his thesis, Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, in 1939 to good reviews, and in December of that year, he joined the Old Vic Company, one of London’s most venerable and prestigious theater companies, where he acted, lectured, and was encouraged to write. In the early days of World War II, Davies proposed marriage to his Australian colleague Brenda Ethel Mathews, bringing her back to Canada in 1940.

Back in Ontario, Davies was rejected twice for military service because of his poor eyesight. He tried his hand at journalism with a series of newspaper columns published under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks. These columns prefigured many of the themes and subjects of his later novels. Soon he became literary editor of a weekly journal, Saturday Night, and a prominent figure in Canadian literary life.

By 1960, Davies had written more than two dozen dramatic pieces and was known as one of Canada’s leading playwrights. In 1950, he began Tempest-Tost, the first novel in the Salterton Trilogy (the other two are Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties). He remained active in the theater and was an influential early supporter of the Stratford Festival, becoming a member of its board of governors and publishing three books that drew attention to the dramatic accomplishments of the...

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Robertson Davies Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of Canada’s most important novelists and playwrights, Robertson Davies is best remembered for his three trilogies of novels. Davies’ novels explore provincial Canadian life, the interaction of the gifted, artistic individual with the world at large, and the role of the arts in everyday life. Davies’ novels celebrate and explore the human need for connections with the supernatural, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unknowable.

Robertson Davies Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Robertson Davies was born on August 28, 1913, into a family of enterprising and individualistic Canadian entrepreneurs and newspaper publishers. The third child of Rupert and Florence MacKay Davies was to inherit the verbal skills and high-energy work ethic of his parents, along with their Welsh temperament. Receiving a cultural education that included frequent visits to the opera and theater, balanced with regular exposure to church music, Davies learned to love words very early from the family habit of reading aloud. He learned to read at the age of six and promptly began consuming the classics as well as popular newspaper and magazine fare.

When his family moved to Renfrew, Ontario, young Davies was forced to attend a country grade school, where ruffians and jealous peers made his quiet, bookish life miserable. These times were to be recalled in some of his best fiction. Travel with his father, in Europe as well as throughout Canada, convinced him of the importance of a British education; after undergraduate work at Upper Canada College, Davies spent 1932 to 1938 at Queen’s College and Oxford University, reading literature, drama, and history. A predilection for acting led him to the Old Vic (1938-1939), until World War II sent him back to Canada to begin a journalistic career, following his father’s financial interests. By 1942 he was editor of the Peterborough Examiner, a man of great interests and broad education trapped by circumstance in a fairly provincial Canadian town, forced to deal daily with the pedestrian affairs of journalism. Far from fading into the woods, however, he found his creative voice and energy in the contradiction and began a fruitful writing career.

At the center of Davies’ strange reconciliation of apparent opposites was his ability to live moderately, sanely, while expressing his outrageous imagination in writing. He took on the journalistic persona of Samuel Marchbanks, an outspoken man of letters, at once the antithesis and the complement of Davies the man. So successful was his ability...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Robertson Davies Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201643-Davies.jpgRobertson Davies Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Son of a widely influential and prominent newspaper publisher, Robertson Davies was raised in a creative and intellectual family, which contrasted with the culturally impoverished small town in which he spent his early years. Davies succeeded in overcoming these two early obstacles—a hugely successful father and a narrow-minded, provincial society—to forge his own identity within a newly cosmopolitan Canada.

As a young adult, Davies made his way to Toronto and then to England, where he took a degree from Oxford and joined the prestigious Old Vic theater company. He and his new wife returned to Canada in 1940, where he began to form his identity as a Canadian man of letters, writing a popular newspaper column as the fictive Samuel Marchbanks. This column, which examined the foibles of Canadian society, assumed a Canadian readership that was growing less narrow and provincial. Although Davies also made a significant contribution to indigenous Canadian theater as a playwright and producer, his identity as a man of letters took precedence when he was appointed the first master of the newly established Massey College, which was part of a general expansion of educational and cultural life in Canada.

Davies’ identity as a satiric author underwent a significant change with Fifth Business, arguably his greatest novel, and one which not only established him as a major Canadian novelist but also brought him a cult following in the United States. With this novel, the first of the Dept ford trilogy, Davies revealed a deep interest in the dark side, forging an identity as a serious romancer and as a mage or latter-day Merlin, complete with flowing silver beard and magisterial cane. Davies’ later novels, featuring strange characters and Gothic doings, jolted Canadian literature out of its previously conventional realism. Deploying Jungian psychology to explore what he felt was the neglected spiritual side of the Canadian psyche, Davies was also inspired by the Jungian concept of individuation, which he used to develop his idea of the emergent self, that is, the self that comes into its own. This theme of individuation was important for Canadian society, whose ties to England and proximity to the United States frequently overwhelmed its sense of national identity.

Robertson Davies Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Robertson Davies was born on August 28, 1913, in Thamesville, Ontario, to William Rupert Davies, editor of the Thamesville Herald, and Florence Sheppard McKay Davies. In 1926, the Davies family moved to Kingston, where William Rupert Davies became owner and editor of the Kingston Whig and later, when the two local papers merged, of the Kingston Whig Standard. The fictional town of Salterton, which provides the environment for three of Davies’ novels, bears a remarkable resemblance to the town of Kingston.

Davies was greatly influenced by the literary and dramatic activities of his parents, both of whom had a lively interest in music and theater. At that time, there was little...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

Robertson Davies Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201643-Davies.jpgRobertson Davies Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Robertson Davies was born in the small town of Thamesville, Ontario, Canada, on August 28, 1913. His father, William Rupert Davies, had immigrated with his parents to Canada from Wales in the 1890’s and had married Florence Mackay, a woman of Scottish-Dutch descent whose family had been in North America since the 1680’s. By the time Robertson was born, Rupert Davies had become an influential newspaper publisher. Both of Robertson’s parents had strong personalities and greatly influenced Davies’s intellectual development; his novel Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) is a fictionalized homage to his ancestry. His parents read often to their children; in an interview, Davies remarked that these stories...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Robertson Davies Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Murther and Walking Spirits and the novels of the Deptford and Cornish trilogies are rich in character and complex in theme. They are engagingly written; Robertson Davies entertains at the same time that he makes the reader think. The foregoing analyses can cover only a small fraction of the ideas Davies brings to his writing and point out what is perhaps the overriding theme of his novels: the importance of recognizing the wonder of the world, whether one calls it God, myth, mystery, the realm of “the Mothers,” the unconscious, or all of the above.

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Robertson Davies Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201643-Davies.jpgRobertson Davies Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although beginning his career as a novelist relatively late in life, at age thirty-eight, William Robertson Davies became not only the best-known Canadian novelist of the twentieth century but indeed one of the leading writers of the world. He was born in Thamesville, Ontario, a small town about midway between Windsor and London; his father, William Rupert Davies, was a prominent publisher. After attending various local schools, Robertson Davies entered Upper Canada College, Toronto, and Queen’s University, Kingston, before taking a B.Litt. degree from Balliol College, University of Oxford, in 1938. Thereafter he joined the Old Vic Company in London as teacher and performer, leaving it to return to the publishing business in...

(The entire section is 1514 words.)