Readers of Robertson Davies: Man of Myth will quickly conclude that its author, Judith Skelton Grant, is the sort of person who never throws anything away. This characteristic accounts for both this biography’s greatest strengths and its most significant shortcomings.
On the one hand, Grant has collected, organized, preserved, and presented remarkable quantities of primary material about her subject, clearly Canada’s most prolific and probably most widely recognized contemporary author. Grant’s research on Davies has already resulted in the three useful collections that she has edited and published: her two editions of Davies’ journalism, The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies(1979) and Robertson Davies: The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada (1981), as well as Robertson Davies: A Consideration of His Writing (1978).
On the other hand, in her biography of Davies, which runs to nearly eight hundred pages, Grant apparently found it difficult to discard the bits of irrelevant information that most biographers acquire in the course of their research and jettison during the composing process. At times, she pursues in too much detail tangents that relate little to Davies and his work. She sets scenes competently, as when she describes the various places where Davies lived during his lifetime, but she often tells much more than is necessary to set the scene, thereby adding greatly yet unproductively to her book’s prodigious length.
Despite such caveats, one must recognize that this biography, whose comprehensiveness equals that of Margaret Brenman-Gibson’s Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940 (1981) or Jeffrey Meyers’ Hemingway: A Biography (1985), will likely prove useful to future Davies scholars. One may hope that the factual information it provides in profuse detail will, in the long term, far outweigh Grant’s sometimes plodding prose and the frequent presentation of facts almost totally lacking in thematic connection to Davies’ work.
Grant frequently points out episodes in Davies’ life that found their way into his subsequent novels or plays, but she generally settles for merely noting such occurrences without pursuing the deeper questions to which close reading and the application of the tools provided by recent critical theory would lead her.
Such readings of Davies’ work—particularly psychoanalytical readings of it—will nevertheless be aided by the fundamental groundwork that has occupied Grant for almost three decades. She has tirelessly sought out and interviewed hundreds of people whom Davies knew through the years, much as Barbara and Arthur Gelb interviewed a staggering gallery of Eugene O’Neill’s family and acquaintances for their monumental biography O’Neill (1962).
Unlike the Gelbs’ subject, Grant’s subject was alive during all of her research prior to the publication of this book. Her more than seventy interviews with Robertson Davies, therefore, have provided her with a wealth of information that will inform future scholars and that inform this biography uniquely. Grant, over an extended period, knew Davies and his family well and unquestionably demonstrates a comprehensive familiarity with her subject’s life and writing.
Robertson Davies as Grant portrays him is far from appealing, although Grant’s approach to him is positive, at times even fawning. Contemporary readers, particularly those from the United States, will likely come away from this book thinking of Davies as a man remarkably insensitive to many of the major social and political currents of his time, a man who insulated himself from events that he found painful or unpleasant. Grant never points this out directly. She does, however, offer information from which readers will inevitably draw their own conclusions.
For example, when World War II was raging, Davies, newly employed as a columnist and editorial writer for the Whig, a newspaper his father owned, wrote editorials about the Oxford twang, taking too many baths, and steam calliopes—this at a time when Adolf Hitler was running rough-shod over much of Europe and was consigning Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents to concentration camps where they would be summarily slaughtered. Davies’ isolationist readers liked his well- written, light editorials, much as an uncritical public currently venerates Rush Limbaugh, who reinforces their most deplorable prejudices. The question one must ask is whether a man of Davies’ standing and abilities should not have felt conscience-bound to do more than entertain his readership during such critical times.
If Davies is remembered a century from now, he will probably be remembered as a curious anachronism, a gifted curmudgeon who lived in a dynamic age but chose to detach himself from it. As late as 1963, when racial and ethnic consciousness was being raised rapidly worldwide, Davies returned from a visit to the Shetland Islands, his ancestral lands, and, according to Grant,
reflected “how glad one is that one’s stock was from clean, decent, wind-swept places, & not from the slums of Naples or Cracow. The strong strains which unite our children are country strains, with the physique—alas the Calvinist strenuosity—that such an inheritance brings.”
Grant, as she does elsewhere in the book, presents without comment this outrageous statement that contains sentiments to offend any thinking reader, following it merely with a genealogical chart of Brenda Davies’ family. Grant loves genealogical charts, devoting endless irrelevant pages to them and to tracing the pedigrees of various principals in the Davies story when a brief paragraph would have sufficed.
Robertson Davies essentially was a nonconfrontational person, one who venerated authority and revered the status quo, although Grant does not pursue the interesting tack that this proclivity suggests. She does note the complex and strained relationship Davies had with his mother, a neurotic woman whose hypochondria virtually disabled her. In this biography, however, she never really brings the mother (or any of the other characters who surround Davies) to life. Rather than presenting information from which readers might draw valuable conclusions about a well-developed character, Grant usually merely reports, sans illustrations or examples, that a character is neurotic or emotional or vengeful.
One exception to this tendency is in Grant’s revelation that from an early age, when Davies elicited his mother’s anger, bringing her to the point of rage, he was forced to gain her forgiveness by kneeling before her and kissing her shoes. Grant relates this bizarre ritual, which continued into Davies’ teens, without comment, although it is obvious that much of Davies’ development as an adult was influenced by the sadistic demands of an irrational, neurotic mother.
The Robertson Davies whom Grant portrays was a talented writer. Despite his having received honorary doctorates and three times having made the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature, however, he cannot legitimately be considered to have had a first-rate, analytical mind. Yet he was solidly intellectual within the narrow compass of the humanities. His early inability to comprehend even the most rudimentary mathematics is a clear indication of the kind of intellectual imbalance that marked his life. Whereas he was a keen observer and could record well the events and occurrences he observed—a skill that he honed as a journalist in his early days—he had neither a penetrating nor an analytical mind.
Grant, alas, appears to be of a similar stripe. She records but usually fails to analyze with any penetration the meaning of what she has recorded. She continually demonstrates a virtual absence of any well-developed ability to discriminate between the important and the trivial, which accounts for the unwieldy length of her biography.
Readers will come away from Grant’s biography with no clear-cut picture of Davies’ development as a writer, nor will they glean from the book a flesh-and-blood image of the writer, his family, and his associates. Any comprehensive conclusions that readers might draw from this book will be necessarily drawn on their own as they cull bits and pieces from the mountain of factual information that Grant presents virtually undigested. In order to reach this point, however, they will have had to finish reading a...