The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The constituents of The Deptford Trilogy are carefully linked; indeed, they depend on one another for character and plot development. Nevertheless, one can read them in any order or read only one of the novels as a discrete study of its own protagonist. Robertson Davies is fascinated by the unforeseen consequences of thoughtless cruelty, by the frustrations of unfulfilled lives, and by the ghosts and demons which haunt every human being. He explores all three areas in each of the Deptford novels, though he does so in different ways and from the different perspectives of Dunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim.

An undeniably cruel but common boyish prank begins a chain of events which holds spectacular ennobling achievement and degrading ignominious failure. Percy Boyd Staunton (called “Boy” Staunton throughout his life) throws a snowball with a stone inside it at his ten-year-old Deptford contemporary, Dunstable (Dunstan) Ramsay. Dunstan ducks in time, but the snowball hits Mary Dempster. She is pregnant, and the shock sends her into premature labor, almost killing her and her unborn child. Dunstan’s mother nurses both infant (Paul Dempster) and mother with infinite patience. Mary will always seem simple to the people of Deptford after having been struck by the stone, and the severe minister Amasa Dempster, her husband, is all too ready to accept first the possibility of his wife’s death, then her “insanity” as a cross to be borne.

Only Dunstan knows that Boy threw the snowball, though his boy’s code of honor, as well as Boy’s threats, do not allow him to reveal this fact. As a consequence, Dunstan feels guilt for Mary’s insanity and for her son’s difficult childhood. His guilt feelings are compounded when Mary, in what she had viewed as a gift to a man in desperate need, was found copulating with a tramp in the gravel pit outside town. The people of Deptford now consider her a whore as well as insane, and her husband now feels impelled to control her behavior by tying her with a long rope to a bedpost.

Dunstan is never convinced of Mary’s insanity, only of her compassion. When his brother Willie, who was recuperating from an illness, suddenly stops breathing, the only person Dunstan can think of to ask for aid is Mary. She comes at Dunstan’s request, trailing her rope, applies compresses to Willie, prays over him, and, miraculously, Willie revives. Several years later, when Dunstan himself is nearly killed at Paschendaele in World War I, he sees a statue of the Blessed Virgin which to him is the image of Mary. Dunstan wins the Victoria Cross for heroism and remains convinced that the woman whom the people of Deptford had considered an insane whore is in reality a saint. He contributes toward her support after the deaths of her husband and aunt, and the mysterious disappearance of her son. Her own death is quiet and pathetic, in a Toronto hospital for the insane.

Boy, meanwhile, returns from the war and capitalizes on his father’s business ability. He forms the Alpha Corporation, which monopolizes all phases of Canadian sugar production and food distribution. He maintains a friendship with his boyhood antagonist Dunstan and...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)