Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Robertson Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario, his own Deptford. His life combines the experiences of his characters. Like Dunstan, he left behind a career in journalism to become a teacher-in his own case, master of Massey College, Toronto. Like David Staunton, he was educated at Oxford and has developed a lifelong interest in Jungian analysis. Like Magnus Eisengrim, he has worked in the theater (as assistant to Sir Tyrone Guthrie and at the Old Vic).

Davies had not intended to write a trilogy when he finished Fifth Business. Nevertheless, he saw the universal appeal of his characters and of a series of novels in which even seemingly irredeemable villains such as Willard can become the focus of sympathy and heroes such as Dunstan Ramsay become heroic by force of circumstances and from a sense of responsibility or guilt. Clearly, Davies could have continued to explore the events of these novels from Liesl’s point of view, but he chose, probably wisely, to leave the principal characters in their retreat, Liesl’s appropriately named “carefree” home Sorgenfrei.

Davies’ works, especially the Deptford novels, have earned for him considerable critical acclaim, and they have focused greater attention on the too-long-overlooked wealth of Canadian literature. Perhaps the greatest achievement of his Deptford books, however, is the ease with which they stand on so many levels. They are, first and foremost, brilliantly written and fast-paced stories; they are also vivid evocations of Canada, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century. On another plane, they present, despite surface grotesqueness, characterizations which ring true. Readers who already know the work of Carl Jung will be amazed at the ease with which Davies presents Jungian perspectives; those unfamiliar with Jung will probably find further investigation of Jungian archetypes and “collective unconscious” irresistible.