Elspeth Davie Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Elspeth Davie 1919–-1995

(Born Elspeth Dryer) Scottish short story writer, novelist, and memoirist.

In her short fiction, Davie strived to expose the inner workings and undertones of daily experience. She employed an idiosyncratic prose style, converging realism, impressionism, and a symbolist surrealism. Her stories depict a world of obsessions, outsiders, identity, and objects, all within the traditional forms of realism.

Biographical Information

Davie was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland on March 20, 1919, the daughter of a Scottish minister and Canadian mother. Davie spent a portion of her childhood in England and returned to Scotland where she attended Edinburgh University and Art College. Davie did not, however, take a full degree, but qualified as a teacher and taught art in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. She lived in Belfast with her husband, philosopher George Elder Davie, who taught at Queen's College, from 1945 to 1969. Davie began her professional writing career by publishing stories in literary journals such as the Transatlantic Review and London Magazine. Davie was honored in 1978 with the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her short story “The High Tide Talker.” She died on November 14, 1995.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Davie's first volume of short stories, The Spark and Other Stories (1968), is populated by characters who are insular and neurotic. Davie used these individuals to explore the notion of epiphany, which in her fiction takes the form of a fateful accident or an interaction with another character. Yet, typically Davie's characters do not undergo any lasting transformation. In “Family House,” from The Spark, Davie manifested her preoccupation with odd characters and the use of interiors. Here, fate takes the form of an accident when a family member, Edith, is hit by a mantel clock while in the attic. Edith is bedridden and the family discovers dry rot under the attic floor which forces them to move out of the home. Davie often used children as “spark characters”: individuals who through imagination may reach the genuine nature of others, thereby affecting an epiphany. Much of Davie’s work includes realistic and detailed descriptions of nature and interior settings, both in terms of character and place. Davie’s reliance on color was a consequence of her familiarity with painting, and her skill at observation is evident in all of Davie’s stories, turning symbolic in later collections. In Davie’s second volume of short fiction, The High Tide Talker and Other Stories (1976), themes of truth and meaning are quite pronounced. Most of the characters in the collection’s stories seek some metaphysical actuality, and the volume contains Davie’s favored motifs of object-obsession and the associated character identity-formation. Davie’s The Night of the Funny Hats and Other Stories (1980) portrays a fractured society and is more symbolic than past collections. In this volume she used varying techniques like direct and indirect speech, narrative within narrative, and oral storytelling styles. A Traveller’s Room (1985) is pessimistic in nature and addresses themes of aging and death, as well as the common Davie themes of traveling and order. With Death of a Doctor and Other Stories (1992) Davie magnified the moral direction of her fiction, resulting in stories that read as modern folk parables. Here Davie combined her interest in reality and the fantastic, creating multifarious tales that illustrate the pursuit for meaning and identity in a fractured world. The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books and Other Stories, a collection of selected short stories by Davie, was published in 2001, and Alex Clark in the Times Literary Supplement termed the volume “elegant and intelligent.”

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to The Spark was mixed. Commentators noted Davie's use of odd, forlorn characters who often exhibit an obsessive fondness for objects and struggle with reality. As Davie became more familiar to critics and the public, the response to her work grew more positive, as evidenced by the reprintings of The Spark and her first two novels in both England and America. Much of the critical evaluation of A Traveller's Room was favorable, but reviewers disliked Death of a Doctor. They viewed the volume's dogged moralism as a weakness and remarked that the collection more resembled modern folk parables than short stories. Seen by some as self-consciously ambiguous, abstract, and moralistic, Davie's prose is more often lauded for its thematic unity and spare, tightly controlled phrasing.