Murther and Walking Spirits

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Murther and Walking Spirits is a most unusual ghost story, since its protagonist, the spirit of a recent murder victim, is presented with glimpses into his family’s past, making him haunted by the knowledge of the sacrifices and disappointments that cumulated to make him the kind of man he was. This engrossing family saga, the elegiac tone of which becomes a counterpoint to the dark humor of the contemporary scenes, offers further proof that Robertson Davies is not only one of Canada’s greatest novelists but also one of the master storytellers of his time.

Murther and Walking Spirits opens with the murder of the protagonist. (The archaic spelling of “murder” in the title comes from the seventeenth century English poet Samuel Butler, who wrote that “where Murthers and Walking Spirits meet, there is no other Narrative can come near it.”) Connor Gilmartin surprises his wife, Esme, in bed with her lover, Randall Allard Going, who impulsively strikes Gil on the temple with a cosh. All three work for The Colonial Advocate, a daily newspaper in Toronto: Gil as entertainment editor, Esme as features writer, and “the Sniffer,” as his colleagues maliciously call him, as theater critic.

Gil’s spirit accompanies the Sniffer to a festival of neglected films, and while the audience is watching a 1917 film about the American Revolution, Gil finds himself watching his own private film, the first of five such glimpses into the lives of Gil’s ancestors. Anna Vermuelen Gage, the product of Old New York stock, is married to an English officer killed in an early battle in the Revolutionary War. Gil sees Anna’s experiences not as stylized incidents in a film but as realistic events of which something forces him to be a voyeur, as when the widow is seduced by a Hessian captain.

At the end of the war, Anna decides to emigrate to Canada with her three children. After a difficult journey by canoe, the Gages find themselves in the settlement of Stoney Creek, and the film ends. Gil has recognized Anna as his great-great-great-great- grandmother and her tale as the account of his family’s Canadian origins.

The second film presents Gil’s ancestors in northern Wales in the nineteenth century. He sees Thomas Gilmartin, a traveling Methodist preacher, dazzle a skeptical teenager in a tavern and adopt him, christening the boy Wesley Gwylim Gilmartin. Years later, Wesley’s son Samuel becomes the first Nonconformist mayor of a Welsh borough, but his carefully established wealth and status begin to crumble. Samuel assumes responsibility for a friend’s debts and goes bankrupt, the dishonor bringing on a fatal heart attack.

Samuel’s sons, Walter and David, suffer for their father’s actions. Walter is forced to give up a scholarship to Oxford and promises his dying mother to look after the drunken David. Walter takes over his father’s business, reduced to making liveries for servants. Walter’s wife, Janet, is a romantic who reads Ossian, Sir Thomas Malory, and Sir Walter Scott to their children. Through Janet, Gil begins discovering how his forebears helped form his character. With little further opportunity in Wales for the Gilmartins, the family emigrates to Canada.

The next three episodes of the Gilmartin saga follow the experiences of Walter and Janet’s son Rhodri in the new land, including his relationship with his stern father-in-law, William McOmish, a builder and morphine addict. McOmish follows the pattern of the Gilmartins in Wales by becoming successful only to fail. He explains to Rhodri in elaborate detail the pride he has taken in the buildings he has constructed. His pride leads him to make a Methodist church as perfect as he can, but he goes broke when the elders are unable to pay him.

Like many of these films, the McOmish episode is a portrait of a marriage. Virginia, the great-granddaughter of Anna Gage, is cold and sarcastic, William solemn and vulnerable. Virginia is repulsed by sex, and the McOmishes have intercourse only seven times in thirty years, the lack of affection driving William to attempt to kill his wife. Ironically, their daughter, Malvina, with the desperation of a spinster of thirty, has to pretend to be pregnant to obtain Virginia’s permission to marry Rhodri.

Rhodri becomes the first Gilmartin to achieve lasting success, owning several newspapers. Gil sees his father, Brochwel, son of...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)