Robertson August Davies Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robertson Davies August 28, 1913–December 2, 1995

(Full name William Robertson Davies; has also written under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks) Canadian novelist, dramatist, essayist, journalist, short story writer, editor, and critic.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 7, 13, 25, 42, and 75.

A leading figure in Canadian literature and one of the first Canadian novelists to gain international recognition, Davies is best known for the three novels that comprise The Deptford Trilogy (1983): Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). Typical of his fiction, these intricate narratives incorporate religious symbolism and the supernatural, underscore the mystery and wonder of life, and are infused with a Jungian sensibility that informs the individual's quest for identity. Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario, and attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, before enrolling in Balliol College, Oxford, England. After graduating in 1938, he served with a theater troupe for two years before returning to Canada. In 1942, Davies assumed editorship of the Peterborough Examiner, a newspaper for which he also later served as vice-president and publisher. During his twenty-year tenure at the Examiner, Davies wrote under the pen name Samuel Marchbanks, adopting a curmudgeonly persona for his humorous and extravagant attacks on provincial life, Canadian politics, and contemporary culture. In 1960 Davies began teaching English literature at Trinity College in Toronto, and the following year was appointed first master of Massey College, a graduate school at the University of Toronto, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. In the 1950s Davies began writing novels, the first three of which—Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958)—comprise The Salterton Trilogy (1986), which examines life in the small university town of Salterton, Ontario. While The Deptford Trilogy begins with a seemingly inconsequential snowball fight, the three novels variously examine the extent to which the individual must accept the irrationality of the self in order to achieve mental and emotional well-being. The dominant themes in these books stem from Davies's fascination with the search for identity and his belief in the moral value of living a well-examined life. The Cornish Trilogy, like his first three novels, explores the lives of individuals living in a Canadian college town. Comprising The Rebel Angels (1981), What's Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988), Davies's third trilogy has been hailed by several critics as the culmination of his literary philosophy, which, they argue, largely eschews the aesthetics of contemporary fiction for nineteenth-century Romanticism. Remarking on Davies's works, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Davies "has created a rich oeuvre of densely plotted, highly symbolic novels that not only function as superbly funny entertainments but also give the reader … a deeper kind of pleasure—delight, awe, religious intimations, a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life."