Robertson August Davies Essay - Critical Essays

Davies, Robertson August


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."

Principal Works

Shakespeare's Boy Actors (nonfiction) 1939
Shakespeare for Young Players: A Junior Course (nonfiction) 1942
The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (journalism) 1947
Overlaid (drama) 1947
At the Gates of the Righteous (drama) 1948
Eros at Breakfast (drama) 1948
Fortune, My Foe (drama) 1948
Hope Deferred (drama) 1948
Eros at Breakfast, and Other Plays [first publication] (drama) 1949
The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (journalism) 1949
At My Heart's Core (drama) 1950
King Phoenix (drama) 1950
Tempest-Tost (novel) 1951
A Masque of Aesop (drama) 1952
Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953 [with Tyrone Guthrie and Grant Macdonald] (nonfiction) 1953
A Jig for the Gypsy (drama) 1954
Leaven of Malice (novel) 1954
Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1954 [with Tyrone Guthrie and Grant Macdonald] (nonfiction) 1954
Hunting Stuart (drama) 1955
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1955 [with Tyrone Guthrie, Boyd Neal, and Tanya Moiseiwitsch] (nonfiction) 1955
A Mixture of Frailties (novel) 1958
Love and Libel (drama) 1960
A Voice from the Attic (addresses, essays, and lectures) 1960; also published as The Personal Art: Reading to Good Purposes, 1961
A Masque of Mr. Punch (drama) 1962
Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (journalism) 1967
Fifth Business (novel) 1970
Stephen Leacock (nonfiction) 1970
Hunting Stuart, and Other Plays [first publication] (drama) 1972
The Manticore (novel) 1972
Question Time (drama) 1975
World of Wonders (novel) 1975
One Half of Robertson Davies: Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics (addresses, lectures, and short stories) 1977; also published as One Half of Robertson Davies, 1978
The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (journalism and essays) 1979
§The Rebel Angels (novel) 1981
The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man's View of Theatre and Letters in Canada (addresses, essays, and lectures) 1981
High Spirits (short stories) 1982
The Mirror of Nature (lectures) 1983
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (journalism and essays) 1985
§What's Bred in the Bone (novel) 1985
§The Lyre of Orpheus (novel) 1988
Murther & Walking Spirits (novel) 1991
Reading and Writing (essays) 1993
The Cunning Man (novel) 1994

∗These works were published as The Salterton Trilogy in 1986.

†This work is an adaptation of Davies's novel Leaven of Malice.

‡These works were published as The Deptford Trilogy in 1983.

§These works are collectively referred to as The Cornish Trilogy.


Clyde H. Farnsworth (essay date 15 December 1994)

SOURCE: "A Land Apart: A Canadian Looks South Sourly," in The New York Times, December 15, 1994, p. A4.

[In the following essay, which was based on an interview with Davies, Farnsworth presents the novelist's views on Canadian culture and politics.]

When American invaders crossed the Niagara frontier during the War of 1812, they came upon the family farm of one of the forebears of the author Robertson Davies and were astonished to find angry youths shooting at them from the farmhouse windows.

"They thought we'd be delighted to lay down the hateful British yoke, but they didn't think they were bringing another kind of yoke with them," said the man some consider to be Canada's greatest living writer.

Four of his ancestors fell in that engagement, the Battle of Stoney Creek, and he is proud that it helped to turn the tide against the invaders.

That Canadians are distinct from Americans is a subtheme of his novels, the most famous of which are the Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders. In the 11th and latest novel, The Cunning Man, the aging hero—not unlike his 81-year-old creator—rues the withering of Canada's British connection and the growth of the American connection "under the caress of the iron hand and buckskin glove."

Greg Gatenby, the literary scholar who directs the Harborfront International Reading Series in Toronto, said that "in anyone's delineation of the pantheon of Canadian writers, Davies holds a place close to Zeus."

With his magnificent snowy beard, great white mane and protuberant brow, Mr. Davies has a magisterial look as well. As he talked about his views of Canadian nationality on a recent day, wisps of sunlight filtered into his second-floor office above the red-brick quadrangle at Massey College, the University of Toronto's graduate college, where he is the founding master.

Mr. Davies, who was born in Ontario, said the biggest difference between Canada and the United States is in their underlying myths. "The myth of America is a very powerful one and one that we in Canada look toward with envy," he said. "You have your heroes. You have your great men of the past, you have your myth of tradition, of the conquering of the west, and the pioneer life and the gold rush life and all that sort of thing, which is enormously romantic, and nations feed on the romantic tradition." "We don't go for heroes," he said. "As soon as a man begins to achieve some sort of high stature, we want to cut him down and get rid of him, embarrass him."

He also sees Canada as "very much a northern country—much more like Scandinavia or Russia than the United States." Moreover, he went on, "Canada is a socialist monarchy. You hate monarchies and socialism—and we're both."

Mr. Davies is just as eager to see Canada hold together as he is to avoid an American yoke.

"The present hullabaloo about Quebec is precisely that," he said. "It will not die down, but it will not come to anything."

He contends that economic considerations will keep Quebec in the fold. "What happens to the thousands of French Canadian civil servants who are no longer on the public payroll?" he said. "They're suddenly going to be without a job, and certainly the new Quebec wouldn't be able to provide them with comparable income. And what would Quebec do with its share of the national debt? They wouldn't want to shoulder it."

He also expects pressure from the United States. "I don't imagine for one instant that the United States wants a balkanized Canada to the north," he said. The United States says officially that it supports a strong and united Canada.

Quebec separatism is Canada's civil war, Mr. Davies said, but unlike the American Civil War, he predicted, it will not become violent. "Our civil war is a psychological one," he said. "It's a tough kind of war to fight because it's very wearing. There is never any letup. There is never any cease-fire. There is never any stopping to celebrate Christmas."

His comments about French Canadians underscore the observation of Richard C. Davis, professor of Canadian literature at the University of Calgary, that Mr. Davies "comes from a traditional male, English-Canadian base."

The French are "always complaining." Mr. Davies contended. "They have never got over the defeat on the Plains of Abraham," the battle in 1759 that established British rule in Canada.

"They're terribly unrealistic about this sort of thing, but they are also very shrewd and very practical," he said. "They know the dollar better than they know their mothers, and if they think that is threatened by leaving the dominion, they will stay."

Mr. Davies's reflections on politics come from a certain academic distance.

His cozy office is dominated by a large writing desk, book-cases and portraits of Shakespeare, Rabelais, Robert Burton—whose Anatomy of Melancholy provides inspiration for the latest novel—and John Cowper Powys, the 19th-century novelist whom Mr. Davies called "a great, great, undervalued man."

With the help of a secretary, he handles correspondence in the office and researches current projects. For example, he is now working on an article for the Dictionary of National Biography on a 19th-century English actor, Henry Irving. But his main creative work is done on his 150-acre estate in the hills of Caledon East, about an hour from downtown Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Brenda.

He taught literature at the university for 21 years and still confers with students, including many, he volunteers, who ask whether getting a job on a newspaper would harm their writing style.

A former editor of The Peterborough Examiner, as well as an actor and playwright, he tells them that journalism "teaches you to write more concisely and to get busy and write when you must, instead of just sitting around waiting for the inspiration, which isn't going to come."

And if students are making noise below, he has no qualms about opening his window, looking down sternly, beard flowing, and thundering, "God is watching!"

Mel Gussow (essay date 5 February 1995)

SOURCE: "'A Moralist Possessed by Humor': A Conversation with Robertson Davies," in The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1995, pp. 24-5.

[Gussow is an American journalist, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following essay, which was based on an interview with Davies, Gussow discusses Davies's career and most recent novel, The Cunning Man.]

Robertson Davies, unceasing in his creativity at the age of 81, fervently makes a case for the place of melodrama in our lives. "Very few people live in a mode of tragedy," he says, "and when they do, we pity them deeply. Very few people live in a mode of real comedy; they laugh a lot but their lives are not comic. Comedy is almost as cruel and exclusive as tragedy. Most of us live in a world of melodrama, a world of mingled laughter and tears, gain and deprivation and excitement—the hurly-burly of normal life."

Taking off from a poem by Henrik Ibsen, he believes that "a man's self-judgment" is "the conscience of a writer." Through a process of self-analysis that has been both painful and joyous, his life has provided him with the raw material for what he writes. Interwoven, with overlapping characters, his 11 novels can be regarded as a kind of masked autobiography. The books often begin in Canadian villages as small as his birthplace of Thamesville in southwest Ontario, but they soon open up to reveal allegorical allusions and magical transformations. Accidental incidents can have endless effects, and behind everything is the immutability of the human heart. A misaimed snowball in his 1970 novel Fifth Business, for example, sets off a chain of events. It becomes a defining moment, touching scores of lives and a trilogy of novels. In the case of his new novel, The Cunning Man, there are medical and spiritual mysteries. Skeptics need not enter Mr. Davies's bewitching world.

Sitting straight-backed in a chair in his office at Massey College of the University of Toronto, Mr. Davies, with his patriarchal white beard and flowing white hair, exuded eminence and a kind of actorly presence. Indeed, he began his professional life as an actor, and he has also been a playwright. As he does every week, he has come down to Toronto from his country home in Caledon, an hour out of town. After many years as the master of Massey College, he no longer teaches but still keeps quarters on campus. It was a wintry day, and he was prepared for a long, warming conversation. In common with his character Brocky Gilmartin in The Cunning Man, he regards language "as a great unfailing...

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Obituaries And Tributes

Jane Gross and Craig Turner (obituary date 4 December 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1995, p. A16.

[In the following obituary, Gross and Turner provide an overview of Davies's life and career.]

Robertson Davies, one of Canada's most celebrated novelists and the master of multiple, eclectic careers in theater, journalism and academia, has died.

Davies died Saturday night of a stroke at the age of 82. He had been hospitalized with pneumonia.

Davies' breakthrough as a novelist came with the 1970 publication of Fifth Business, the first work in the renowned Deptford...

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Reviews Of Davies's Recent Works

Anthony Bailey (review date 17 November 1991)

SOURCE: "How the Dead See It," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1991, p. 9.

[Bailey is an English-born journalist, nonfiction writer, novelist, and critic. In the review below, he discusses Murther & Walking Spirits, remarking on the unexpected turns in Davies's plot and the protagonist's development.]

The epigraph to Robertson Davies's new novel, Murther & Walking Spirits, is as apt as can be. It comes from the Samuel Butler who was a 17th-century poet and satirist: "Printers finde by experience that one Murther is worth two Monsters, and at least three Walking...

(The entire section is 6296 words.)