Robertson Davies Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Robertson Davies Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

William Robertson Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario, and spent his earliest years there. His father was the owner and editor of the town’s newspaper. Davies’ career as a writer seems to owe much to the early influence and encouragement of his parents, and a journalistic interest in community life is evident in many of his best novels. Davies read voraciously from an early age and wrote his first newspaper article at the age of nine. His family was also active in the Presbyterian Church, and Davies seems to have been sensitive to the denominational diversity found even in the smallest communities.

When Davies was twelve, the family moved to Kingston, where they lived in a supposedly haunted house. Kingston was a large enough community to offer Davies much greater exposure to the worlds of art, drama, and music. At the age of fifteen, he earned a scholarship to a prestigious boys’ school in Toronto, where he distinguished himself through his unconventional mode of dress and behavior. Academically unsuccessful, he began to be known as a conversationalist and actor and availed himself of Toronto’s many theaters. In 1932, his father took him on a summer trip to Great Britain, where Davies was able to immerse himself in drama from William Shakespeare to the contemporary period, giving him at a young age a remarkable grounding in his chosen trade. He continued his dramatic endeavors as a special student (nondegree seeking) at Queen’s University, including directing an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which seems to have contributed significantly to the events in his 1951 novel Tempest-Tost. Davies continued his formal education at Oxford’s Balliol College, where he became active in the Oxford University Dramatic Society, stage-managing several successful performances. During this period, Davies became familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud and converted from Presbyterianism to the Anglican faith. He earned his bachelor of literature in 1938.

By this time, Davies was writing. He published his thesis, Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, in 1939 to good reviews, and in December of that year, he joined the Old Vic Company, one of London’s most venerable and prestigious theater companies, where he acted, lectured, and was encouraged to write. In the early days of World War II, Davies proposed marriage to his Australian colleague Brenda Ethel Mathews, bringing her back to Canada in 1940.

Back in Ontario, Davies was rejected twice for military service because of his poor eyesight. He tried his hand at journalism with a series of newspaper columns published under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks. These columns prefigured many of the themes and subjects of his later novels. Soon he became literary editor of a weekly journal, Saturday Night, and a prominent figure in Canadian literary life.

By 1960, Davies had written more than two dozen dramatic pieces and was known as one of Canada’s leading playwrights. In 1950, he began Tempest-Tost, the first novel in the Salterton Trilogy (the other two are Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties). He remained active in the theater and was an influential early supporter of the Stratford Festival, becoming a member of its board of governors and publishing three books that drew attention to the dramatic accomplishments of the festival.

In 1961, Davies was appointed Master of Massey College, a newly formed residential college for graduate students within the University of Toronto, the first of its kind in Canada. He would hold the position for the next twenty years. He had already begun planning his well-known novel Fifth Business, but his teaching and scholarly and administrative duties would delay its completion until 1970. Fifth Business, The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975) are together known as the Deptford Trilogy. Davies stepped down from his post as Master of Massey College in 1981.

In the years following his retirement from his academic appointment, Davies addressed...

(The entire section is 1,444 words.)