Robertson Davies

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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...

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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 himself to his career as a writer with renewed vigor, writing opera librettos for the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and collecting ghost stories into a book called High Spirits (1982). He was also hard at work on the novels that would become the Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels (1981), What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). Davies died in 1995 at the age of eighty-two.

Sources for Further Study

Cameron, Elspeth, ed. Robertson Davies: An Appreciation. New York: Broadview Press, 1991. Provides criticism and interpretations of Davies’ life and works. Bibliography.

Cheaney, J. B. “Bred in the Bone: The Fiction of Canadian Author Robertson Davies.” The World & I 16, no. 8 (August, 2001): 247-255. Profiles the life and works of Davies.

Davis, J. Madison, ed. Conversations with Robertson Davies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Davies, Robertson. The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981. The first half of this volume is a collection of essays on the theater, spiced with Davies’ own acerbic wit but revealing his benevolent attitude toward traditional, even medieval, dramatic forms. Contains many reviews of the festival seasons at Stratford, Ontario.

Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. New York: Viking, 1994. The authorized biography, covering all but the last year of Davies’ life. Provides critical commentary on his novels as well as information on his dealings with publishers.

Heintzman, Ralph H., ed. Journal of Canadian Studies 12 (February, 1977). A special issue of Davies criticism; much of the scholarly work on Davies appears only in Canadian publications. This special edition includes a valuable Davies log of writing and important events, with six other essays examining the Deptford Trilogy.

La Bossière, Camille R., and Linda Morra, eds. Robertson Davies: A Mingling of Contrarieties. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001. Examines, among other topics, Davies’ humor, “masks,” and postmodern elements in his works. Bibliography.

Lawrence, Robert G., and Samuel L. Macey, eds. Studies in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1980. Davies introduces this collection with a personal retrospective of the creative impulses that resulted in the Deptford Trilogy. The studies range from traditional historical criticism to folklore backgrounds to Jungian analysis to examinations of law. An opening article surveying the Salterton novels brings the reader up to the Deptford novels.

Little, Dave. Catching the Wind: The Religious Vision of Robertson Davies. Toronto: ECW Press, 1996. Discusses an important theme in Davies’ fiction: “the search for the self as a religious journey.” Includes a helpful list of biblical allusions in the novels through Murther and Walking Spirits.

MacLulich, T. D. Between Europe and America: The Canadian Tradition in Fiction. Toronto: ECW Press, 1988. Despite its title, this study deals with Davies’ earliest plays, Hope Deferred and Overlaid, before a brief synopsis of Fortune, My Foe and At My Heart’s Core. Much on Davies’ prose work as well. Helpful index.

Monk, Patricia. The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. The most thorough book-length study of Jungian influences in all of Davies’ writing, but especially concentrating on The Manticore. Monk finds the archetypal constructions of the characters a more overpowering leitmotif than Davies’ own autobiographical renditions, and she systematizes the Deptford Trilogy’s characters around the traditional figures of Jungian psychology. This study was begun in her essay “Davies and the Drachenloch,” in Lawrence and Macey, above.

Peterman, Michael. Robertson Davies. Boston: Twayne, 1986. The first four chapters deal with Davies’ journalistic and dramatic careers; the last chapters discuss the Salterton novels, the Deptford Trilogy, and The Rebel Angels. Peterman explains well the importance of Davies’ Canadian birth and childhood. Valuable bibliography (to 1985) and index.

Steinberg, M. W. “Don Quixote and the Puppets: Theme and Structure in Robertson Davies’ Drama.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. Offers a structural analysis of Davies’ early plays, notably Fortune, My Foe, At My Heart’s Core, and A Jig for the Gypsy. “Eminently stageworthy and a valuable contribution to a genre that Canadian talent has unfortunately neglected,” Steinberg notes.

Woodcock, George. “A Cycle Completed: The Nine Novels of Robertson Davies.” Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review 126 (Autumn, 1990): 33-48. A good overview of Davies’ major literary contribution, as a backdrop for his dramatic output. Woodcock sees Davies’ “traditional” forms as “calming and comforting” in an otherwise “permissive” literary world.


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One of Canada’s most important novelists and playwrights, Robertson Davies is best remembered for his three trilogies of novels. Davies’ novels explore provincial Canadian life, the interaction of the gifted, artistic individual with the world at large, and the role of the arts in everyday life. Davies’ novels celebrate and explore the human need for connections with the supernatural, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unknowable.