Robertson Davies Davies, Robertson (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Davies, Robertson 1913–

Davies is a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, editor, and publisher. Both his fictional and critical work reflect his breadth of learning and are presented with wit and elegance. He is considered a central figure in Canadian letters. Davies has written under the pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Ivon Owen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When it first appeared, Tempest-Tost struck one as a pure, delightful jeu d'esprit, quite what one would expect from the typewriter of Samuel Marchbanks. A funny book. In 1958, it stands as the first of three novels about the same Ontario town of Salterton, and this makes a difference. Novelists who return repeatedly, as Trollope did, to the same place or the same broad circle of characters, achieve in time a stereoscopic depth that can be attained in no other way. Tempest-Tost can now be seen through the stereoscope, and it is still a funny book, but it is a good deal more. (p. 56)

[The relationships between the characters] make for straight comedy in Tempest-Tost. In Leaven of Malice they dominate, and take on a darker hue….

Essentially the book is about the efforts of the aged and unbalanced to fetter and cripple the sane and young. And though it is a very funny book there is genuine anger in it. It contains some of the author's best comedy: the ghastliest of his many ghastly parties, the Old Mess, and a fine discourse on Charles Heavysege would be enough to make it memorable. But the central story-line—who put in the announcement?—is too slight to bear the weight of incident and comment hung on it and yet too stressed to be considered a minor element.

The new novel, A Mixture of Frailties, is livelier, fuller, more imperfect, and more delightful. It has two plots, a Salterton and a London one. In the Salterton story, which forms the outer frame, the parent-child theme is carried to a yet higher pitch of indignation. (p. 58)

Set into this story is the history of Monica Gall, the soprano from the Heart and Hope Quartet of the Thirteenth Apostle Tabernacle who is chosen to benefit from [a] trust….

Monica's training as artist and as human being takes place in Britain, and forms the heart of the novel. It is the largest thing Robertson Davies has attempted or done. This three-quarters of a novel is in fact, with all its faults, fuller and more...

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S. E. Read

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In A Voice from the Attic the] attic is "America's attic"—Canada—and the "voice" is that of Robertson Davies, critic, novelist, playwright, wit, humanist, actor, teacher, editor, publisher, and bibliophile, but above all passionate lover of literature, who stands firm in his belief that books are still a shaping power for good in this world of chaos and uncertainty. (p. 65)

"Clerisy" is a precious word, and, though Mr. Davies would have it otherwise, I doubt that it ever passed as common currency in the English language. But use it he must for it "has no familiar synonym" and is "little known because what it describes has disappeared".

But what does the word describe? What is it that has disappeared?

The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books.

In years past, especially in the 19th century, the clerisy, he says, held "sovereignty in the world of letters". Through being united it wielded great power, but now, alas! if it exists at all, it is disunited, and "has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups …, which are part of the social and business organization of our time." Awake, then, oh Clerisy! Shake the slumber from your eyes; gird up your loins; and go forth once again, as your forebears did, to fight the battle for good books, good reading, and a better culture. Such is Mr. Davies' clarion call, and such the stated purpose of the book. But Mr. Davies is not really a pugnacious battalion commander, leading his Christian soldiers once again to war. Having uttered the call in his opening pages, he then gets down to his real purpose—to entertain the reader (with some Johnsonian instruction thrown in for good measure) through a series of brilliantly written essays on books and on reading. (pp. 65-6)

[The portions which show his...

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Margaret Wimsatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Manticore is a funny, engaging, literate novel by a Canadian author who deserves to be better known in this country. It has the theatrical virtues of scene, set and design; it has the literary virtue of plot, incident and character. It is easy to read and hard to put down. It is almost unique in being a sequel-book that stands on its own. (p. 536)

The manticore does exist, as explained in the novel's pages and confirmed by my dictionary: a mythical beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a dragon or scorpion. It is one of the symbols that turn up in the course of an analysis undergone by the narrator….

As a novelist, Mr. Davies has the great strength of invention. He thinks of things and people that make pale suburban novels look duller and paler yet. So it may sound like quibbling, with so much to be grateful for, to complain that Mr. Davies does not know how to end a book. (p. 537)

Margaret Wimsatt, in America (© America Press, 1972; all rights reserved), December 16, 1972.

Judith Skelton Grant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That there is a market in these days of tight publishing budgets for a bibliography of works by and on Robertson Davies, a study of his plays, and a collection of his "Pronouncements" is an index of Davies' current popularity. This popularity is based on his second trilogy—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders—for in these books Davies has created vivid and distinctive central characters whose eccentric interests have both popular appeal and a philosophic undercurrent. (p. 56)

[Davies'] childhood love of theater bore fruit in his excellent Oxford thesis, published under the title Shakespeare's Boy Actors (1939) and in a stream of plays from the mid-forties on. Fourteen of these have been published and some ten others produced. His early plays earned him a permanent place in the history of Canadian drama. (pp. 56, 58)

Some of [Davies'] witty and irascible comment on the passing scene published in the Peterborough Examiner under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks was collected in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Marchbank's Almanack (1967). Some of the Saturday Night book review articles constitute the core of A Voice from the Attic (1960). Here Davies first reveals the idiosyncrasy and breadth of his reading. His knowledgeable discussion of aspects of popular culture from Shakespeare's day to our own, ranging over subjects like joke books, sex manuals, popular science, health tracts, and melodrama is not only diverting reading but the first real hint of the resources Davies brings to his recent novels. The Marchbanks books and A Voice are the mere iceberg tip of Davies' writing for periodicals. (p. 58)

[His first trilogy: Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958) is] in the mode of the satiric romance. Davies' long experience as critic, dramatist, and journalist gave them an astonishingly impressive finish. His dialogue rooted in comedy of manners is lively; his plots are tight and workmanlike. But these surface strengths cause problems. The plot of Tempest-Tost permits significant development for only one of the half dozen characters Davies brings convincingly to life. The frame devices of the first two novels, though interesting and lively, jar, because they differ in subject or tone from the rest of the books. And there are technical problems with the omniscient narrator. But Davies learns and develops as he moves from book to book. The third in the series, A Mixture of Frailties, is a very fine novel indeed. Here Davies holds satire to a minimum, keeps his narrative stance consistent, focuses attention on one developing central character, and tackles his theme, the value of culture, seriously and openly. (p. 59)

The three volumes of the Deptford trilogy—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders … were well worth waiting for. Davies had avoided first-person narration in his early novels because he felt uncomfortable with the self-revelation and direct communication he associated with the technique. Now he used it masterfully. The intertwined stories of Dunstan Ramsay, Boy Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim are told by three distinctive and convincing first-person narrators who compel the reader's interest in the story that begins when the stone-laden snowball thrown at Dunstan by Boy hits Mrs. Dempster and causes the premature birth of Magnus.

Davies centers each story in a different kind of knowledge. In Fifth Business the consequences of the snowball lead Dunstan to saints and myth; in The Manticore they lead David Staunton (Boy's son) into Jungian analysis; in World of Wonders they lead Magnus to magic and stagecraft. These provide the thematic core of each book; but only in Fifth Business, the master work of the trilogy, does Davies create an organic whole from his disparate materials. All the lore on saints and myth is firmly connected to the central character, reflecting his interests, showing how he thinks,...

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