BORN: 1913, Thamesville, Ontario, Canada
DIED: 1995, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada
GENRE: Letters, journalism, plays, criticism, novels
The Diary of Sam Marchbanks (1947)
The Fifth Business (1970)
The Manticore (1972)
World of Wonders (1975)
Robertson Davies (also known as Samuel Marchbanks and William Robertson Davies) is admired for writing novels that skillfully combine accessibility and literary merit with an intriguing dash of the obscure, including such subjects as alchemy, saints' legends, Gypsy wisdom, tarot cards, shamanistic rituals, Anglo-Catholicism, and Jungian psychology. Most of his work explored the dangers of personal and cultural repression, and his sprawling, intellectually rich novels also exhibit a developing interest in Canadian identity. Davies was a writer of grand ideas and fertile imagination who excelled in a variety of literary disciplines. As a journalist, his humorous observations about life amused newspaper readers over two decades. His comic plays addressed the plight of the Canadian artist to great effect. With his bushy white beard and flowing mane of hair, Davies looked the part of a grizzled, ancient storyteller—which to his millions of devoted readers is exactly what he was.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Career in Drama Davies developed an interest in drama early in life. At the age of three, he made his stage debut in the opera Queen Esther. He maintained a diary throughout his school years in which he preserved his reactions to the stage performances he saw. Davies completed his higher education in 1938 at Balliol College, Oxford, where he earned a literature degree. His thesis, entitled Shakespeare's Boy Actors, attracted the attention of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a legendary drama teacher, and Guthrie hired Davies to work with him at London's famous Old Vic theater.
Davies spent a year there working at a variety of jobs, from bit player to stage manager. He gained valuable stage experience in productions of Shakespeare, working alongside world-renowned actors including Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh. He also fell in love with the Old Vic's stage manager, Australian-born Brenda Mathews, whom he married on February 2, 1940. The couple moved to Canada, where Davies took a job as literary editor of the Toronto magazine Saturday Night.
Davies, the Columnist After two years with Saturday Night, Davies took a position with the Peterborough Examiner. He remained with that paper for the next twenty years. In the early days there, he wrote a whimsical column under the pseudonym “Samuel Marchbanks.” These witty observations were later collected into the books The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks, and Marchbanks' Almanack. Another of his regular columns, “A Writer's Diary,” which consisted of observations about the literary scene, helped establish Davies as a major new voice in criticism.
The 1940s were a fertile period for Davies. Besides his weekly columns, he was also writing and directing plays at the Peterborough Little Theatre. In 1946, his one-act comedy Overlaid was awarded a prize by the Ottawa Drama League. The fantasy Eros at Breakfast won the Gratien Gelinas Prize for best Canadian play at the Dominion Drama Festival. The year 1948 saw the production of Davies's first full-length play. Fortune, My Foe deals with the plight of the Canadian artist and was awarded the Gratien Gelinas Prize at the 1949 Dominion Drama Festival. Another three-act play, At My Heart's Core, deals with similar themes. Set in provincial Canada in 1837, this work shows Davies's growing mastery of historical material.
Davies Turns to Novels Frustrated by his inability to get his plays produced outside of Canada, Davies turned to novel writing in the 1950s. His first novel, Tempest-Tost, was published in 1951. Set in the small Canadian town of Salterton, the book details the reactions of townsfolk to a troupe of Shakespearean actors in their midst. Leaven of Malice is set in the same locale and revolves around the confusion that ensues when an erroneous engagement announcement is printed in a local newspaper. The final book in the Salterton trilogy, A Mixture of Frailties, concerns a young girl who returns to the town after a sojourn studying music in Europe.
The books received many positive critical notices and established Davies's reputation as a novelist.
The Deptford Trilogy In 1970, Davies published a new novel, Fifth Business, the first installment of his Deptford Trilogy. The book chronicles sixty years in the life of Dunstan Ramsey, an assistant headmaster at a Canadian prep school. Davies weaves into the story many religious and psychological themes, prompting L. J. Davis of Book World to brand the novel “a work of theological fiction that approaches Graham Greene at the top of his form.” Its rich plot helped make it a best seller in America, cementing Davies stature as an international author of the first rank.
Davies followed Fifth Business with another Deptford novel, The Manticore. Again set among the Canadian upper classes, the book follows David Staunton, an alcoholic attorney, on a spiritual odyssey of self-discovery. Another highbrow hit with readers, The Manticore received the Canadian Governor General's Award for excellence.
Rounding out The Deptford Trilogy was World of Wonders. Telling the story of Paul Dempster, a character who appears in the previous two novels, the book was judged “a novel of stunning verbal energy and intelligence” by Michael Mewshaw of the New York Times Book Review. Readers and reviewers alike generally found it a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, only one of the many works that have led critics in both his homeland and abroad to describe Davies as a national treasure, securing his place in the Canadian literary canon.
Works in Literary Context
Many of Davies's novels are marked by the psychological transformations of the main characters. As such, his novels may be considered reminiscent of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist transforms into a giant cockroach, illustrating his growing awareness of how unhappy he is with his life. The specific nature of Davies's approach to his characters, however, is highly influenced by Jungian psychology.
Jungian Psychology The recurring theme of self-discovery in Davies's work follows the pattern established by psychologist Carl Jung, although Davies does not adhere strictly to Jungian psychology. While Roger Sale suggested in the New York Review of Books that, in common with the Jungian belief in archetypal influence on the human mind, Davies's fictional characters “discover the meaning of their lives, by discovering the ways those lives conform to ancient patterns,” Davies explores a number of models for complete human identity. Patricia Monk claimed in her The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies that though he had a “deep and long-lasting affinity with Jung … Davies eventually moves beyond his affinity … to a more impartial assessment of Jungianism as simply one way of looking at the universe, one myth among a number of others.” Peter Baltensperger, writing in Canadian Literature, saw “the conquest of one's Self in the inner struggle and the knowledge of oneself as fully human” as a consistent theme throughout Davies's fiction.
Novel Melodrama Because he wrote a number of plays, had been a teacher and actor with the Old Vic Company, and had served on the board of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for many years, it is no surprise to find that Davies employed many theatrical elements in his novels. Theatricality is one technique Davies uses to move his story along at a quicker pace. About World of Wonders, a Time magazine critic stated that the characters “are brilliant talkers, but when they natter on too long, the highly theatrical author causes a grotesque face to appear at a window, drops someone through a trap door or stages a preposterous recognition scene.” These melodramatic touches come naturally to Davies who, L. J. Davis remarked, “is a player in love with the play, and the kind of play he loves is melodrama.” In his collection of lectures, The Mirror of Nature, Davies makes his case on behalf of melodrama and attempts, as Alberto Manguel wrote in the Toronto Globe & Mail, “to save melodrama's lost honor.” Davies's lectures argue that “theatre is a coarse art…. It appeals immediately to primary, not secondary elements in human nature.” Melodrama's emphasis on creating an emotional response in its audience, Davies contends, is true to theater's fundamental purpose.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Davies's famous contemporaries include:
Thomas Pynchon (1937–): American writer Pynchon's fiction and nonfiction writings encompass a vast array of subject matter, styles and themes, including the fields of history, science, and mathematics.
Cormac McCarthy (1933–): This American novelist has been widely credited with reviving and reinventing the genre of the Western novel.
J. D. Salinger (1919–): This American novelist achieved great critical success when he published The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Henri Matisse (1869–1954): This French artist was a major figure in the “Fauvist” movement in art, which was marked by the use of bright, undiluted colors.
Davies's Legacy Many critics have labeled Davies a traditionalist who was a bit old-fashioned in his approach to writing. I. M. Owen of Saturday Night, for example,
placed Davies “curiously apart from the mainstream of contemporary fiction.” A critic for the Washington Post Book World characterized Davies as “a true novelist writing imagined stories, wonderful stories full of magic and incandescence, thought and literary art,” something the critic did not find in other contemporary fiction. With such conflicting opinions, it is difficult to determine Davies's long-term impact on literature.
Works in Critical Context
Davies, the Magician Calling Davies “a compellingly inventive storyteller” who garnered an “affectionate following,” James Idema noted in the Chicago Tribune Book World that the appeal of Davies's fiction lies in “his way of placing ordinary humans in the midst of extraordinary events, of bringing innocent, resolutely straight characters into contact with bonafide exotics.” Idema added that “the ‘real world’ interests [Davies] only as a starting point. Enigma, myth, illusion and magic are the stuff of his elegant stories.” Similarly, William Kennedy observed in the New York Times Book Review that Davies “conveys a sense of real life lived in a fully imagined if sometimes mythical and magical world.” Comparing the role of the novelist with that of a magician, because both “mean us to believe in what never happened and to this end use many conjuror's tricks,” Prescott defined Davies as one writer “who takes seriously his magician's role.”
The Deptford Trilogy Davies was already well established on the Canadian literary scene when his Deptford Trilogy brought him international attention. “These novels,” Claude Bissell stated in Canadian Literature, “comprise the major piece of prose fiction in Canadian literature—in scope, in the constant interplay of wit and intelligence, in the persistent attempt to find a pattern in this [as Davies states in the trilogy] ‘life of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces.’”
Davies did not intend to write a trilogy when he first began Fifth Business. His initial story idea prompted him to write the novel, he told Time (Canada), “but he found almost as soon as he had finished that it wasn't all he wanted to say.” So Davies wrote The Manticore to tell more of his story. Reviewers then asked “to hear about the magician who appeared in the other two novels,” Davies explained, “and I thought ‘Well, I know a lot about magicians’ and I wrote the third book.”
Despite the unplanned development of the trilogy, it garnered extensive critical praise and each volume has been an international best seller. The first volume, Fifth Business, is, Sam Solecki maintained in Canadian Forum, “Davies's masterpiece.”
Responses to Literature
- Both Davies and Kafka use transformation as a key theme in their work. Discuss the difference between Kafka's use of transformation in The Metamorphosis and Davies's use in the Deptford Trilogy. What prompts transformation in these novels, how is the transformation shown, and what changes internally for the transformed characters?
- Read The Cunning Man. The chronology of this novel is disjointed, continually jumping from here to there. What do you think Davies was trying to accomplish by using this nonlinear approach to his story? How did the technique affect your ability to enjoy the text?
- Although Davies's novels are often described as old-fashioned, his work as a columnist is altogether different. Take the time to read some of Davies's journalistic work and compare it to that of a contemporary columnist, like Dave Barry. Compare the two in terms of ideas, structure, vocabulary, and concerns.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Davies's novels are marked by their theatrical nature, which makes sense for an author who was first a part of the theater at the age of three. Authors often make observations about other art forms through works of their own. Any art form that comments upon or utilizes the conventions of another art form is broadly categorized as “metafiction.” Here are some more examples of metafiction.
Life of Pi (2001), a novel by Yann Martel. This book purports to tell the true tale of an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and spends more than seven months sharing a lifeboat with a wild Bengal tiger.
House of Leaves (2001), a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. In this novel, Danielewski uses extensive footnotes not only to further the plot of the novel, but also to make remarks about it.
Don Quixote (Part 1–1605, Part 2–1615), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. In this novel, the hapless Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza imagine their lives as if they were characters in a romance novel and behave accordingly.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a novel by Mark Haddon. In the process of writing a detective story about the murder of his neighbor's dog, the autistic young narrator of this work discusses what is necessary to make a novel good, thereby commenting on the nature of storytelling.
Diamond-Nigh, Lynne. Robertson Davies: Life, Work, and Criticism. York, British Columbia, Canada: York Press, 1997.
Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Penguin, 1994.
Jones, Joseph and Johanna Jones. Canadian Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Kirkwood, Hilda. Between the Lines. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1994.
Monk, Patricia. The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.
Moss, John. Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel: The Ancestral Present. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
New, William H., ed. Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972.
Stone-Blackburn, Susan. Robertson Davies: Playwright. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.