“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scottish banker.” Robertson Davies
Born in 1913 into an established Ontario publishing family, Davies began his life with a profound respect for the world of books and ideas. Raised in Thamesville and steeped in a deeply moralistic Presbyterian public culture, he readily began to perceive the provincialism and faultlines of small-town Canadian life. Finding refuge in the local library, he discovered the magnificent worlds depicted in The Boy’s King Arthur, The Arabian Nights and Dante’s Inferno, with its remarkable Doré etchings. Traveling carnivals that passed through Thamesville also ignited young Davies’s imagination, with their various freaks and wrinkled Gypsy fortunetellers muttering over dusty Tarot cards. Desiring richness and vitality, he also gravitated to the theatre and became captivated by the power of greasepaint, costuming and backdrops to create scenes of emotional power and dignity.
Absorbing the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster, Davies realised dramaturgy provided an avenue to express his own aesthetic and personal interests. After having failed the mathematics portion of his Upper Canada College graduation requirement, Davies’s father managed to have him admitted as a special status student to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. There, he began intensely studying English literature and drama while continuing to keenly observe the cultural patterns of his countrymen. Four years of study at Queen’s University allowed Davies to apply to Oxford, where he obtained a B.Litt at Balliol and began acting at the Old Vic. After being told by a Daily Mail theatre critic that he would make a better playwright and reviewer than actor, Davies turned to writing as an outlet for his creative energies.
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Set in small-town Ontario, Fifth Business delivers an extraordinary narrative concerning the effect of interconnected actions and their consequences. Invested with a deep respect for mysticism, Davies’s characters are shaped by their own identities as Canadians, Christians and spiritual beings. One character emerges from the horrors of Great War trenches, where he is blessed with an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, to become an eminent schoolmaster and expert on hagiography. Another runs away from a disgraced minster father and insane mother to join a traveling carnival. There he learns fortunetelling, endures pederasty and later reappears as the world-famous stage magician and clairvoyant, ‘Magnus Eisengrim’. A third character becomes a famous socialite, friend of the Duke of Windsor and wealthy industrialist, only to be undone by a long-forgotten victim of his pride and willful actions. The lives of these personalities are woven by Davies into a detailed tissue, in which the divine and demonic regularly touch mortal men and alter their lives. In one particularly memorable scene, our faithful schoolmaster wrestles with Satan, who is depicted as a hideously ugly woman with the strength of a gorilla. Exuding contempt for tradition and possessing a grotesque, flaunted sexuality, she reminds the reader of times they themselves have come face to face with distinct evil. Continuing this magical narrative with The Manticore and World of Wonders, Davies depicted our world through the eyes of a contemporary mystic and one who dances to the rhythms of the past.
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It is this magical realist vision, which informed Davies’s works and influenced his staunch Conservatism and Anglicanism. Instead of various socialist utopian theories and endless dialectical materialism, Davies delighted in the musty, gothic and earthy elements of our culture. Like the Elizabethan dramatist John Webster, Davies regularly saw ‘the skull beneath the skin’. Yet, there always existed a fascination and a childlike, wide-eyed wonder within his works. Life mixed with Death, passion mixed with dry academicism and Gypsies mixed with Scottish Presbyterians all informed his artistic imagination. Like the best English authors and playwrights, Davies cleverly subverted seemingly normal appearances to expose the intricacies beneath. Continuing to write after his retirement from Massey College, the Canadian government awarded him the Order of Canada in grateful recognition of his literary achievements. After his death in 1995, his works were included within school curriculums across Canada and read by a generation of young Canadians, who understood him as an illustrator of the national character.
An antiquarian and storyteller by nature, Davies enjoyed old books, good company, clever students and his loving family. In his last novel, The Cunning Man, the main character utters a saying that best summarizes Davies’s vision. Referring to an elaborate scene before him, the hero says, “This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can and leave when you must. The show is continual.” Davies provided the perfect metaphor for his readers to realise the panoply of existence and our own place within it. Therefore, let all of us have our appropriate entrances, scenes and exeunts before we depart to the dressing rooms and make our way into the starry night.
Davies, Robertson. The Deptford Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Davies, Robertson, and J. Madison Davis. Conversations with Robertson Davies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Viking, 1994.
Edited by Jonathan M Paquette on September 5th 2015.