The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Portrait of a Canadian Storyteller

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant, Toronto, Penguin Books, 1994, 788 pp.

First published twenty years ago, Judith Skelton Grant’s Robertson Davies: Man of Myth is the definitive biography of its subject. Written in the last decade of its subject’s life and with his co-operation is an exhaustive portrait of the man who is usually and deservedly thought of as our country’s most distinguished man of letters.

It is as the author of three popular and critically acclaimed trilogies of novels that Robertson Davies is most widely known. His career was a multi-faceted one, however, and Grant presents us with each facet in intricate detail. From his childhood, Davies’ earliest ambition was to be a stage actor, an ambition he actively pursued through participation in many and various amateur productions during his student days and which was ultimately rewarded with Tyrone Guthrie invited him to join the Old Vic Company after his graduation from Balliol College in Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters degree. It was during his two years with the Old Vic Company, where Australian Brenda Newbold, later Mrs. Robertson Davies, was stage manager, that Davies’ realized that his future did not lie in acting and turned his ambition towards playwriting.

It was with the intention of becoming a playwright that Davies returned to Canada with his new bride in 1940 and over the course of his life he did write, direct, and produce many plays. To pay the bills, he began writing columns for his father’s newspapers, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner, under the pen-name Samuel Marchbanks. He created this nom de plume by combining the first name of his great-grandfather with the maiden name of his great-grandmother. Under this name, Davies’ wrote the column which ostensibly dealt with literary, artistic, and other cultural criticism, as a witty and erudite, eccentric curmudgeon. The column became very popular and during the years Davies’ wrote it the journalistic facet of his career expanded as he became literary editor of Saturday Night and then the editor of the Peterborough Examiner.

Davies continued to edit his father’s newspaper until 1962 when he took on a new and more illustrious position as Master of the newly founded Massey College at the University of Toronto. During his time as editor, however, he had also written his first trilogy, the Salterton trilogy. He had been writing plays all along but his efforts had not met with the response he was looking for, either in Canada or abroad, and he decided to try his hand at a new genre. He drew inspiration from his stage experience for the first novel, which is the story of an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and from his experience as an editor for the second novel, which tells of the consequences than ensue when a man submits a false engagement announcement to the newspaper in a malicious effort to embarrass both the editor and the couple named. The trilogy is named after Salterton, the city in which the first two novels and much of the third are set. Salterton is a fictional depiction of Kingston, to which Davies’ family had moved after living in the villages of Thamesville and Renfrew, and where Davies’ had studied at Queens College after graduating from “Canada’s Eton”, the Upper Canada College (1) and before applying to Balliol. Each of these places and institutions makes its way into Davies’ novels in one form or another – Thamesville becomes the “Deptford” of his second trilogy, Renfrew becomes the “Blairlogie” of the third trilogy, while Upper Canada College becomes the Colborne College that appears in the second and third trilogies.

Although the first trilogy sold well and firmly established his reputation as a novelist it was the second trilogy that won him international acclaim. Davies had a recurring vision in which two boys on a village street in winter, one throwing a snowball that contained a rock. In his novel Fifth Business, this vision becomes an incident in which the snowball hits a pregnant woman instead of the intended target, and the narrator of the novel, the boy who the snowball missed, traces the impact of the snowball through his own life and the lives of the woman hit, her son, and the boy who threw the snowball. Further consequences of the incident are discussed in the second novel, in which the son of the boy who threw the snowball undergoes Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland, and the third in which the son of the woman hit by the snowball, tells the story of his life and how he became the master magician Magnus Eisengrim.

Davies’ wrote this trilogy while he was Master of Massey College, a position for which he was personally chosen by Vincent Massey, life-long Canadian diplomat, the first Canadian born Governor General, and heir of the family that had made its fortune in farm equipment. Massey and Davies, both of whom had been to Balliol, had similar ideas as to what the residential graduate college should be. Davies was a popular Master and remained in the position for twenty years until his retirement in 1982 after which he wrote his third and final trilogy, in which Massey College appears as “The College of St. John and the Holy Ghost”, or “Spook.”

It was during the years that Davies wrote this third trilogy that Grant researched and wrote his biography and this influenced both the trilogy and the biography. In Grant’s biography, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies have a chapter each, whereas the Cornish trilogy is given one chapter per novel. Meanwhile in the trilogy itself, the character of Simon Darcourt is engaged in writing the biography of the late Francis Cornish.

In her biography of Davies, Grant explores the man Robertson Davies, and the influences that made him who he was. His father, Rupert, had left his native Wales while a young man, and came to Canada where, starting out as a typesetter, he became a successful newspaper publisher and editor, and eventually a Senator. In Canada, Rupert met and married Florence McKay, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, ultimately of Scottish and Dutch extraction. Grant gives a detailed account of both family lines, including the ancestral stories that later made their way into Davies’ writings, as well as the strained relationship between Rupert and Florence, and later between mother and son, that was to have a huge impact upon his writing – think of the relationships Solly Bridgewater and Dunstan Ramsay have with their mothers in the first two trilogies.

Rupert and Florence, who met in a Congregationalist Church and later brought their family up in the Presbyterian Church, practiced a severe, Puritan, form of Calvinism. Robertson rejected this form of theology and was confirmed in the Anglican Church at Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford while he was a student at Balliol. The Calvinism he rejected while acknowledging its lingering influence, the traditions and ceremonies of Anglicanism, and his own idiosyncratic and somewhat heterodox theology, can be found throughout his writings, both under his own name and as Samuel Marchbanks.

He was not a very political person, especially in the partisan sense of the word. At various times Grant describes him as a “small l liberal” and a “small c conservative” and he came from perhaps the last generation in which it would make sense to apply both of these terms to the same person simultaneously. His father, who was appointed to the Senate upon the recommendation of Mackenzie King, was a Liberal, the party for which Davies usually voted. His liberalism can be seen in the anarchistic individualism on display in his writings as Samuel Marchbanks, and his conservatism in his love for ceremony, ritual, and tradition, as well as his contempt for the cult of the “common man”. Through his father’s press credentials he was able to be present at the coronation of King George VI, which took place in his Oxford days, and Grant quotes him as having written in the Whig-Standard that the event made him “a Monarchist for life” commenting that “He is still a monarchist, valuing the Crown as a tradition and symbol of permanency that stands above temporary governments”, an admirably conservative sentiment.

Davies was a man of broad classical and humanist learning, with immense knowledge of many arcane subjects. This provided him with ample resources, in addition to his own experiences and those of his forebears, to draw upon as a writer. It also formed his view of what constituted civilization that it was something more than what laws and markets provide. Grant quotes him as saying “Only greatness in the things of the mind and spirit brings lasting reputation” and describes both his belief in Canada’s artistic and cultural potential and his frustration that so few of his countrymen shared his vision. Nevertheless, he continued to do what he could both as writer and educator, to contribute to the artistic and cultural life of Canada and we are a richer nation for it.

Robertson Davies’ novels are well worth reading and for those who wish to know more about the man behind them, there is no better place to turn than to Judith Skelton Grant’s marvelous biography.

(1) The principal of Upper Canada College at the time was W. L. Grant, the son-in-law of another famous Canadian educator George Parkin, brother-in-law of Vincent Massey whom Davies would come to regard as a kind of spiritual father, father of conservative philosopher George Grant and grandfather of liberal philosopher Michael Ignatieff. I do not know if Judith Skelton Grant is related to this family, but she writes of W. L. Grant as being very influential on and supportive of Davies. She also records a dance to which Davies took Grant's daughter Allison (who would become Michael Ignatieff's mother) as his date.

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