Robertson Davies (1913-1995) enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist, playwright, and novelist, helping to enhance the literary standing of his native Canada.
William Robertson Davies
Robertson 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. His sprawling, intellectually rich novels, including the acclaimed Deptford and Cornish trilogies, set a high standard for all Canadian authors who wish to follow him. 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.
William Robertson Davies was born on August 28, 1913 in the village of Thamesville, Ontario, Canada. He came from a very old and prominent family. The family of his mother, Florence Sheppard McKay Davies, had moved to Canada from England in 1785. His father, William Rupert Davies, hailed originally from Wales, but made his name as a Canadian publisher and politician. Davies also had two older brothers.
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 wrote out his reactions to the stage performances he saw.
When Davies was five years old, his family moved to Renfrew, Ontario, a rural village in the Ottawa Valley. He spent his childhood years attending country schools and living the life of a typical country boy. When Davies was 12, his family uprooted again, this time moving to the city of Kingston. In this way, Davies gained his intimate knowledge of urban and rural life in Canada. From 1928 to 1932 he attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. His favorite activities during this period included music, theater, and editing the school newspaper.
Works at Old Vic
Davies next moved on to Queen's University in Kingston. He spent three years there, marked by his participation in the Drama Guild. He 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. Guthrie hired Davies to work 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 on 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 honeymooned in Wales, then returned to Canada, where Davies took a job as literary editor of the Toronto magazine Saturday Night. The couple had their first child in December of 1940.
Begins Writing Professionally
After two years with Saturday Night, Davies took a position with the Peterborough Examiner. He would remain with that paper for the next 20 years. In the early days there he wrote a whimsical column under the guise of "Samuel Marchbanks." These witty observations were later collected into the books The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Marchbanks' Almanack (1967). Another of his regular columns, "A Writer's Diary," consisting of observations on 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 (1948) won the Gratien Gelinas Prize for best Canadian play at the Dominion Drama Festival. Other one-acts Davies crafted during this time were The Voice of the People (1948), At the Gates of the Righteous (1948), and Hope Deferred (1948).
The year 1948 saw the production of Davies' 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, At My Heart's Core, dealt with similar themes. It was set in provincial Canada in 1837 and shows Davies' growing mastery of historical material.
From Dramatist to Novelist
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 (1954) 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 (1958) 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' reputation as a novelist.
Even as he switched media, Davies never lost his love for the stage. He helped found the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, served on its Board of Directors, and hired Tyrone Guthrie as creative director. In 1960, Davies adapted his novel Leaven of Malice for the New York stage. Directed by Guthrie using experimental techniques, the play failed with critics and folded after six performance. Disappointment over this experience all but drove Davies away from theater, though he did continue to write and lecture on the subject.
As his creative reputation grew, Davies found himself in demand for academic appointments. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity College from 1961 to 1962 and was named to the Master's Lodge at Massey College, a graduate wing of the University of Toronto, in 1963. He quit his newspaper post at the Examiner in 1962 to concentrate on these teaching endeavors.
Writes Deptford Trilogy
In 1970, Davies published a new novel, Fifth Business, the first installment of his "Deptford Trilogy." The book chronicles 60 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 bestseller in America, cementing Davies stature as an international author of the first rank.
Davies followed Fifth Business with another Deptford novel, The Manticore (1972). Again set amongst the Canadian upper classes, the book follows David Staunton, an alcoholic attorney, on a spiritual odyssey of self-discovery. Davies' dry, analytic style put off some readers, while others found his command of symbols and allusions masterful. Another highbrow hit with readers, The Manticore received the Canadian Governor General's Award for excellence.
Rounding out the Deptford trilogy was World of Wonder (1975). Comprising the story of Paul Dempster, a character who had appeared 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 generally found it a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
1980s and Beyond
In the 1980s, Davies completed another trilogy of novels, revolving around the biography of Francis Cornish. The so-called "Cornish Trilogy" was another dense, erudite chronicle of upper class Canadian life. The second installment, What's Bred in the Bone (1985) earned Davies the 1986 Canadian Author's Association Literary Award for best fiction, as well as the New York National Arts Club's Medal of Honor for Literature. The other books in this series are The Rebel Angels (1982) and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988).
Davies also wrote novels outside the trilogy format. These included High Spirits (1983) and Murther & Walking Spirits (1991). The Cunning Man (1994), a novel in the form of a memoir by an aging physician, was called "as substantial and entertaining as any he has written" by Isabel Colegate in the New York Times Book Review.
Davies retired from teaching in 1981, but maintained his membership in various literary and academic societies as he worked on his various novels. He died of a stroke on December 2, 1995. His last book, a collection of non-fiction essays entitled The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books, was published posthumously in 1997.
Further Reading on William Robertson Davies
Anthony, Geraldine, Stage Voices: 12 Canadian Playwrights Talk about Their Lives and Work, Doubleday, 1978.
Contemporary Novelists, 5th edition, St. James, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 68, edited by W.H. New, Gale Research, 1988.
Grant, Judith Skelton, Robertson Davies, McClelland & Stewart, 1978.
Grant, Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, Penguin, 1994.
Peterman, Michael, Robertson Davies, Twayne, 1986.
Interview, March 1989.
New York Times, December 4, 1995.
New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1970; November 19, 1972; April 25, 1976; February 14, 1982; December 15, 1985; October 30, 1988; January 8, 1989; November 17, 1991; December 1, 1991; February 5, 1995.
Maclean's, December 18, 1995.
Time, December 18, 1995.