Is it just my imagination or has Robertson Davies faded considerably over the past decade? I was sick in bed the middle of last week and, in my convalescence, pulled down a couple of his early novels to read¯only to be struck by how rarely one hears his name anymore. Before he died in 1995 at age eighty-two, he was talked up every year for the Nobel Prize, a little implausibly, but still, it’s not every novelist who gets mentioned in pre-announcement gossip. And now it is as though, not having reached the Nobel peak, he is destined to slide back down into the undifferentiated mass of forgotten authors.
That doesn’t seem quite fair. Davies always had character, and as I noted in an article on him at the time of his death, when a man has character, the hardest temptation to resist is the temptation to become a character¯and Robertson Davies was never a man to resist the temptation very strenuously. He set out early in life to become a character and to fashion himself into a type of the Edwardian eccentric¯complete with broad-brimmed hat, monocle, and walking stick. "Unless someone pretty desperate comes along," declared a 1937 Oxford student magazine about his time at university in England, "Robertson Davies looks like being the last of the real undergraduate ‘figures.’"
Judith Grant, one of Davies’ most devoted admirers and the editor of two collections of his newspaper work, wrote Robertson Davies: Man of Myth , the standard biography of the Canadian novelist, which is the place to go for all the good anecdotes and all the good yarns from Davies’ many careers: as the last of the Oxford aesthetes, as a stage manager at London’s Old Vic theater, as the newspaper columnist who created and popularized the curmudgeonly Canadian commentator "Samuel Marchbanks," as a hopeful young playwright, as a disappointed middle-aged playwright turning to novel-writing, as a relentless practical joker, and finally as the colorful Master of Massey College, brightest ornament of the University of Toronto and Canadian letters.
And yet, it is of course on his novels that Davies’ reputation must ultimately rest. Davies was a world-class comic writer, and after his Tempest-Tost , a first hilarious but somewhat plotless novel about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Tempest , he created with his second novel in 1954 a classic. Leaven of Malice , the second in the "Salterton Trilogy," recounts the events that follow when a false notice announcing the wedding between two children of professors from the local university is maliciously placed in the newspaper of a small Canadian city. Wise and witty, it is simultaneously Davies’ funniest novel and his kindest¯a nearly Dickensian novel that exposes the foibles of its characters but refuses to leave them shamed beyond redemption.
After A Mixture of Frailties , a transitional novel and the last to be set in Salterton, Davies produced in 1968 and 1969 what seemed at the time a major advance in his writing, Fifth Business , the first novel in the "Deptford Trilogy." The story of the endless consequences that unfold from a single snowball thrown by a schoolboy in a small village before Word War I, the novel follows through life a pair of boys as they advance in the Canadian social world. With Fifth Business ¯and The Manticore and World of Wonders , the books that completed the Deptford Trilogy¯Davies found a way to incorporate into the novel both his lifetime reading in the mythological researches of Carl Jung and whatever happened to fascinate him at the moment of writing. In the seven novels that followed Fifth Business , he managed to convert into Jungian archetypes a seemingly endless number of topics: hagiography, prestidigitation, psychoanalysis, gypsies, violin repair, Rabelaisian sexuality, academic rivalry, art forgery, genealogy, Wesleyan preaching, cinematography, homeopathic medicine, and much more besides. One constant in Davies’ fiction is the intrigues in the closes of Episcopalian cathedrals, and a fascination with high Anglicanism appears in all his novels. (Davies himself was received into the Church of England while an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1930s.)
In 1981 Davies published The Rebel Angels , the first in the "Cornish Trilogy" that would come to include What’s Bred in the Bone (1985) and The Lyre of Orpheus (1989). Telling the story of a rich young man’s courtship of a graduate student from a gypsy family, The Rebel Angels is regarded by many of Davies’ admirers as his finest novel¯as indeed it almost certainly is, with its blending of two distinct narrative voices, its clever portrayal of the many levels of Canadian society, and its surprising (and scatological) ending. And yet, fine as it is, The Rebel Angels may at last come to be seen as the novel with which it became clear that Davies’ turn down the lane of Carl Jung was ultimately a wrong turn (whatever the immediate improvement it brought to his fiction), the novel with which it became clear that Davies would never fulfill the Dickensian promise of Leaven of Malice .
Still, being forgotten seems too harsh. Last week I reread Tempest-Tost , Davies’ annual ghost tales, and his last novel the 1994 The Cunning Man . From the beginning of his career to the end, he could write prose that remains funny, and sharp, and wise. Pick up again his two best books, Leaven of Malice and The Rebel Angels , if it’s been awhile since you’ve read them. Remember why Robertson Davies shouldn’t be forgotten.