Robertson Davies

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Robertson Davies
Born 28 August 1913 (1913-08-28)
Thamesville, Ontario, Canada
Died December 2, 1995(1995-12-02) (aged 82)
Orangeville, Ontario, Canada
Occupation Journalist, playwright, professor, critic, novelist
Nationality Canadian
Genre novels, plays, essays and reviews
Notable works The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy, The Salterton Trilogy

William Robertson Davies, CC, OOnt, FRSC, FRSL (August 28, 1913 – December 2, 1995) was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best known and most popular authors, and one of its most distinguished "men of letters", a term Davies is variously said to have gladly accepted for himself and to have detested.[1] Davies was the founding Master of Massey College, a graduate residential college associated with the University of Toronto.


Early life

Robertson Davies was born in Thamesville, Ontario the third son to William Rupert Davies and Florence Sheppard McKay.[2] Growing up, Davies was surrounded by books and lively language. His father, Senator William Rupert Davies, was a newspaperman from Welshpool in Wales, and both parents were voracious readers. He, similarly, read everything he could. He also participated in theatrical productions as a child, when he developed a lifelong interest in drama.

He spent his formative years in Renfrew, Ontario (Blairlogie in his What's Bred in the Bone); many of his novel's characters are named after families he knew there. He attended Upper Canada College in Toronto from 1926 to 1932 and while there attended services at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.[3] He would later leave the Presbyterian Church and join Anglicanism over objections to Calvinist theology. Davies later used his experience of the ceremonial of High Mass at St Mary Magdalene's in his novel The Cunning Man.

After Upper Canada College, he studied at Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario from 1932 until 1935. At Queen's, he was enrolled as a special student not working towards a degree, and wrote for the student paper, The Queen's Journal. He left Canada to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a BLitt degree in 1938. The next year he published his thesis, Shakespeare's Boy Actors, and embarked on an acting career outside London. In 1940, he played small roles and did literary work for the director at the Old Vic Repertory Company in London. Also that year, Davies married Australian Brenda Mathews, whom he had met at Oxford, and who was then working as stage manager for the theatre.[2] They spent their honeymoon in the Welsh countryside at Fronfraith Hall, Abermule, Montgomery; the family house owned by Rupert Davies.[4][5]

Davies' early life provided him with themes and material to which he would often return in his later work, including the theme of Canadians returning to England to finish their education, and the theatre.

Middle years

Davies and his new bride returned to Canada in 1940, where he took the position of literary editor at Saturday Night magazine. Two years later, he became editor of the Peterborough Examiner in the small city of Peterborough, Ontario, northeast of Toronto. Again he was able to mine his experiences here for many of the characters and situations which later appeared in his novels and plays.[2]

Davies, along with family members William Rupert Davies and Arthur Davies, purchased several media outlets. Along with the Examiner newspaper, they owned the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper, CHEX-AM, CKWS-AM, CHEX-TV, and CKWS-TV.

During his tenure as editor of the Examiner, which lasted from 1942 to 1955 (he subsequently served as publisher from 1955 to 1965), Davies published a total of 18 books, produced several of his own plays, and wrote articles for various journals.[2] For example, Davies set out his theory of acting in his Shakespeare for Young Players (1947), and then put theory into practice when he wrote Eros at Breakfast, a one-act play which was named best Canadian play of the year by the 1948 Dominion Drama Festival.[6]

Eros at Breakfast was followed in close succession by Fortune, My Foe in 1949 and At My Heart's Core, a three-act play, in 1950. Meanwhile, Davies was writing humorous essays in the Examiner under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks. Some of these were collected and published in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and later in Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (1967). An omnibus edition of the three Marchbanks books, with new notes by the author, was published under the title The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks in 1985.[7]

During the 1950s, Davies played a major role in launching the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada. He served on the Festival's board of governors, and collaborated with the Festival's director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, in publishing three books about the Festival's early years.[8][2]

Although his first love was drama and he had achieved some success with his occasional humorous essays, Davies found his greatest success in fiction. His first three novels, which later became known as The Salterton Trilogy, were Tempest-Tost (1951, originally drafted as a play), Leaven of Malice (1954) which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, and A Mixture of Frailties (1958).[7] These novels explored the difficulty of sustaining a cultural life in Canada, and life on a small-town newspaper, subjects of which Davies had first-hand knowledge.


File:Massey college.jpg
Exterior of the college from the southeast on Hoskin Avenue, showing residence of the master

In 1960, Davies joined Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he would teach literature until 1981. The following year he published a collection of essays on literature, A Voice From the Attic, and was awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal for his literary achievements.[2]

In 1963, he became the Master of Massey College, the University of Toronto's new graduate college.[2] During his stint as Master, he initiated a tradition of writing and telling ghost stories at the yearly Christmas celebrations.[9] His stories were later collected in the book, High Spirits (1982).[7]


Davies drew on his interest in Jungian psychology to create Fifth Business (1970), a novel that relies heavily on Davies' own experiences, his love of myth and magic and his knowledge of small-town mores. The narrator, like Davies, is of immigrant Canadian background, with a father who runs the town paper. The book's characters act in roles that roughly correspond to Jungian archetypes according to Davies' belief in the predominance of spirit over the things of the world.[2]

Davies built on the success of Fifth Business with two more novels: The Manticore (1972), a novel cast largely in the form of a Jungian analysis (for which he received that year's Governor General's Literary Award),[10] and World of Wonders (1975). Together these three books came to be known as The Deptford Trilogy.

1980s and 1990s

When Davies retired from his position at the university, his seventh novel, a satire of academic life, The Rebel Angels (1981), was published, followed by What's Bred in the Bone (1985) which was short-listed for the Booker Prize for fiction in 1986.[10] The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) follows these two books in what became known as The Cornish Trilogy.[7]

During his retirement from academe he continued to write novels which further established him as a major figure in the literary world: Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) and The Cunning Man (1994).[7] A third novel in what would have been a further trilogy — the Toronto Trilogy — was in progress at the time of Davies' death.[2] He also realized a long-held dream when he penned the libretto to an opera: The Golden Ass, based on The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, just like that written by one of the characters in Davies' 1958 A Mixture of Frailties. The opera was performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto, in April, 1999, several years after Davies' death.[11]

Davies was a fine public speaker—deft, often humorous, and unafraid to be unfashionable. Often asked if he used a computer, Davies said in 1987: "I don't want a word-processor. I process my own words. Helpful people assure me that a word-processor would save me a great deal of time. But I don't want to save time. I want to write the best book I can, and I have whatever time it takes to make that attempt."[citation needed] In its obituary, The Times wrote: 'Davies encompassed all the great elements of life...His novels combined deep seriousness and psychological inquiry with fantasy and exuberant mirth.'[12] He remained close friends with John Kenneth Galbraith, attending Galbraith's eighty-fifth birthday party in Boston in 1993,[13] and became so close a friend and colleague of the American novelist John Irving that Irving gave one of the scripture readings at Davies' funeral in Trinity College, Toronto chapel. He also wrote in support of Salman Rushdie when the latter was threatened by a fatwā from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in reaction to supposed anti-Islam expression in his novel The Satanic Verses.[14]

Awards and recognition

  • Won the Dominion Drama Festival Award for best Canadian play in 1948 for Eros at Breakfast.
  • Won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1955 for Leaven of Malice.
  • Won the Lorne Pierce Medal for his literary achievements in 1961.
  • Won the Governor-General's Literary Award in the English language fiction category in 1972 for The Manticore.
  • Short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1986 for What's Bred in the Bone.
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Oxford, 1991.[2]
  • First Canadian to become an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.[2]
  • Companion of the Order of Canada.[2]
  • Park in Toronto named after him in 2007.[15]




Fictional essays

edited by the author into:



Short story collection




Davies in popular culture



  1. He himself responded to Peter Gzowski's query as to whether he accepted the label, "Well, I would be delighted to accept it. In fact I think it's an entirely honourable and desirable title but you know people are beginning to despise it." J. Madison Davis (ed.), Conversations with Robertson Davies (Mississippi University Press, 1989), p.99.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 "Robertson Davies". Historica. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 6 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Penguin USA: Book Club Reading Guides: The Cunning Man
  4. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant. Published December 31st 1994 by Viking Books
  5. English E (ed) 1999 "A Collected History of the Communities of Llandyssil, Abermule and Llanmerewig". Section 6, pt. 1
  6. "Robertson Davies, Playwright". Google. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 7 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 "Robertson Davies Canadian Books & Authors". Canadian Books & Authors. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 7 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Stratford Festival". Stratford Festival. Archived from the original on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 9 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "A Bibliography of Robertson Davies". Google. Archived from the original on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 15 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Canadian Novelist Robertson Davies Honoured with Postage Stamp". The National Post. Archived from the original on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 15 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "The Golden Ass". Variety. Archived from the original on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 15 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, pp.532ff photos.
  14. "The Rushdie File". Google. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 8 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Park named after Robertson Davies Globe and Mail, May 31, 2007.

External links