Authors: Robertson Davies

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017


August 28, 1913

Thamesville, Ontario, Canada

December 2, 1995

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Although beginning his career as a novelist relatively late in life, at age thirty-eight, William Robertson Davies became not only the best-known Canadian novelist of the twentieth century but indeed one of the leading writers of the world. He was born in Thamesville, Ontario, a small town about midway between Windsor and London; his father, William Rupert Davies, was a prominent publisher. After attending various local schools, Robertson Davies entered Upper Canada College, Toronto, and Queen’s University, Kingston, before taking a B.Litt. degree from Balliol College, University of Oxford, in 1938. Thereafter he joined the Old Vic Company in London as teacher and performer, leaving it to return to the publishing business in Canada in 1940. For two years, he served as literary editor of Saturday Night, a leading literary magazine, in Toronto; then he became the publisher and editor of the Peterborough, Ontario, Examiner for twenty years. He also was active in drama, writing plays, directing theatrical productions, and working with Tyrone Guthrie and others to resuscitate Canadian theater and establish the Stratford Theatrical Festival. In 1951, he began publishing fiction. Named professor of English at the University of Toronto in 1960, he became master of Massey College there in 1962 and remained until retirement in 1981; his annual college ghost stories were collected in High Spirits. He continued to reside in Toronto after retirement and to publish novels at regular intervals. Davies died in 1995, at eighty-two, as the result of a stroke.

{$S[A]Marchbanks, Samuel;Davies, Robertson}

Tempest-Tost, the first novel of the Salterton Trilogy, begins Davies’ presentation of life in a small Canadian university town. The choice of a Canadian setting is not accidental; from the onset of his career, Davies took it as part of his vocation to correct the shortcomings of Canadian culture by gently ridiculing them. Tempest-Tost also draws on Davies’ theatrical experience; its subject is the staging of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest by a local amateur company. Typical small-town tensions and animosities threaten to undermine the production, but Shakespeare proves capable of transcending petty rivalries and trivial antagonisms and of elevating some of the participants to new heights of awareness. Leaven of Malice extends the satire by deepening it: Local antagonism here springs from evil impulses, desires to hurt, rather than being merely casual eccentricities. A false engagement announcement inserted in a local newspaper on a malicious whim leads to open hostility between two families. Strangely, love grows out of this conflict; the couple, indifferent to each other previously, eventually marry. A Mixture of Frailties takes a young female singer from small-town Canada to the sophisticated world of European opera; it suggests that exposure to the wide world, while bearing risks, is necessary for full human development.

Robertson Davies in 1984.[ph]Davies, RobertsonDavies, Robertson[ph]Literature



(Library and Archives Canada)

The Salterton Trilogy gained international attention; the Deptford Trilogy raised Davies to the top rank of world authors. To the humor, deft characterization, and strong structure of the earlier set the successor added arcane anecdotal richness, religious mysticism, psychological depth, and expanded thematic range. These three novels all grow from a single event. During a quarrel between two ten-year-olds, Dunstan Ramsey and Percy “Boy” Staunton, Staunton loads a snowball with a rock. Dunstan evades the missile, which hits Mrs. Mary Dempster in the head, triggering a premature childbirth and eventually causing a complete mental breakdown. Each of the novels centers on one of the three male participants in this accident.

In Fifth Business, Davies’ most celebrated novel, Dunstan takes responsibility for the accident because he dodged and bears the burden of guilt. This guilt has driven him to religion for solace; he studies hagiography, the lives of saints, becoming the major Protestant authority on the subject. This study ultimately leads to his own salvation, obtained when Dunstan realizes that he was not intended to become a saint himself.

The same material appears from the perspective of Boy Staunton in The Manticore; it also is told in retrospect, following his mysterious death. He has been found in his car in Lake Ontario, his mouth stopped with the same rock that hit Mrs. Dempster. The novel traces the double mystery of the drowning and the rock. It leads to a performance by the illusionist Magnus Eisengrim (the stage name of Paul Dempster, the son born prematurely to Mrs. Dempster), during which a summoned brass head answers questions from the audience. Boy’s son David asks who killed his father. This question disrupts the show. David escapes in the confusion but suffers a breakdown. Eventually he is sent to Switzerland for psychotherapy, where he comes to accept his father’s life and death.

Paul Dempster takes center stage in World of Wonders. Kidnapped while a boy by a stage magician in a circuit carnival, he voluntarily joins the group to become a magician himself and to learn the secrets and the motives of his captor. After a sojourn in Europe as a stage double, he strikes out on his own as a master illusionist. In the course of these wanderings, he goes through several transformations of his own and ends with a transcendent comprehension of the way in which accident determines part of the purpose of human life. His experiences, paralleling in oblique ways the course of the protagonists of the other two novels, reveal the hidden affinities in the different yet related pilgrimages of three souls. He ends by gaining a superior understanding of the function of good and evil in developing the soul.

Davies went on to write the Cornish Trilogy. Whereas the earlier trilogies took their names from the fictional towns of Salterton and Deptford (based on Peterborough and Thamesville, respectively), the next trilogy took its title from the name of a prominent family named Cornish, whose lives are followed over several generations. In The Rebel Angels, Davies takes as subject the academic world, specifically a college of the University of Toronto. Francis Cornish, an eccentric art collector, has named a number of professors as executors of his estate. A subplot traces the affair between one of these professors and his graduate assistant, a beautiful woman of Gypsy descent. Another subplot explores the research of another professor, an expert in human refuse, who develops a remarkable theory of filth therapy. A third examines the unsettling effects on the faculty of the return to campus of a brilliant but unprincipled professor who had been dismissed for unethical activities.

What’s Bred in the Bone takes the form of a posthumous biography of Francis Cornish told by two angels, the Angel of Biography from the staff of the Recording Angel, called the Lesser Zadkiel, and Cornish’s personal daimon, Maimas. Both shape and influence the life they recount; both, in fact, are necessary for Cornish to live a complete life. The story follows Cornish from his boyhood in rural Ontario at the start of the twentieth century, through his training in art under the best restorer in Europe, his civilian experiences in Europe during World War II, and his work in detecting art forgeries after the war. By the end of the novel, both angels are revealed to be metaphors rather than actual spirits, emblems of the two spiritual forces implicit in the complete life. In general, Cornish’s object is to preserve the inner vision of the great artists of the past in a world that has replaced it with spurious sensationalism or empty reasoning. Like all of Davies’ works, this one abounds with incidental information on a cornucopia of topics.

The Lyre of Orpheus, which closes the trilogy, returns to Toronto and to the theater, specifically a performance of an unfinished opera by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Like World of Wonders, which ends the Deptford Trilogy, it moves the story onto a higher plane, allowing the reader to see members of the Cornish family in a new light.

Davies completed two other novels, which might have been intended as part of a fourth trilogy. Murther and Walking Spirits is told from the point of view of a murdered man, Conroy “Gil” Gilmartin. Gilmartin, formerly the entertainment editor of a newspaper, follows his murderer to a film festival. Instead of seeing what everyone else sees on the screen, however, Gilmartin sees a series of films from the collective unconscious, tracing his ancestors from Wales and colonial America to twentieth-century Ontario. He also manages to haunt his murderer sufficiently that the murderer confesses, twice.

The Cunning Man returns to the time of Gil’s childhood, being told from the point of view of his godfather, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, who suspects he may be the boy’s father. Dr. Hullah witnessed a mysterious event in Toronto in the 1950’s, when the saintly priest in St. Aidan’s Church died while celebrating communion. Gil’s new wife, who also works for the newspaper, wants to write a story about the event. Dr. Hullah remembers much more than he tells, going back to days at Colborne College, where he studied under Dunstan Ramsey (a principal character in the Deptford Trilogy) and was friendly with Jonathan’s father and the priest’s assistant, both natives of Salterton.

Author Works Long Fiction: Tempest-Tost, 1951 (with Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties known as the Salterton Trilogy) Leaven of Malice, 1954 A Mixture of Frailties, 1958 Fifth Business, 1970 (with The Manticore and World of Wonders known as the Deptford Trilogy) The Manticore, 1972 World of Wonders, 1975 The Rebel Angels, 1981 (with What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus known as the Cornish Trilogy) What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985 The Lyre of Orpheus, 1988 Murther and Walking Spirits, 1991 The Cunning Man, 1994 Short Fiction: High Spirits, 1982 Drama: Overlaid, pr. 1947 At the Gates of the Righteous, pr. 1948 Eros at Breakfast, pr. 1948 Hope Deferred, pr. 1948 The Voice of the People, pr. 1948 Eros at Breakfast, and Other Plays, pb. 1949 (includes Hope Deferred, Overlaid, At the Gates of the Righteous, and The Voice of the People) At My Heart’s Core, pr., pb. 1950 King Phoenix, pr. 1950 A Masque of Aesop, pr., pb. 1952 A Jig for the Gypsy, pr. 1954 (broadcast and staged) Hunting Stuart, pr. 1955 Love and Libel: Or, The Ogre of the Provincial World, pr., pb. 1960 (adaptation of his novel Leaven of Malice) A Masque of Mr. Punch, pr. 1962 Hunting Stuart, and Other Plays, pb. 1972 (includes King Phoenix and General Confession) Question Time, pr., pb. 1975 Teleplay: Fortune, My Foe, 1948 Nonfiction: Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, 1939 Shakespeare for Younger Players: A Junior Course, 1942 The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, 1947 The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks, 1949 Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953, 1953 (with Tyrone Guthrie) Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1954, 1954 (with Guthrie) Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1955, 1955 (with Guthrie); A Voice from the Attic, 1960 The Personal Art: Reading to Good Purpose, 1961 Marchbanks’ Almanack, 1967 Stephen Leacock: Feast of Stephen, 1970 One Half of Robertson Davies, 1977 The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, 1979 The Well-Tempered Critic, 1981 Reading and Writing, 1993 The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books, 1997 Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre, 1998 “For Your Eyes Alone”: Letters, 1976–1995, 1999 Bibliography Cameron, Elspeth, ed. Robertson Davies: An Appreciation. New York: Broadview Press, 1991. Provides criticism and interpretations of Davies’s life and works. Bibliography. Cheaney, J. B. “Bred in the Bone: The Fiction of Canadian Author Robertson Davies.” The World & I 16, no. 8 (August, 2001): 247–255. Profiles the life and works of Davies. Davies, Robertson. The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981. The first half of this volume is a collection of essays on the theater, spiced with Davies’s own acerbic wit but revealing his benevolent attitude toward traditional, even medieval, dramatic forms. Contains many reviews of the festival seasons at Stratford, Ontario. Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. New York: Viking, 1994. The authorized biography, covering all but the last year of Davies’s life. Provides critical commentary on his novels as well as information on his dealings with publishers. Heintzman, Ralph H., ed. Journal of Canadian Studies 12 (February, 1977). A special issue of Davies criticism; much of the scholarly work on Davies appears only in Canadian publications. This special edition includes a valuable Davies log of writing and important events, with six other essays examining the Deptford Trilogy. La Bossière, Camille R., and Linda Morra, eds. Robertson Davies: A Mingling of Contrarieties. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001. Examines, among other topics, Davies’s humor, “masks,” and postmodern elements in his works. Bibliography. Lawrence, Robert G., and Samuel L. Macey, eds. Studies in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1980. Davies introduces this collection with a personal retrospective of the creative impulses that resulted in the Deptford Trilogy. The studies range from traditional historical criticism to folklore backgrounds to Jungian analysis to examinations of law. An opening article surveying the Salterton novels brings the reader up to the Deptford novels. Little, Dave. Catching the Wind: The Religious Vision of Robertson Davies. Toronto: ECW Press, 1996. Discusses an important theme in Davies’s fiction: “the search for the self as a religious journey.” Includes a helpful list of biblical allusions in the novels through Murther and Walking Spirits. MacLulich, T. D. Between Europe and America: The Canadian Tradition in Fiction. Toronto: ECW Press, 1988. Despite its title, this study deals with Davies’s earliest plays, Hope Deferred and Overlaid, before a brief synopsis of Fortune, My Foe and At My Heart’s Core. Much on Davies’s prose work as well. Helpful index. Monk, Patricia. The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. The most thorough book-length study of Jungian influences in all of Davies’s writing, but especially concentrating on The Manticore. Monk finds the archetypal constructions of the characters a more overpowering leitmotif than Davies’s own autobiographical renditions, and she systematizes the Deptford Trilogy’s characters around the traditional figures of Jungian psychology. This study was begun in her essay “Davies and the Drachenloch,” in Lawrence and Macey, above. Peterman, Michael. Robertson Davies. Boston: Twayne, 1986. The first four chapters deal with Davies’ journalistic and dramatic careers; the last chapters discuss the Salterton novels, the Deptford Trilogy, and The Rebel Angels. Peterman explains well the importance of Davies’s Canadian birth and childhood. Valuable bibliography (to 1985) and index. Steinberg, M. W. “Don Quixote and the Puppets: Theme and Structure in Robertson Davies’ Drama.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. Offers a structural analysis of Davies’s early plays, notably Fortune, My Foe, At My Heart’s Core, and A Jig for the Gypsy. “Eminently stageworthy and . . . a valuable contribution to a genre that Canadian talent has unfortunately neglected,” Steinberg notes. Woodcock, George. “A Cycle Completed: The Nine Novels of Robertson Davies.” Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review 126 (Autumn, 1990): 33–48. A good overview of Davies’s major literary contribution, as a backdrop for his dramatic output. Woodcock sees Davies’s “traditional” forms as “calming and comforting” in an otherwise “permissive” literary world.

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