Places: The Deptford Trilogy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1983: Fifth Business, 1970; The Manticore, 1972; World of Wonders, 1975

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Moral

Time of work: 1908-1971

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedDeptford

Deptford. Deptford Trilogy, TheImaginary small rural Ontario town in which the series opens. Robertson Davies patterned Deptford after Thamesville, in which he lived as a small boy. The central characters Dunstan Ramsey, Boy Staunton, Paul Dempster, Mary Dempster, and Leola Cruikshank are first encountered in Deptford and from there move through the paths of their lives. Deptford is a portrait of a small Canadian rural town from about 1905 until 1920, marked out with the excitements and strange horrors of childhood that form the roots of adult life. Like all locations in the trilogy, Deptford provides a specific quality of time and place; however, Dunstan Ramsey’s narration gives readers an awareness that there is a quality to the place that makes it a universal picture of childhood and young adulthood.


*Toronto. Ontario city to which Dunstan goes after World War I to study at a university. He then begins his forty-year career teaching at Colborne College, a boys’ school partially modeled on Toronto’s Upper Canada College. Boy Staunton also studies in Toronto and embarks on his rise to riches and fame in that city. The climax of Fifth Business occurs when Boy Staunton dies in circumstances that leave a mystery not resolved until the end of the trilogy.

*Sankt Gallen

*Sankt Gallen. Also known as St. Gall, a Swiss city that is a principal location in all three novels. There Ramsey “writes” Fifth Business and lives with Liesl Vitzlipützli and Magnus after that novel’s mysterious denouement in Toronto. Liesl’s nineteenth century castle-house, Sorgenfrei (“free-of-care”), is perched on a mountainside outside St. Gall. There David Staunton, Boy’s lawyer-son, comes at the end of The Manticore. World of Wonders, Paul Dempster’s life story retold, is largely set in the house on the mountain as well, although the latter part of that narrative takes place in London.


*Zurich (ZEW-rihk). Swiss city to which David Staunton, Boy’s son, goes when he is forty to undergo Jungian analysis because he feels he is losing his self-control. His analysis elucidates his life story, his boyhood in Toronto, his schooling at Colborne College and Oxford, and his adult life in Toronto. His analysis features a courtroom of the mind in which he becomes prosecutor, defender, and judge.

The Cave

The Cave. Cavern in the mountains near St. Gall where Liesl takes David Staunton at the close of The Manticore. The cave is the most clearly mythic location in all three of the novels. Despite learning much about himself in analysis, Staunton is still a thinking rather than a feeling person. Deep in the cave, he and Liesl find evidences of ancient bear worshipers. Staunton fails to grasp the holiness of the location, but when he and Liesl leave the cave, their flashlight fails, and he experiences an agonized quarter-mile crawl in the dark that leads him to a psychic conversion.


*Passchendaele (PAHS-en-dahl-ah). French battlefield in World War I on which Dunstan Ramsey performs an act of heroism in a 1917 battle in which he loses a leg. While lying in the mud on the battlefield, he sees images of the Virgin Mary and Christ child in a ruined church and believes he has seen Mary Dempster, the mother of Paul, whom Ramsey comes to believe is a fool-saint, a holy innocent.

*Collége de Saint-Michel

*Collége de Saint-Michel (koh-LAYJ deh sahn-mee-SHEHL). Center of the Roman Catholic Bollandist order in Brussels, Belgium, to which Dunstan Ramsay goes after the war. His vision of the Madonna on the battlefield leads him to the study of the saints, and he travels Europe in search of statues and legends. Eventually, he becomes an associate of the Bollandists, the order responsible for assembling the histories of all the saints. His visits with them in Brussels help him clarify his ideas about the meaning and function of sainthood. His study of sainthood becomes a doorway into his larger understanding of human history and psychology.


*Guadalupe. Mexican city famous for its Madonna, in which Dunstan encounters Paul Dempster while he is searching for the miraculous Madonna. Dempster, now transformed into Magnus Eisengrim, is an elegant magician. Liesl, who is financing Dempster’s show, becomes Dunstan’s lover and friend.

BibliographyCameron, Elspeth, ed. Robertson Davies: An Appreciation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1991. Provides an interview with Davies and seventeen essays, some by such Canadian authors as John Kenneth Galbraith and Joyce Carol Oates.Davies, Robertson. One Half of Robertson Davies, 1977.Davis, J. Madison, ed. Conversations with Robertson Davies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. More than two dozen interviews with Davies, originally published in newspapers or magazines or presented over radio and television. Includes some reference to all the Deptford novels. Also provides a general introduction, a list of Davies’ books, a chronology of his life, and a helpful index.Forman, Robert J. “Robertson Davies,” in Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, 1985. Edited by Walton Beacham.Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies, 1978.Lawrence, Robert G., and Samuel L. Macey, eds. Studies in Robertson Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy.” Victoria, British Columbia: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1980. Eight essays on Davies’ craft that discuss the author’s interest in folklore, psychology, and theater. Davies’ introductory essay, “The Deptford Trilogy in Retrospect,” gives a valuable account of the trilogy’s genesis.Lecker, Robert, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, eds. Canadian Writers and Their Work, 1985.Monk, Patricia. The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Discusses Davies’ knowledge of psychology, specifically that of Carl Jung. Has a separate chapter on each novel in the trilogy, as well as a bibliography and an index.Peterman, Michael. Robertson Davies. Boston: Twayne, 1986. The first book-length study of Davies’ life and work. Includes a long chapter on the trilogy.
Categories: Places