Davies, Robertson

Davies, Robertson
▪ 1996

      Canadian writer (b. Aug. 28, 1913, Thamesville, Ont.—d. Dec. 2, 1995, Orangeville, Ont.), was considered one of the finest and most important literary figures of his generation. Though his works comprised plays, essays, and criticism in addition to fiction, he was thought of primarily as a storyteller whose plots, dealing with moral conflict and self-discovery, were influenced by his interest in Jungian psychology. Davies earned (1938) a bachelor's degree from Balliol College, Oxford, and then spent two years in London as a teacher, actor, and director at the Old Vic before returning to Canada to work for his father's newspaper business. He was literary editor (1940-42) of Saturday Night and then served for some 20 years as editor and publisher of the Peterborough (Ont.) Examiner. For the Examiner he was ghostwriter for a column supposedly contributed by a humorous curmudgeon named Samuel Marchbanks, and he wrote many of his plays during this period. Davies became professor of English at the University of Toronto's Trinity College in 1960 and in 1963 was appointed master of its new Massey College. He was given emeritus status when he retired in 1981. Of all his works, which were translated into 17 languages, Davies was best known for his three trilogies. The Salterton trilogy, a comedy of small-town social manners, includes Davies' first novel, Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), which won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and A Mixture of Frailties (1958). The first volume of the Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business (1970), brought Davies international acclaim. It and the trilogy's two other novels, The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975), dealt with the effects of a tragic event on the lives of three men. The Cornish trilogy—The Rebel Angels (1981), What's Bred in the Bone (1985), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988)—further cemented his reputation. His last book, The Cunning Man, was published in 1994. Davies, the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the first Canadian to be so honoured.

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▪ Canadian author
in full  William Robertson Davies  
born Aug. 28, 1913, Thamesville, Ont., Can.
died Dec. 2, 1995, Orangeville, Ont.
 novelist and playwright whose works offer penetrating observations on Canadian provincialism and prudery.

      Educated in England at the University of Oxford, Davies had training in acting, directing, and stage management as a member of the Old Vic Repertory Company. He edited the Peterborough Examiner (1942–63), a newspaper owned by his family, and taught English at the University of Toronto (1960–81; emeritus thereafter).

      Davies' early reputation was based on the plays Eros at Breakfast (1949) and At My Heart's Core (1950), which are satires on Canadian standards and values. He also published collections of humorous essays, such as The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947); The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), in which an irascible old bachelor's opinions highlight the problems of sustaining culture in Canada; and Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (1967). Davies' three trilogies of novels secured his reputation as Canada's foremost man of letters. Known as a traditional storyteller, he was a master of imaginative writing and wicked wit. The Salterton trilogy consists of Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958), all of which are comedies of manners set in a provincial Canadian university town. Even better known are the novels of the Deptford trilogy, consisting of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). These books examine the intersecting lives of three men from the small Canadian town of Deptford and interweave Davies' moral concerns with bits of arcane lore and his enduring interest in Jungian psychotherapy. The Cornish trilogy consists of The Rebel Angels (1981), What's Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988); these novels satirize the art world, grand opera, and other aspects of high culture in Canada. Murther & Walking Spirits (1991) was written from the perspective of a dead man. The Cunning Man (1994), set in Toronto, spans the 20th century through the memoirs of a doctor; characters from Davies' earlier works also appear in this novel. His later nonfiction included The Mirror of Nature (1983).

      Davies was primarily concerned with the moral conflicts of characters in small Canadian towns. In the course of his narratives he wittily satirized bourgeois provincialism, explored the relation between mysticism and art, and affirmed the possibilities for self-knowledge through Jungian philosophy.

Additional Reading
Judith Skelton Grant, Robertson Davies: Man of Myth (1994); Michael Peterman, Robertson Davies (1986); Elspeth Cameron (ed.), Robertson Davies: An Appreciation (1991).

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Universalium. 2010.

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