The Deptford Trilogy

On this first day of Robertson Davies Reading Week, it seems appropriate to celebrate what is probably Davies’s most well-known work: the cycle of three novels known as The Deptford Trilogy. I’m so glad that my invitation to contribute to this event prodded Chris of Calmgrove to finally read these books, because I thought he would love them — and I was right! See below for more about his experience, a rich reflection upon a many-faceted work that continues to enchant readers worldwide.

Guest post by Chris Lovegrove, Calmgrove

Time is. Time was. Time is past.

“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”

The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?

The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.

The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?

Medieval image of “Ysengrimus”

Further, the myriad dissembling themes in the trilogy are nearly all signposts to the spell being cast over us: Ramsay’s cack-handed attempts at sleight of hand, and Dempster’s mastery of conjuring; the roles soldiers must play in the theatre of war, and the assumption of stage names in travelling shows and in repertory; the masks and make-up that hide our true selves from the audience, and the personas we assume and the symbols we acquire to play the parts we wish to present. Such is ‘fifth business’, the fictional term the author endows on the figure who is the catalyst to an action; such too is the manticore, a composite animal of myth which was reputed to devour humans, and also Eisengrim, the wolf of medieval fable; while the World of Wonders in the third novel refers to the North American carnivals which in the early 20th century displayed freak shows and acts — not all of them genuine — from bearded ladies and sword-swallowers to strongmen and conjurors.

If the Deptford Trilogy was only about playing around with themes and symbols and words it would still be a fine creation. But it is of course more than that. It concerns itself with big themes that humans have struggled with for eons, themes such as conscience, guilt, culpability, courage, love and obsession. Was Ramsay, who ducked when his friend ‘Boy’ Staunton threw the snowball, responsible for Paul Dempster’s early birth and the descent of Paul’s mother into a kind of half-life? Was Ramsay’s award for bravery on the battlefield due to courage or the madness that comes out of war? Does David Staunton deserve more love from his father than his father is able to give? And do Paul Dempster’s undoubted skills and talents, obsessively learnt and perfected, compensate for the dubious part he plays in the deaths of the men whom he regards as having abused him?

The three novels focus almost entirely on four men, three who are near contemporaries plus the son of one of them, and the author explores their personalities and psychologies in great depth. But though women appear to play rather secondary roles it is they who, as catalysts or as matrices, effect change. In the first book we are presented with several women who figure in Ramsay’s life. His mother dominates his early years but he is drawn more and more to the ‘holy fool’ who is Paul’s mother. Then there is his first love Leola, whom he loses to his boyhood rival but with whom he will continue being in touch to the end of her life; and Diana, who becomes his nurse, lover and friend but not a wife. In the middle instalment David Staunton never quite connects with his mother and despises his stepmother, but does experience transference with his psychoanalyst Johanna. In the final book we hear more of Liesl, business partner (and more) to Eisengrim; but the female figures now are more transitory, background to the egoists that are the conjuror and to the narrator Ramsay. In fact, the final word is just that: egoist!

Vermont sideshow, 1940s

Though said with considerable humour it is Liesl who declares it, and as a comment it is both insightful and fitting that it should be a woman. She it is who is the voice behind the Brazen Head act that delivers the shocking statement that follows ‘Boy’ Staunton’s death in Fifth Business, she it is who may or may not be the woman in David’s dream that ends The Manticore, and she alone who delivers the judgement at the conclusion of World of Wonders.

Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head originally pronounced the dread words ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past.’ Perhaps significantly, it’s a trilogy in miniature.

18 thoughts on “The Deptford Trilogy

  1. Ah, beautifully described, Chris. This is one of my favourite books, and you’ve gathered all of the threads that pull me back to reading it again, and again.


    1. Thanks, Cath. As a classical musician I’m drawn to literary works that are like musical pieces, the kind that inexplicably move me with an unexpected emotion but also ones that I hugely appreciate for their orchestration, pace, thematic motifs and power to conjure up images. This trilogy for me does precisely that and by all accounts his other writings do that too. 😊


      1. Wow, you’ve just turned my mind round, Chris. I often find music that works for me in story terms, but somehow I’ve never turned that around and thought about stories in music terms. And that despite the fact that I frequently use music in creative writing sessions! Thank you.


  2. I finished Leaven of Malice yesterday, I enjoyed it every bit as much as Tempest Tost a few years ago. I have had The Deptford Trilogy recommended to me a few times, so I will be looking out for it.


  3. You remind me of why I loved these books when I first read them, 26 years ago this week. I had a lull in the academic pace at that time, having just given birth to my first child, and I have no lull now but you’ve renewed my intentions of rereading The Deptford Trilogy.


  4. Wonderful review of the trilogy which makes me even more eager to read the next two!

    Legerdemain is a perfect term for it, but I thought more it was the author using misdirection…I never thought to doubt Dunny’s narration. I will keep that in mind when I read on.


    1. We all mostly try to conceal our major faults by drawing attention to minor ones, or at least that’s what I often do! I suspect this is what Ramsay (I can’t think of him as Dunny, somehow!) is doing here.


  5. I read the Cornish trilogy a couple of summers ago, and I know exactly what you mean, Chris, about how Davies so neatly pulls together various themes while also creating a complex tale that hooks readers from the beginning. I’ll be putting Deptford on my 2020 TBR list.


    1. As luck would have it (not!) we’ve just acquired the Cornish trilogy so I shall have those thematic delights to come; but as Emily has just finished Salterton (after Deptford) I think that shall be my first port of call…


  6. Lovely job you’ve done here of summarizing such incredibly complex and layered stories. And, yet, one can also just sink into them and let it all happen.

    Although I do remember being disappointed with some of his female characters (being a little less developed, but perhaps they were simply more archetypal), I have always felt that, overall, it was just as you’ve described in these three, the women might not be center stage in the action we are witnessing directly, but their actions are fundamentally important to everything that unfolds.


    1. Thanks so much for the compliments! I found it helpful, after having only reviewed each individual novel, to do this overview and try to spot the broad brush themes that I previously had missed, like the only apparent sidelining of women. Though we only get a glimpse of Liesl now and again (and Diana, and the rest) I would have loved to have had her story from her point of view.


  7. I just finished Fifth Business, and enjoyed its slow, thoughtful pace and complex themes. I’ll be interested to see how the next two books compare. Thank you for this helpful analysis of the trilogy.


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