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.

Robertson Davies Reading Week

Welcome to this celebration of the works of Robertson Davies, one of my favorite authors — and one I’ve found to be sadly not much discussed in the blogosphere. I hope to change that, at least for this week … and I hope the effects will continue to reverberate in your reading life, as there’s much more to explore than we can possibly cover in this short time.

This is an informal event, with no set readalong or any requirements whatsoever. Please feel free to read anything by Robertson Davies that you wish; leave a comment if there’s any link you’d like to share; on social media, use the tag #ReadingRobertsonDavies. I’ll do a round-up at the end of the week.

Or just see what others have to say, and make your own reading plans later. For your pleasure and inspiration, I’ve invited some blogging friends to share thoughts on a variety of subjects:

  • Chris of Calmgrove will start us off tomorrow by considering the enduring appeal of The Deptford Trilogy.
  • I will follow up on Tuesday with an appreciation of two of Davies’s nonfiction collections, The Merry Heart and Happy Alchemy.
  • Next, on Wednesday Lizzie Ross, Writer sees what can be gleaned about Davies from one volume of his published letters, For Your Eye Alone.
  • On Thursday Naomi of Consumed by Ink will conjure up the author’s inimitable voice in High Spirits, a set of ghost stories that he originally told each Christmas while serving as Master of Massey College;
  • And finally, on Friday we say farewell as Buried in Print offers a look at Davies’s next-to-last novel, Murther and Walking Spirits (narrated from beyond the grave, fittingly enough).

I am very grateful for all these contributions; I do hope you will enjoy them, and that you’ll share your own thoughts and experiences with us. It should be a marvelous week!

“Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?” –Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

Robertson Davies Reading Week is coming!

So, now that I’ve gotten somewhat settled in my new home, I can spare time to think about my upcoming event: Robertson Davies Reading Week!

I’m thrilled to finally be giving some extra attention to one of my favorite authors, along with several blogging friends who have kindly agreed to do guest posts or to allow me to link to their planned reviews. The week will be August  25 to 31, to coordinate with Davies’s birthdate, August 28. Davies died in 1995 at the age of 82, but we will celebrate his 106th birthday in his honor.

More about that later — for now, the important thing is for you to find something to read. Some people have asked about a recommended order or starting point for Davies’s work, so here is a brief guide to your choices. This is not an exhaustive bibliography, but I have personally read and enjoyed every book on this list, and I hope you will too. Links are to Goodreads for plot summaries and further information.


Davies wrote eleven full-length novels, which fall into three trilogies related by setting and characters, plus two final novels that would have become a trilogy had he lived to complete the third. The “trilogy” idea was influenced by the work of Joyce Cary, a novelist Davies admired greatly. (If you have time to do some related reading, Cary’s trilogy culminating in The Horse’s Mouth is well worth a look.)

I do not think it’s absolutely necessary to read any of the trilogies in order. Characters and events are introduced in earlier books that are more meaningful in later books when you have that background. However, these are not conventionally chronological series; often they explore the same material from different points of view, or are set in the same location but otherwise loosely connected.

Where to begin? I started with his first novel, Tempest-Tost, and never looked back. Many people begin with Fifth Business, probably his most well-known work. My personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone, is the middle book of a trilogy but can be read on its own. His last novel, The Cunning Man, is a standalone that deals with mortality and the art of healing, unsurprisingly at the forefront of an aging novelist’s concerns. But there are many other possibilities; I would say to feel free to pick up the book that intrigues you the most for whatever reason, and if you like it you can move on to the others.

The Salterton Trilogy: Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, A Mixture of Frailties

The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders

The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus

Two Toronto novels: Murther and Walking Spirits, The Cunning Man


Davies wrote and lectured on a wide variety of subjects, and many of these pieces have been collected in various forms. If you share any of Davies’s “enthusiasms” — notably music, the theatre, and of course reading — you may enjoy these as well.

The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

The Merry Heart: Reflectiong on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books

Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre

A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading


If you just can’t get enough RD, check out his collected letters, diaries, the early newspaper columns by his alter ego Samuel Marchbanks, or his ghost stories told each Christmastime while he was Master of Massey College.

For Your Eye Alone: The Letters of Robertson Davies

A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories


Whew! Just making this list has made me itchy to get reading. I hope you have been inspired as well, and that you’ll join us for the week. What would you like to pick up first?

Who wants to read Robertson Davies?



A couple of days ago I saw the following tweet by librarian Nancy Pearl:
Well, I’ve read all of Robertson Davies’s novels, and as much of his nonfiction as I could get my hands on, and even his published diaries and letters and a biography … you could call me a fan. I agree with Nancy Pearl that he deserves more attention, and I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage he gets within our usually literate book blogging community. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a Robertson Davies Reading Week, to celebrate one of my favorite writers, and help introduce him to some new readers.

When should it happen? I’m thinking maybe in August, to celebrate his birthday — or perhaps earlier in the summer. It will be a pretty free-form event, with posts focusing on various books and the chance to share thoughts about whatever you may have been reading yourself.

I have some bloggers in mind to ask for guest posts, but if you’d like to volunteer, please let me know. In the meantime, go to your local bookstore or library and get whatever RD material you can. You can read my post about Tempest Tost to learn more about why I think he’s so great.

Who would like to join me? Let’s give Nancy one less thing to be depressed about!

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

In Brief: Fabulous Fall Releases

All right, I’m a little late in the game since December is almost upon us, but I couldn’t let the year end without recommending some of the new releases I’ve read in the last few months. Whether you’re in the mood for a fast-paced tale of wolves and adventure for young readers, a genre-bending fantasy romp, a historical novel that will immerse you in the ancient world, or a diary chronicling a literary life within both the theater and academia, I hope you’ll find something to beguile you during the long winter nights to come.

WolfWilderThe Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: someone who takes in wolves that have been living in captivity and fits them for life in the wild again. In this brief novel set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, young Feo’s world is turned upside down when angry soldiers command her mother to stop “wilding” the wolves that are hunting down the Tsar’s game. I loved the parts of the book that dealt with Feo and the wolves, but was not so enamored with the rather muddled chase sequences and the improbable, violent resolution. I’ll definitely be looking for more by Rundell, though; I like her way of turning a phrase and her perceptive eye on the natural world.
August 25, 2015 from Simon and Schuster
Find The Wolf Wilder at Powell’s City of Books

sorcerer_front mech.inddSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
I was not as enchanted by this Regency-era fantasy as many other reviewers, but I did enjoy it on the whole. It’s extremely difficult to do something original in this genre by now without undue strain, but Cho’s contribution does bring something new to the party with the titular sorcerer, a former slave who’s been vaulted by circumstance into the highest magical post of the realm. Even more fun is the apprentice who forces himself upon him, a mixed-race orphan who’s trying to escape from a life of drudgery and unfold her magical powers (which as a mere female she’s supposed to keep strictly under wraps). In spite of the appealing verve and energy of the writing, there were some derivative echoes of Temeraire and Strange & Norrell, and times when the author’s narrative skills didn’t keep pace with her ideas. I hope that as she matures as a writer we may find the sequels an improvement.
• September 1, 2015 from Ace
Sorcerer to the Crown at Powell’s City of Books

SecretChord copyThe Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
An acclaimed historical novelist gives us yet another beautifully told story drawn from history and legend, this one based around the Biblical figure of King David. She grounds and humanizes the myth in vividly imagined portraits of the people who surrounded David, making her central character the prophet Natan. As Natan strives to understand and reconcile his own perceptions and memories of David’s conflicted nature, other voices also come to life, most memorably the women whose lives were touched and sometimes broken by David’s powerful divine mission. As these fell away in the latter part of the book, I found that it lost focus somewhat, but I was still absorbed in the rich, complex portrayal of a man with a destiny that was sometimes greater than he could bear.
• October 6, 2015 from Viking
The Secret Chord at Powell’s City of Books


CelticTempA Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry
And for something completely different, here’s the latest posthumous publication from one of my all time favorite novelists and essayists, the Canadian literary magus Robertson Davies. Davies was a voluminous diarist who kept multiple journals of his private and working life, and to publish them all would be a massive task (an online version is in the works). In this volume the editors have selected and interleaved about half of his output for the years 1959 to 1963. This was an important period of his life that included both a major failure — his play “Love and Libel” flopped in New York — and a significant new step — his appointment as Master of the new Massey College of the University of Toronto, and his involvement in its founding and construction. As opposed to the retrospective view of a memoirist or autobiographer, the diarist doesn’t know what is coming next in his story, and this gives it an immediacy that is very engaging. Though I was personally more interested in the theater portions of the diary than in the details of college funding and furnishing, I still read it from cover to cover with great appreciation for this glimpse into the life of one of the most intellectually stimulating writers I know.
• October 6, 2015 from McClelland and Stewart

An advance reading copy of The Secret Chord and a finished copy of A Celtic Temperament were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Words and Pictures: The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

The kitten has a luxurious, Bohemian, unpuritanical nature. It eats six meals a day, plays furiously with a toy mouse and a piece of rope, and suddenly falls into a deep sleep whenever the fit takes it. It never feels the need to do anything to justify its existence; it does not want to be a Good Citizen; it has never heard of Service. It knows that it is beautiful and delightful, and it considers that a sufficient contribution to the general good. And in return for its beauty and charm it expects fish, meat, and vegetables, a comfortable bed, a chair by the grate fire, and endless petting. The people who yelp so persistently for social security should take a lesson from kittens; they have only to be beautiful and charming, and they will get it without asking.

Robertson Davies, The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1986)
Image: Girl with a Cat by Auguste Renoir (from Harriet Devine’s Blog)

My First Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Robertson Davies first novel

When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies’s first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s play in a provincial Canadian town.

And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.

In this early work, Davies sometimes lets the seams of his novelistic construction show. He can’t resist including some incidents and bits of dialogue that don’t quite fit — as when he puts one of his favorite sayings (“chastity means having the body in the soul’s keeping”) in the unlikely mouth of the ingenue Griselda, or shoehorns in a scene that shows off his knowledge of the value of some forgotten old books. An actor, director, and playwright himself, Davies is somewhat given to staginess and long passages of dialogue that seem out of place in this brief work of fiction.

Robertson Davies trilogy novels

All of these rough spots would be smoothed out in future novels, where Davies really came into his own as a fiction writer. The comic sense and eccentric characters, as well the evidence of his formidable learning and eclectic interests, remain — but his storytelling becomes more accomplished and compelling, resulting in a most satisfying reading experience. For a sample of his narrative power at its height, I recommend Fifth Business (first of the Deptford Trilogy, about the surprisingly interwoven destinies of three boys from a small Canadian town); my personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone (a wonderful exploration of the art world, among other things); or his final novel, The Cunning Man (conceived as the memoir of a physician who was “holistic” before it was trendy).

Rereading Tempest-Tost just now after an interval of many years, I was struck by the opening scene — a motherless young girl, living in a large estate, with a faithful ex-military family retainer and a lovely older sister she describes as “brainless,” engaged in a somewhat shady activity. The activity is wine-making instead of concocting poisons, and the girl’s family is still comfortably wealthy instead of living on the edge of insolvency, but is this set-up not reminiscent of that of the Flavia de Luce mysteries? The two girls even both have unusual names that start with F (here, Fredegonde).

In another somewhat awkward move, Davies abandons Freddy after the opening chapter and his story goes into quite a different direction — but still, it made me wonder whether fellow Canadian author Alan Bradley was consciously or unconsciously inspired by this scene. It would not be a bad thing for more writers to read and be inspired by Davies’s example of intelligent, emotionally resonant fiction, or for more readers to discover its pleasures.

Robertson Davies Booker shortlistDavies never won the Booker Prize, though he was shortlisted for What’s Bred in the Bone  in 1986. At the time surprise was expressed in the UK at the presence of two Canadians on the list, the other being Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale. Davies said dryly, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.” (Alas, both lost to third-time nominee Kingsley Amis.)

We’re in a different world now, where Canadian authors like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Bradley himself garner wide readership and honors, but Davies was their forerunner, and deserves all the recognition we can posthumously give him. Whichever book you start with, I hope you’ll agree.