I could write ten thousand words and still not convey the complexity of the position Robertson Davies’ work holds in my life. I somehow managed to make it through high school without reading any of his work, but his name was tossed around with great reverence, though not so great that he was beyond critique. There were a few battered copies of The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks floating around the classroom, and these were used as evidence of Davies’ obsolete sense of humour and the special quality he had of being “more British than the British.” It was not meant to be complimentary. No doubt Fifth Business was available somewhere in the school library, but I never encountered it. Still, he loomed large, the Grand Old Man of Canadian letters alongside Margaret Laurence, the Grand Old Dame.
I went through a period of discovery when I first entered university. The idea that books were things written in Canada and about Canada was still very new to me, and I set about learning who the biggest names were, and acquiring as many of their books as I could. Today it seems to me like a rather juvenile way of going about exploring your national literature, but sometimes juvenile ways are the best. They can allow you to stay more open and curious, to dive right into things you might otherwise dismiss. At that point in my life I wasn’t even making any sort of distinction between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy. It was during this period that I built the core of my CanLit collection, and finally read The Deptford Trilogy. The bar had been raised for me, and the first time I read Davies’ own comments about his admiration for Stephen Leacock, I knew exactly what he meant. (There was even a time when I reassessed my admiration in the same way that Davies reassessed his.) I have spent the last decade building the most complete collection of Davies’ work that I could. It’s not the sort of collection that would be recognized by serious dealers, no doubt, as it contains mostly beat-up paperbacks, reprints, and as far as I know only a single first edition (Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded), but I think it would be the kind of thing familiar to serious readers. It’s fair to say that he’s my favourite author, and his work has influenced the way I see and think to such an extent that even I can’t always see the edges of it.
Tempest-Tost, the first volume in what would come to be known as The Salterton Trilogy, was also Davies’ first novel. I believe The Salterton Trilogy is a kind of microcosm of Davies’ development as an author. The ideas that are introduced in Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice will combine in A Mixture of Frailtures to form something greater than the sum of its parts, the first “true” Davies novel in a sense, developing a unique concept of how we construct our identities that will not be explicitly outlined until his eight novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, and will find its ultimate expression in The Cunning Man, Davies’ eleventh and final novel. I hope to trace this concept through his work as I read and review each of his novels in turn over the coming months. True to both his prior incarnation as Samuel Marchbanks and his long-standing relationship with the theatre, Davies began his work as a novelist with a satire of amateurs on the stage. The Salterton Little Theatre Company, a squabbling flock of middle class busibodies and minor local swells, decides to mount a pastoral production of The Tempest when they learn that Valentine Rich, a native daughter who made a minor splash in the American theatre community, will be in town and is willing to direct. The production is the same glorious mess amateur theatrics have been seen the dawn of time, and will probably continue to be until long after I’m in the ground. Nearly everyone involved with the play learns their parts and performs their duties in earnest, but with little seriousness. Professor Vambrace, who is assigned the role of Prospero after passive-aggressively discouraging all other comers with his erudition and great booming voice, is unwilling to content himself with being an actor. He interferes with the set design, the lighting, the blocking, and all manner of things that are the purview of the director and her crew. He has convinced himself that his meddling is the best thing for the play, but the reader can clearly see that it’s more about showing himself to good advantage. He is the epitome of the worst kind of amateur dramatist, and Davies is merciless in mocking his pretensions.
To be clear, it is Vambrace’s pretensions that he mocks, and not his class or his education or his money. Davies has been charged with what in Canada may as well be high treason: élitism. On its face the charge may bear out. A great many of Davies’ characters are wealthy, highly educated, or both, and they usually come off better than characters with less wealth and social standing. This is a clear sign of class bias, right? Perhaps, but what of Professor Vambrace? He has wealth, status, and education, but he’s also a complete ass whose arrogance blinds him to his shortcomings. And what about Solly Bridgetower’s mother, a woman with considerable education given her age and the period when the novel is set, with even more wealth and status than Vambrace, and yet she may very well be the very same crotchety old woman for whom the phrase “old battle-axe” was first coined. It’s also clear that her wealth, her status, even her education isolated her and allowed her bitterness and her inherent inability to overhear herself, as Bloom might say, to consume her. Davies clearly does not place her among his supposed élite. Does this smash the whole idea of Davies as an élitist? Not at all. Think back to the quality that he mocked in Professor Vambrace: his pretensions.
The characters that Davies truly favours, not just in Tempest-Tost but in nearly all his works, his aristocracy of the spirit if you will, are those with talent, professionalism and a fair degree of self-knowledge. This particular kind of status can be earned, so the roster changes and expands throughout the Salterton Trilogy, but in this first volume the three characters to focus on are Tom Gwalchmai the gardener, Valentine Rich the director, and Humphrey Cobbler the musician and teacher. None of them are wealthy, though Valentine Rich is by no means poor and Tom most likely makes a decent living for his trade, but Cobbler is borderline destitute. The three come from dramatically different backgrounds and their personalities might even clash at times. But they do have three things in common, and those three things make all the difference in Davies’ fiction.
First, all three have talent. The gardens Tom single-handedly creates for the Webster family are made out to be the envy of all Salterton. Valentine has carved out a solid career for herself as both an actor and director in the unforgiving world of the American stage, and though it’s never made explicit until A Mixture of Frailties, the third book in the trilogy, Humphrey Cobbler is a virtuoso performer able to address European greats as equals (I don’t think I’ve been in Toronto long enough yet to want to declare him “world class”).
The second thing these characters have in common is their professionalism. Tom manifests it in the most obvious ways; his demeanour is crisp, measured, but not unkind, a reflection of his military background, no doubt. He keeps his tools sharp and clean, and his work shed (a significant location in the book) meticulously organized. It rankles him that the Little Theatre’s barely-competent stage manager, Major Larry Pye, wants to tear up his perfect lawn to accommodate elaborate lighting and electrical schemes, but he understands that it’s his job to allow it, and even assist, so he determines that if it has to happen, he’s going to lobby for it to happen in the least disruptive and most craftsman-like manner possible. This lobbying happens off-stage, so to speak, and is mostly implied, but Tom maintains an aura of dignified professionalism throughout the whole of Tempest-Tost. Valentine Rich’s professionalism isn’t about rigid organization or strict discipline; it’s about people. She manages to put Larry Pye and Tom Gwalchmai both at ease within minutes of meeting them, but even more impressively, she pushes aside the ignorant, manipulative and often bizarre dramaturgical theories of Nellie Forrester, the Little Theatre’s presiding matron and busiest of busibodies, without ever damaging the cohesion of the group or losing her self-control. Rich is completely unflappable, even taking over the role of Gonzalo when Hector Mackilwraith nearly brings down the play (more on poor Hector later). And then there’s Humphrey Cobbler, who is not professional in an obvious sense. He’s loud, obnoxious, and a tremendous trouble maker, but when it comes to his responsibilities as a professional musician, he is as rigid as he is impish in enforcing his standards. When he takes over as the Music Director for the Little Theatre’s production, he finds that the job has been double booked. Solly, who has been tapped for the role of Assistant Director, is afraid of confrontation and tries to unload the duty of firing Mr. Snairey (an embarrassingly mercenary amateur) on Cobbler, who wants none of it. Cobbler is willing to work like a dog to make the music beautiful and appropriate; he will even do it for free. But he will not fire Snairey. The hiring and firing of old Music Directors is not the job of the new Music Director, and Cobbler will not budge an inch beyond the purview of his job. Interestingly, when it comes to choosing the music and preparing the musicians, Cobbler is fully invested in the spirit of the Little Theatre, but when he knows it will cause problems for Solly (or just as likely, given their later friendship, when it forces Solly to face his weaknesses and conquer them), he lives and dies by the letter of the law, so to speak.
The third and final trait shared by all of Davies’ aristocrats is self-knowledge. Tom recognizes that his affection for Freddy Webster and her home made wine is as much a liability as it is a virtue, since it requires deceiving his employer. He feels guilty, and lets Freddy manipulate him knowing full well what’s happening and why. Valentine Rich arrives in Salterton with her reputation as a huge success riding ahead of her through town on the fleetest of horses. It would have been easy (and stereotypical) for her ego to take over and for her to bite off far more than she can chew. Instead she recognizes what’s necessary for the production, and what she’s capable of handling on her own, so she delegates and trusts the competence of those she delegates to. She understands her own limits, and works within them to create the very best theatre experience she can. Cobbler is much the same, though the limits he acknowledges are not professional, but personal. He’s a Puck, a Loki, a maker of merry mischief. But he’s also aware that, while he can’t let that side of himself run wild, neither can he keep it bottled up, lest it burst out with ruinous results. What he does instead is let the tap drip (to mix my metaphors), so that he can let enough pent up mischief out in minor ways so he won’t ever cause serious trouble for the people he cares about.
Hector Mackilwraith is not one of Davies’ élite (he lacks self-knowledge), but he is far and away the most important character in the complex ensemble piece that is Tempest-Tost, despite Solly Bridgetower being the superficially obvious choice for protagonist. He is in many ways the true Prospero of Tempest-Tost, Professor Vambrace’s posturing aside. The details are handed out piecemeal and not in chronological order, but the story of Mackilwraith goes something like this: Hector had a difficult but not quite abusive childhood, but rose above it to become one of the Province’s most promising young teachers, perhaps even to one day cut a figure from within the Ministry of Education itself. He is a talented mathematician and an almost obsessive practical logician, qualities that serve him well in his career. Unfortunately he makes a complete ass of himself at a social function after boasting that he would display his sexual prowess (in a way that’s laughably innocent now, but would not have been then, given the comically vanilla circles he traveled in). It’s his lack of experience, and his lack of self-knowledge (ie. that he doesn’t understand just how important that lack of experience is) that causes his humiliation. Instead of becoming a shining light in the Ministry, Tempest-Tost opens with him as nearly absolute master of a much smaller domain: his mathematics class in Salterton. He likes to impress with complex mathematical games (the magic of Prospero), but otherwise seems known as a fusty disciplinarian with a certain wit, stern but not genuinely cruel. He actually reminds me of one of my high school math teachers. With so little now at stake in his daily life, he’s become even more rigid in his adherence to the form of logic that he developed for himself in his youth. He draws up elaborate pro/con lists for every decision that is outside his nearly pathologically micromanaged routine.
When the Salterton Little Theatre decides to stage their production of The Tempest, it offers Mackilwraith a chance to move out of those rigid structures and into a more open and human space, a chance to join Davies’ aristocracy, even though he’s not yet capable of seeing it that way. What’s going on in Hector’s mind isn’t nearly so grandiose. He’s served the Little Theatre as an able (more than able) treasurer for a number of years, and now he feels like he deserves the opportunity to branch out into something more glamourous, hoping it will raise his stature in the eyes of his peers. Nellie Forrester, Professor Vambrace, and the rest of the cabal that runs the Little Theatre are very passive aggressive about discouraging him, but Valentine Rich overrules them. Hector performs well at his audition; he will have his chance to shine.
What follows, despite the banality of its details, is as profound a sexual awakening and crisis of faith as any other in Canadian literature. Where Hector’s plan falls apart is essentially the same place it fell apart when he was still in Normal School training to be a teacher. He was completely unable to account for the reality of a flesh and blood woman. The woman in this case is Miss Griselda Webster, cast for the part of Ariel. Yes, Griselda. She’s the chaste object of love and lust (Bonnie-Susan “The Torso” Tompkins is the unchaste one) for any number of Salterton’s young men, including Solly Bridgetower and Roger Tasset, the only two young men of any real importance in the novel. Mackilwraith, thanks to his inexperience and the misdirected, overwrought tangle of emotions and neuroses that develop after a decades of loneliness, falls hopelessly in love with Griselda after she offers him the most casual of compliments. This makes him the rather awkward fourth party in a bizarre love trangle where none of the participants seem to have a clear picture of the situation. This would be comical (well, okay, sometimes it is) if it weren’t so tragic. Mackilwraith has no meaningful way to deal with these emotions, and because he’s suppressed them for so long they overwhelm him far more than they would have even during the onset of puberty. He can’t cope—his performance as Gonzalo begins to suffer, and so do his duties in the classroom—so he turns to his list making mechanism to find a way out. And for the first time, it fails him. Pro or contra, there are some things that don’t answer to the demands of logic, and we might all unravel before them.
And unravel Mackilwraith does. He begins to mistake her acquiescence to his (unlooked for, not really appreciated) solicitude during rehearsals as a sign that she returns his affection, though it must be said that he doesn’t really understand that affection himself. He even throws his little lists out the window and tries to spend his savings on a gift for her at an auction, but he fails there too. It never even occurs to him that he should speak to her, one human being to another. At this point most men, having already learned how to deal with these emotions and these little humiliating failures when they were young, would have taken a good, hard look at themselves and seen the absurdity of their situation. They would have put a stop to things before “absurd” became “humiliating”. Mackilwraith isn’t possessed of that sort of self-knowledge, however. He only knows his pro/con tables and his rather fusty version of logic. He therefore decides his problem is that he hasn’t gone far enough, and (through what passes for the underground in Salterton) he acquires an invitation to the June Ball given by the cadets at the local military college, the most important social event of the year. His hope is that he can somehow get the lovely young Griselda to take notice of him. His plan backfires in two unexpected ways. First, his unsuccessful effort at the auction has earned him a reputation as a man with a sharp eye for an investment, and he’s celebrated by the biggest of wigs and the fattest of cats at the Ball, who insist on filling his glass and lighting his cigar the whole night through. He’s the hit of the party, but Griselda doesn’t notice him at all. He also sees Griselda and Roger having a discussion that he simply isn’t equipped to understand, even if he could have heard it. During that discussion Roger kissed her twice, the second time entirely against her will. (That discussion contains one of my favourite Old Davies Sayings—aphorisms and clichés and bits of folk wisdom that he tosses out so deftly it can sometimes seem profoundly original—Griselda tells Roger, “Do you know what chastity is? Not the denial of passion, surely. Somebody wise—I forget who it was—said that chastity meant to have the body in the soul’s keeping.” I believe the “somebody” in this case is Wittgenstein, but don’t quote me on that.) Hector, to use my preferred vernacular, loses his shit. Even if he had heard what was said between Roger and Griselda, he wouldn’t understand that Roger’s advances were unwanted, nor that Griselda could so quickly or ably take control of the situation. He certainly wouldn’t understand her notion of chastity. All he saw was a girl he’d idealized—to the point of dehumanizing her—being corrupted, and his own cowardice, since he fled rather than intervening.
I think that all men go through something like this at least once in their lives. We fall in love, not with a woman, but with the idea of a woman that we project onto a real flesh and blood girl. It’s usually our first love, or what we imagine to be our first love (I have my doubts that it’s anything resembling genuine love), and if we’re some combination of lucky and smart we’re able to outgrow that kind of adolescent foolishness before we do any real harm to ourselves or others with it. Seeing too much of who our partners are can have equally deleterious effects, but that’s an entirely different box of frogs. Mackilwraith didn’t have anything that your or I (or even someone of his own generation) would recognize as a proper adolescent relationship or sexual awakening. For all intents and purposes his crush on Griselda is his first pseudo-love, and he’s going to make all the mistakes, fall into all the emotional traps, that a young man would, except instead of the raw emotional power of youth, he has the full weight of decades spent in loneliness, isolation, and obsessive routine to throw behind them. Mackilwraith sinks into despair, and does something I think only the most jaded of us would fail to identify with; on the opening night of the Salterton Little Theatre’s production of The Tempest, he tries to hang himself in Tom’s garden shed. (It is, unsurprisingly, in stage-managing the aftermath of this event where Valentine Rich shows the true extent of her professionalism and her devotion to the stage.)
Mackilwraith’s suicide attempt was as botched as his attempts at romance, but it was more a cry for help than an honest attempt to take his own life. He’s placed in Griselda’s bed, of all places, to recover, and she pays him a long-overdue visit. The two of them talk briefly about what Hector did, and about the feelings that he projected onto Griselda. It’s probably the most tender moment in the novel, and Mackilwraith emerges from the other side not an entirely new man, and not quite a member of Davies’ self-knowing aristocracy, but taking his first steps in that direction. The journey towards wholeness that Mackilwraith should have taken in his youth finally begins as the novel closes. I think it’s hugely significant that, though Mackilwraith is never the obvious choice for protagonist, Davies makes his revelation the final word of Tempest-Tost and the last thing he wants the reader exposed to on their first trip to Salterton. Mackilwraith’s awakening into self-knowledge epitomizes the first of the three elements at the core of Davies’ “true” novels, and his ideas about how we use myth to construct our identities. I’ll discuss the other two elements as they appear in the other two volumes of The Salterton Trilogy.
Tempest-Tost was my first selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next is Leaven of Malice, by Robertson Davies, the second volume in The Salterton Trilogy.