#2 – A Mixture of Frailties, by Robertson Davies

As Kate mentioned here, A Mixture of Frailties is the book where Robertson Davies finally, firmly made the shift from dramatist to novelist. Not to get all “no true Scotsman” on you, but I think, given how his next eight novels play out, a case can be made that A Mixture of Frailties is the first “true” Robertson Davies novel. That’s not exactly the case I’m going to be making here, but this will be setting the pattern for most of the remainder of these books. In my comments on Tempest-Tost I discussed the first of the three elements Davies brings together in constructing the identities of his aristocracy of the spirit: self-knowledge. In my discussion of Leaven of Malice I discussed the second element: the conceit. I’m not certain I was clear in how conceits fit in to the framework I’m talking about, as I also spoke about how “we” construct identity, rather than simply how Davies constructs the identities of his characters. I think conceits are analogous to extraordinary circumstances, moments or events that (to return to the jewel metaphor I mangled in my last post on Davies) reveal facets of ourselves that even we may not have known existed. The third element, which takes centre stage in A Mixture of Frailties, is a variation on the bildungsroman. I say “variation”, because Davies requires that his characters be, whether they know it or not, apprenticed to various masters throughout the course of their coming of age. (Can we agree, for the purposes of this and later reviews, that “master” is gender neutral? The word “mistress” has connotations I don’t want to evoke, and “teacher” or “instructor” aren’t quite right for what Davies does.) From what I understand, your standard bildungsroman doesn’t actually require this sort of relationship.

A Mixture of Frailties opens with one of Davies’ absurd conceits. Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace are now married, and Solly’s mother (who, let’s face it, was not a very nice person, and was not at all kind to Pearl) has passed away. Her last will and testament is manipulative at best, and punitive at worst. It’s simplest to let Davies explain it (I apologize for the length of the quotation):

“Shorn of technicality,” said he, “the meaning of the will is this: all of your late mother’s estate is left in trust to her executors—you, her son, Solomon Bridgetower—you, Laura Pottinger, spinster—you, Jevon Knapp, as Dean of St. Nicholas’ Cathedral. That estate, as outlined here, consists of this house and its contents and considerable holdings and investments. You, Solomon Bridgetower, are to continue to occupy the house, which has always been your home, but it is the property of the trust, and you may not dispose of it. But the income from the estate is to be devoted to the educational project which your late mother has outlined.”

“You mean I don’t get any money?” said Solly.

“You get a legacy of one hundred dollars,” said the lawyer.

“Yes, but I mean—the investments, and the money that brought in my Mother’s own income, and all that—I don’t quite follow—?”

“That money is all to be devoted to the education, or training, of some young woman resident in this city of Salterton, who is desirous of following a career in the arts. The young woman is to be chosen by you, the trustees. She must not be more than twenty-one at the time she is chosen, and you are to be responsible for her maintenance and training, in the best circumstances you can devise, until she reaches the age of twenty-five. She is to be maintained abroad in order, as your mother says, that she may bring back to Canada some of the intangible treasures of European tradition. The phrase, of course, rules out any possibility of her being trained in the States. And when she is twenty-five, you are to choose another beneficiary of the trust. And so on, unless the conditions under which the trust exists are terminated.”

“And I get nothing except a hundred dollars and the right to live in the house?”

“You get nothing, unless the condition is fulfilled which brings the trust to an end. If, and when, that condition is fulfilled and you are still living in this house, you receive a life interest in your mother’s estate. Bequests are made to the two servants, Ethel Colman and Doris Black, which will be payable when the condition is fulfilled. Laura Pottinger receives a bequest of the testator’s collection of Rockingham china. The Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas will receive all of the testator’s holdings in certain telephone and transportation stocks.”

“There is a condition attaching to this latter bequest. Until the Cathedral gets the telephone stock, the Dean is to preach, every St. Nicholas’ Day, a special sermon on some matter relating to education, and these sermons are to be known as the Louisa Hansen Bridgetower Memorial Sermons. If there is any failure in this respect, the bequest is forfeit.”

Solly still looked puzzled. “And all this hangs—?”

It all hangs on your having a son, Mr. Bridgetower. When, and if, you and your wife, Pearl Veronica, née Vambrace, produce male issue, who is duly christened Solomon Hansen Bridgetower, he becomes heir of all his grandmother’s estate save for the bequests I have mentioned. But you are to have a life interest in the estate, so that he will not actually come into possession of his inheritance until after your death.”

“And if we have a child and it’s a girl?”

“The trust will remain.”

I may have mentioned, in my review of Leaven of Malice, that Davies’ conceits would become less absurd over time. I may have overstated that. Ridiculous? Yes. Punitive? Absolutely. Illegal? Well, who knows, but that’s not the sort of thing Davies, at this stage in his career as a novelist, would have even bothered to ask. He just ran with it.

Solly and Pearl wind up facing considerable emotional and financial hardship as a result of this patently ridiculous will, and their struggles in Salterton take up most of the first part of A Mixture of Frailties, far and away the longest novel of the trilogy, but they are essentially just a framing narrative for the psychological and musical development of blue-collar singer Monica Gall. A great fuss (a great fuss) is made over choosing her to be the recipient of the late Mrs. Bridgetower’s backhanded charity. Puss Pottinger even rejects one promising young woman because she suspects her of (gasp!) having had relations with a man. There’s a lot of good Davies satire in those scenes, and much of it is sharper than in either Tempest-Tost or Leaven of Malice, setting the stage for the quantum leap to come. This is the book where Robertson Davies stops thinking like a playwright, and starts thinking like a novelist.

The woman eventually chosen to be schooled in Europe is twenty-one year old Monica Gall, part of The Heart and Hope Gospel Quartet, an amateur vocal group used by Pastor Beamis to raise money on the radio for his parish, a group commonly know as the Thirteeners (who seem to be a none-too-subtle parody of Seventh Day Adventists). Beamis, the Galls, and most of the Thirteener congregation are uneducated, working-class folks, with all the virtues and vices that entails. But Humphrey Cobbler sees the potential for something better in Monica and her voice, and he convinces the Bridgewater trustees to see it too. Most of the rest of the novel concerns her training in England, with occasional visits paid to the Bridgetowers. Robertson Davies wrote eleven novels in his career, and this is the first of my four favourites (in case you’re wondering, the others are The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, and The Cunning Man), in large part because for the training of Monica Gall he finally turns satire, theatricality, conceits, and all the other trappings of his first two novels into means rather than ends. A Mixture of Frailties is coherent, human, and holds up remarkably well to repeated readings, without the heavy theoretical scaffolding that characterizes his more celebrated Deptford Trilogy.

In what will become signature Davies fashion, Monica is placed in the care of famous conductor Sir Frederic Domdaniel, who introduces her to three other teachers, each of which will refine her talents and expand (or complicate) her character.

The first of those teachers is Murtagh Molloy, a nasty little Irishman with wandering hands and a coarse manner—but he’s also got an unsurpassed sensitivity to the nuances of music and emotion. Sir Benedict sends Monica to him because, though she displays considerable potential, her style is sickly sweet, melodramatic, and obvious (God, it reminds me of pretty much all of my early work). That’s okay for The Heart and Hope Gospel Quartet, but not for a world-class opera singer. She needs to learn how to evoke “the proper muhd”. Molloy makes her sing Paolo Tosti’s “Good-Bye!” (listen to Nellie Melba‘s performance, the touchstone Molloy uses in the novel), and then performs it himself so that she can hear and understand the difference.

He sang the song himself. It was like any singing Monica had ever heard, for although his voice was unremarkable in tone, and he sang without a hint of exaggeration or histrionics, it became as he sang the most compelling and revealing of sounds. The song invaded and possessed her as it had never done in all the time she had known it. Her own rendition, moulded by Aunt Ellen, was carefully phrased and built up emotionally until, she flattered herself, the final repetitions of “Good-Bye” provided a fine and satisfying climax. But as Molloy sang the song there seemed to be no calculation of this kind, and the phrasing was hardly apparent. Yet the whole song was sung with a poignancy of regret which was the most powerful emotion that Monica had ever heard expressed in music. “It’s unbearably sad when you really understand it,” Aunt Ellen had said, thinking of her dead lover, and Monica had striven to recreate that sadness herself; sometimes she had succeeded, until the sob mounting in her throat brought on a prickling of the eyes, and then a fullness in the nose which ruined the singing. But that was real feeling, wasn’t it? And that was what made great music, surely? Yet here was Murtagh Molloy, apparently as cool as a cucumber, giving rise to a sadness in her which swept far beyond anything she could associate with Aunt Ellen and the dead schoolteacher. This was the sadness of all the world’s parting lovers, of all the autumns since the beginning of time, of death and the sweetness of death. Monica was moved, not to tears, but to a deep and solemn joy.

“You were dipping your bucket into a shallow well and I was dipping mine into a deep one,” he tells her. Finding a deeper well for her bucket is what Sir Benedict wants Molloy to teach her, and by bullying, angering, and embarrassing her, that’s exactly what she does. But he doesn’t do it alone. What becomes clear is that, while one doesn’t have to be an emotional prodigy to call up the proper muhd, it does require more experience and a greater depth of character than Monica possesses at the ripe old age of twenty-one. Molloy would provide that experience and depth with a little bit of guilty, teary-eyed dirty-old-man-style grab-ass behind his wife’s back, but with the exception of one sad, drunken misstep, he knows better (and Monica has a better head on her shoulders than anybody really gives her credit for—I think she’s one of Davies’ best female characters, actually—and would not have been up for any dirty-old-man shenanigans anyway).

To learn more about music theory and to get some dirt under her nails (and for other reasons that aren’t really significant to Monica’s education), Sir Benedict sends her to work under the young, avante-garde composer Giles Revelstoke. It’s through her exposure to him, whether intentional or not, that she finds that deeper well to dip her bucket. Giles is everything you’d expect from a character with a name like Revelstoke. He’s brilliant, arrogant, cruel, short-sighted, selfish, and more than a bit of a libertine. Of course Monica fall hopelessly in love with him, and of course he treats her like a drudge. In fact, he gives every indication that he hates her and resents her presence in his life, until one snowy Christmas Eve in Wales he walks in on her brushing her teeth, lifts up her skirts, gives her her first taste of life, and then wanders off to bed without a word being said. When they return to London they are lovers, and she is almost completely his creature. Monica’s experiences with Giles are probably the most important and intense in the novel, and though it’s an old, old story (really, who among us hasn’t fallen in love with someone who treated us like shit to satisfy their own desires?), Davies deserves credit for integrating it successfully into an extremely satisfying transformation from community enforced ignorance to fully independent personhood. Revelstoke teaches her about physical pleasure and desire, about betrayal, about ego and the petty truth of artistic communities, and finally, with his implosion in Italy and his suspect death later in London, about self-preservation. (I actually tried to find a passage to quote to illustrate all of this, but Davies, despite his love of aphorisms, maxims, and proverbs, actually resists that kind of pat summation for important things like a character’s maturation.)

Monica’s third teacher doesn’t cut a prominent figure in A Mixture of Frailties, appearing only twice as far as I can recall, and described in not great detail, but she teaches an often-overlooked lesson that flies in the face of the popular wisdom surrounding the creative class (which a great many of creators believe). Her name is Amy Nielsen, and she is an American living in Paris who runs a kind of finishing school, teaching young women history, literature, which fork to use and so on. She also shows them the sights and lets them soak up a little bit of culture. What she does for Monica is a little more specific. Monica wants to be a singer, and a great one. Amy teaches her how to act the part. There’s a truism that creating is so much about the person that the tools largely don’t matter. This is, of course, utter bullshit, and Davies never buys into it. Of course tools matter. They won’t make a bad artist into a great one, but they will allow someone with talent to maximize that talent. I can tell you from my own experiences as a drummer (oh yeah, I play the drums) that two things, other than practice of course, were responsible for dramatic improvements in my playing. The first was playing with musicians who were more skilled and experienced than I was, and the second was upgrading from a crappy no-name drum kit with pie-plate cymbals and busted tree branches for sticks, to a high-end Sonor kit with top of the line Sabian studio cymbals and laser-balanced signature series Vic Firth sticks. Having better tools allowed me greater freedom, and frankly improved my playing considerably. Amy Nielsen knows that Monica wants to be a singer of operatic quality, and that means mingling with high society. Thirteener surfaces just won’t cut it. It all happens off stage, but Amy teachers her to be a great singer rather than just a hick with a decent voice. It amounts to taking her shopping and to a few parties, but the impact it has belies its source, and it will show up in her choices as the novel progresses.

Finally there is Sir Benedict Domdaniel himself. To bring us all the way back to Tempest-Tost, what he teaches her is professionalism, and brings out her professional ambition. When she’s weighing her options in a professional capacity it usually winds up being between the extremes of the anti-social Revelstoke and the people’s champion Molloy, and that’s when she hears, like her own conscience, the voice of Sir Benedict counseling a reasonable middle ground. And truly he is the most professional, the most accomplished, and the most self-aware among Monica’s three musical masters. He exposes her to other ways of being an artist, and she learns valuable things from those ways, but by taking on his centrism, she chooses her own middle way, and is ultimately not consumed by the passion of extremes. (Davies also lets it slip that she will be successful, so though the novel ends with a mystery, it’s a different mystery entirely.) You can see that voice taking root in her head in this lengthy scene:

“Now listen [Sir Benedict says]: I haven’t been bullying you like this just for fun: I’ve been trying to find out what you’re up to. All I know at present is that you have a pretty fair little voice—good enough among several hundred just as good. What training will do still remains to be seen. But unless you have some honest appraisal of your self you haven’t much chance. And all that appears now is that you think you have some talent, and are bashful about saying so: you want to sing, with some vague notion of benefitting mankind in general, and raising people a little above the mire of total depravity in which God has placed them. What do you want out of it for yourself?”

“I haven’t thought much about that.”

“Little liar! Now, answer me honestly: haven’t you had daydreams in which you see yourself as a great singer, sought after and courted, popular and rich—probably with handsome men breaking their necks to get into your bed?”

Monica blushed deeply, and was silent. None of her daydreams had ever included bed.

“You see! I was right. In your heart of hearts you think of singing as a form of power: and you’ve got more common sense in your heart of hearts than you have on that smarmy little tongue of yours. You’re right; singing is a form of power—power of different kinds. Singing as a form of sexual allurement—there’s nothing wrong with that. Very natural, indeed: every real man responds to the woman with the golden, squalling, cat-like note, and every real woman longs to hurl herself at the cock-a-doodling tenor or the bellowing bass. Part of Nature’s Great Plan. But sex-shouting’s a trap, too. At fifty, your golden squall becomes a bad joke. What then? Teaching? If you’re not born to it—and few of the sex-shouters are—it’s a dog’s life; pupils are fatheads, most of ’em. Are you trying for—well, when you’re trained—a possible twenty-five years of that kind of glory? Because it is glory, you know—real glory.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Not refined enough? Well, there’s another kind of singing. The technique is the same, but the end is different. It depends on what you have in your head and your imagination; it means being a kind of bard, who reveals the life that lies in great music and poetry. You use your voice to give delight. That’s what music used to be for, you know—to capture the beauty and delight that people found in life. But then the Romantics came along and turned it all upside down; they made music a way of churning up emotions in people that they hadn’t felt before. Music ceased to be a distilment of life and became, for a lot of people, a substitute for life—a substitute for a sea-voyage, or the ecstasies of sainthood, or being raped by a cannibal king, or even for an hour with a psychoanalyst or a good movement of the bowels. And a whole class of people arose who thought themselves music-lovers, but who were really sensation-lovers. Not that I’m a hundred per cent against the Romantics—just against the people who think that Romanticism is all there is of music. Well, there are two kinds of singing. The sexual singer is, in pretty nearly all respects, the greater of the two, just as a mountain torrent is necessarily a greater force than the most beautiful of fountains: when she sings, she’s a potent enchantress, and the music is merely the broomstick on which she flies. With the bardic singer, the music comes first, and self quite a long way second. Now: which sort of singing appeals to you?”

“Oh, the second, of course. The—bardic kind.”

“If you really mean that, I think the less of you for it. Far better to set out aiming as high as you can, and killing yourself to be one of the big, adored, sexy squallers. It argues more real vitality and gumption in you. Still, I don’t trust you to know what you want. You’re too full of a desire to please—not to please me, but to please your family, or your schoolteachers, or those people—the What’s It’s Name Trust—who are paying the shot for you. Those people never want you to have great ambitions or strong, consuming passions. They want you to be refined—which means predictable, stable, controlled, always choosing the smallest cake on the plate, never breaking wind audibly, being a good loser—in a word, dead. I admit that the world couldn’t function properly without its legions of nice, refined, passionless living dead, but there is no room for them in the arts. So we’ll see what you are after you’ve had a few months of work. At the moment you’re just a nice girl with pots of money to spend on training. So let’s get to work.”

This could be Davies himself speaking to the reader about music, about literature, about love and human relationships, even, and it’s a technique he uses frequently—the conversation which is also a lecture which is also a manifesto—but in most cases, as here, it serves to plant a powerful idea into the mind of the protagonist that will shape her choices and her views for the rest of her life.

In A Mixture of Frailties we finally have all the elements of Davies’ “personal myth” method/theory of how his aristocracy of the spirit construct their identities. By the end of the novel, Monica Gall finally achieves the level of professionalism and self-knowledge that marked out Valentine Rich in Tempest-Tost, we have a fairly absurd conceit setting the plot in motion as in Leaven of Malice, and finally A Mixture of Frailties brings a kind of bildungsroman into play by putting Monica Gall through a series of literal and spiritual apprenticeships. For the first time we’ve seen Davies at something like full strength. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer, and I think it’s a much-overlooked Canadian classic.

A Mixture of Frailties was my third selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next is Generation X, by Douglas Coupland.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. Great review! A Mixture of Frailties also ranks amongst my favourite Davies novels (along with The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus in my case). I have just finished re-reading the Salterton trilogy, and one thing that really struck me about A Mixture of Frailties this time around, is how much Monica reminds me of myself – not in terms of experiences, but in terms of how she thinks and reacts to life. It almost made me cringe at times to see myself to accurately reflected. I am always amazed when a male author can so accurately portray a female character (and vice versa).
    As an aside – have you read any of Davies’ shorter works (e.g. High Spirits; the Samuel Marchbanks writings)? I find that his sense of humour is much stronger in shorter pieces, so that I laugh out loud when reading them.

  2. I have, yes (I have nearly everything he’s ever written, including plays, the stuff for the Stratford festival, the letter collections… if I’m right about my list, I can count on one hand the number of his works I don’t have, and almost all of them were short-run, single edition books), and though I enjoyed them I thought that they were a little bit weak. High Spirits in particular is one of those books that I think, if I wasn’t already a fan, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed most of it.

Leave a Reply to August Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.