Presented by Sandra Ens, to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
March 5, 2019
“Robertson Davies, who would have turned 99 today, is a permanent fixture in the Canadian canon, yet today, at least among younger readers, he is sadly neglected. This is thanks in no small part to the brutal practice now in vogue of judging literature by its political or practical value rather than for its aesthetics.
During my teaching practicum in 2008 many teachers said Davies, particularly in Fifth Business, doesn’t speak to today’s multicultural high school student and should no longer be taught. Meanwhile my peers at OISE, Canada’s epicentre of political activism, dismissed the novel–the first installment of the Deptford trilogy– as merely the work of an old white Christian male. In their hands, Davies’ humorous narrative voice and idiosyncratic ideas, such as the notion of history as myth, disappear, and the art is reduced to the author’s racial or gender brand. An insidious threat, these educators and educators-to-be literally judge books by their cover.” (Halperin 2012)
It is precisely the aesthetics and the notion of history as myth that draw me back again and again to Davies, and it is the humorous narrative voice of Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice that led to this presentation. In the hands of a master, a comic scene requires careful execution. His characters cannot be complete buffoons; some actions must evoke sympathy and understanding. Redemption is as possible and necessary in comedy as it is in tragedy. Davies does not have contempt for Professor Vambrace, or Miss Pottinger, or Mrs Bridgetower. They are people trying to remain relevant as they attempt to cling to the familiar, despite the changes in society and their children that leave them frightened of their own irrelevance. Gloster Ridley, Pearl Vambrace, and Solly Bridgetower understand the nature of that which confines them and emerge from conflict with a greater understanding of themselves and their own strengths. Marriage is the natural ending of a comedy, but in The Rebel Angels, rather than presenting a rose to Maria, Arthur Cornish offers her friendship and companionship and unity – and those she finds irresistible. Humphrey Cobbler, in the great tradition of Shakespeare’s clowns, is the licensed critic and social commentator, whose actions and behaviour provide hilarity at the same time that they reveal hypocrisy. Irony and satire expose foolishness with the purpose of improvement and change. The comedy of Robertson Davies seeks solutions.
Is Robertson Davies still relevant? What would he make of Canada, and Canadian writing, today? He would see a Canada that is much more multicultural, and a literature that is much less Toronto-centric. Davies wrote about his world, a Loyalist Canada, and the influences of his personal history, Welsh, and explored meaning through the lens of his own experience. If he were to read Rohinton Mistry, Esi Edugyan, Guy Vanderhaege, Eden Robinson, he would understand that they too explore their own personal myths. I return to Robertson Davies, not only for the humour and the writing, but for the truths of human life I have discovered, such as this one from Fifth Business: “I have never thought that traits that are strong in childhood disappear; they may go underground or they may be transmuted into something else, but they do not vanish;… As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thin (Davies 1970).” A universal truth such as that is not the property of one culture or one age.
Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Penguin Canada, 1970.
Halperin, Jeff. “A Celebration of Robertson Davies (on What Would Have Been His 99th Birthday).” Macleans.ca, Macleans.ca, 28 Aug. 2012, www.macleans.ca/culture/books/a-celebration-of- robertson-davies-on-what-would-have-been-his-99th-birthday/.