Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

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Robertson Davies

With a vision that reflects the experiences of Canadians, Robertson Davies achieved international renown as one of Canada’s foremost men of letters. Born in Thamesville, Ontario, on August 28, 1813, Robertson Davies was the youngest of three sons of newspaper publisher and Liberal senator William Rupert Davies and his wife, Florence Sheppard McKay Davies. With parents who were theatre enthusiasts, Robertson Davies was drawn to the theatre early in his life and acted in school plays.

At the age of five, Davies’ family moved to the small town of Renfrew in the Ottawa Valley; when he was twelve, Davies moved to the city of Kingston, where his father owned the local newspaper, the Whig-Standard. From 1928 to 1932, Robertson Davies attended Toronto’s Upper Canada College – the "Colborne College" of his novels Fifth Business, The Manticore, and What’s Bred in the Bone. Truly, these Ontarian towns shaped the geographical heart of Davies’ fictional works. At the Upper Canada College, young Davies was immersed in school dramatics and was the editor of the school paper.

Admitted to Queen’s University in Kingston as a special student because he was "hopeless in mathematics," Robertson Davies excelled at the university from 1932 to 1935. He was active in the Drama Guild at Queen’s and continued to be involved in the student theatre at Balliol College in Oxford. Here, he received his B.Litt. in 1938 for a thesis he published the following year, entitled Shakespeare’s Boy Actors. Upon graduation, Davies joined the prestigious Old Vic Theatre Company in London, where he married its stage manager, his life-long wife Brenda.

In 1940, Robertson Davies and his wife returned to Canada, where Davies became literary editor of Saturday Live, then a weekly review of politics, finance, and the arts. The first of his three daughters was born that December. In 1942, Davies became editor of the Peterborough Examiner – another of his father’s papers – and he was to hold this post for the next twenty years. Davies became an increasingly popular columnist, "Samuel Marchbanks," whose witty comments and humorous accounts of small-town American and Canadian life would later be published in three volumes between 1947 and 1967.

From 1955 to 1965, Davies was the publisher of Examiner. By this time, he had already written eighteen books, numerous plays, and produced many articles for various journals. His first play, Eros at Breakfast won the 1948 Dominion Drama Festival Award for best Canadian play.

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Eros at Breakfast and Other Plays and award-winning Fortune, My Foe were published in 1949; At My Heart’s Core, a play based on the Strickland sisters, appeared in 1950. Following this was a series of successful novels later known as the Salterton trilogy: Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954) – which won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour – and A Mixture of Frailties (1958). These novels explored the difficulty of sustaining a cultural life in Canada. In the 1950s, Davies played a major role in launching the Stratford Festival, serving on the board of governors and publishing with director Sir Tyrone Guthrie three books about the Festival’s early years (1953-55).

In 1961, Robertson Davies published a perceptive collection of scholarly essays, A Voice from the Attic, which won the Lorne Pierce Medal the same year. From 1961 to 1962, Davies worked as visiting professor at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and, in 1963, was appointed Master of Massey College. From 1960 until his retirement in 1981, Robertson Davies remained at Trinity College to teach literature and drama. In 1964, Davies established the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama with Clifford Leech. By 1967 Davies was made an RSC fellow, and began receiving honorary degrees from many Canadian universities. Some of his best essays and speeches appeared later in One Half of Robertson Davies (1978), The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979) and The Well-Tempered Critic (1981). In them, Davies explored his many esoteric interests with characteristic wit.

Since his youth, Davies has kept diaries, notebooks, and scrapbooks, in which he jotted down ideas for his writing. He likened the life of a writer to a long self-analysis and his life-long interest in psychology led him to study in depth the works of Freud and C. G. Jung. In 1970, Davies drew on Jungian psychology to produce what many consider his best novel, Fifth Business. The novel casts characters in roles that correspond to Jungian archetypes to show Davies’s ideas that the substances of the spirit are more important than material concerns. Following this novel are two sequels that would later combine with Fifth Business to form the Deptford trilogy: The Manticore (1972), a novel cast in the form of Jungian psychoanalysis which won the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and World of Wonders (1975).

The snobbery and misogyny of Hunting Stuart (1955) recur in The Rebel Angels (1981), a novel satirizing academic life and the first novel of the new Cornish family trilogy. Though Jungian-inspired individuation dominate the Deptford trilogy, The Rebel Angels and What’s Bred in the Bone (1985) move beyond a Jungian framework and into the relations between body and soul – "somatotyping." In What’s Bred in the Bone, Davies’s conservatism and patriarchal values seem to be attuned to the mood of his time. It was short-listed for the 1986 Booker Prize and given the 1986 Canadian Author’s Association Literary Award for best fiction and the Medal of Honor for Literature by New York’s National Arts Club in 1987.

In 1983, Robertson Davies published The Mirror of Nature, an examination of 19th-century melodrama. Upon officially retiring, Davies continued to write. High Spirits (1982) is a collection of playful ghost stories written over eighteen years to celebrate Gaudy night, the annual Christmas party at Massey College. He continued to gain worldwide attention with The Lyre of Orpheus (1988), Murther and Walking Spirits (1991), and The Cunning Man (1994).

Over the course of his career, Robertson Davies had received honorary degrees from approximately twenty universities in the United States and Canada. Elegantly written, Davies’s novels strike a balance between humour and seriousness. He was the first Canadian to become an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; he received an Honorary D. Litt from Oxford and was a Companion of the Order of Canada. Once considered a potential recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, Robertson Davies enthralled readers with his colourful and substantial works. Davies passed away on December 2, 1995.


Brydon, Diana. "Robertson Davies." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 68: Canadian

Writers, 1920-1959. Canada: The Gale Group, 1988. Online version: Literature Resource Center. Available…bliography+OR+work+work+overview. 2001.

Cameron, Elspeth. "Davies, Robertson Willam." The Canadian & World Encyclopedia.

McClelland & Stewart Inc. Available 1995.

"Robertson Davies." Wayfarers: Canadian Archievers. V. 5. Canada: Heirloom Publishing Inc., 1996.
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