A Strangely Obtuse Country

A diary of a public culture maker.

Back in 1978, I was living in England and wondering whether to detach myself from London’s literary circles, move across the Atlantic and join my Canadian boyfriend. His persuasion tactics included mailing me novels intended as proof that this country’s vast geography contained more than trees and snow, and its intellectual landscape featured a culture in which I might feel at home.

What was in those Jiffy envelopes that regularly arrived in Kentish Town? Books by Margaret Atwood (scary funny), Margaret Laurence (angry), Alice Munro (mesmerizing), Mordecai Richler (intriguing) … and Robertson Davies. Davies was represented by his most famous novels: The Deptford Trilogy. For a young Englishwoman raised in middle class privilege in the unfashionable north of England, the small-town world of Dunstan Ramsay was strangely familiar. At the same time, Davies’s delight in magic and Jungian archetypes suggested a more interesting, complex image of Canadians than the pragmatic do-gooder stereotype common in Britain.

Published between 1970 and 1975, Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders are serious novels, imbued with the Victorian morality I knew well from my A-level course in EngLit. The rich, layered trilogy reminded me of works by some of my favourite British male authors at the time, such as John Fowles. This was reassuring to a wobbly immigrant. I let myself be persuaded. I got on a plane, flew into Montreal (no direct flights to Ottawa back then) and have been here ever since.

After my arrival, as I morphed into a Canadian, I read each Davies novel as it appeared. There would be five more, along with volumes of essays and criticism, before the author’s death in 1995. I never met Robertson Davies in person, but his magnificent white mane, plummy voice and theatrical esprit were such CBC staples that I often felt as if I had. He was invariably described as “Canada’s foremost man of letters,” “a cultural icon,” “a literary titan.”

But gradually my enthusiasm began to flag, as late 20th-century Canada left Davies behind. His world seemed incurably Anglo-Canadian, drenched in colonial nostalgia and patrician accents. It was rapidly disappearing into the mists of time, and I was happy to wave it goodbye. By the later novels, such as What’s Bred in the Bone, Davies’s female characters seemed two dimensional and the settings had a dusty atmosphere. There were still strange grotesqueries and magnificent narrators, but I had moved on to a new generation of Canadian novelists. Few of these writers felt a lingering affection for Olde Ontario: they explored a more complex, diverse and self-assured society. Their dialogue was now littered with American slang rather than the Anglicisms that characterized Davies’s novels. Davies seemed to have passed his sell-by date.

After reading A Celtic Temperament, selections from his diaries of 1959 to 1963 edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry, I have developed a new respect for Robertson Davies. Written a decade before The Deptford Trilogy, these diaries reveal their author grappling with an identity crisis for both himself and his country. In 1959, when this selection begins, Davies was 45. A new, more confident Canadian nationalism was in its infancy: the flag debate had barely begun and Expo 67, Canada’s exuberant centenary celebration, was beyond the horizon. The country’s mediocre literary culture exasperated Davies in 1960, when he was a judge for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. “I am out of love with Canada these days, a country of stupid, ill-educated, timid, narrow-gutted pseudo-Scotchmen.” He questioned the honour of being described as “Canada’s leading man of letters.” “Am I so?” he mused. “The distinction is roughly that of the best rose-grower at the North Pole, or the best architect of snow sculpture in Hell.”

Davies began keeping a diary during his rather miserable childhood: it was a comfort, I suspect, to compose what he called “a thoroughly selective and dishonest document, a novel in which I am always the hero.” He never felt heroic within his own close but fraught family. Born in 1913 in the small Ontario town of Thamesville, Davies was the third son of a tempestuous Welsh immigrant, who edited the local paper, and his chilly wife. After spending his early years in the bleak Ottawa Valley town of Renfrew, the young Rob (as he was known) attended Upper Canada College. There he shrugged off his oppressive family influences and began to cultivate the persona that came to fit him like a well-tailored overcoat—that of a gifted and stylish thespian. After studying at Queen’s University, he achieved the goal of many young men in his generation: admission to Oxford University.

Superficially, Davies became the quintessential Oxford man, with a charming manner, elegant dinner jacket (often worn with a monocle), and a battery of Latin tags and Shakespearian references. According to his biographer Judith Skelton Grant, he was “a young Celt in imperial Rome … determined to demonstrate his independence and his worth.” He became a star of the university drama society and a popular member of Balliol College. However, beneath the debonair exterior lurked depression and insecurity, exacerbated by an unhappy love affair. By the end of his first year, Davies was in an emotional tailspin. Only professional counselling got him back on track and enabled him to finish his degree in 1938 and take a job with the Old Vic theatre.

Davies returned to Canada in 1940, newly married to Brenda Newbold, an Australian who had also worked at the Old Vic. They would spend much of the next two decades living in Peterborough, where Davies edited the Peterborough Examiner, which his family owned. At the same time, he wrote plays, essays and newspaper columns, and he and Brenda started a family. (Jennifer Surridge, co-editor of this volume, is the second of three daughters.) The Davies marriage was a mutually supportive, intellectually stimulating and deeply affectionate partnership. But by 1959, as Davies recorded in his diaries, the charms of Peterborough had worn very thin. “My life is so provincial!” he moaned that year, while worrying that the small Ontario town was stultifying for a woman as talented as his wife.

Davies was “a neurotic diarist and hoarder of experience,” as he put it: he kept a personal daily diary, a “big” diary for longer entries, various travel diaries, and a theatre diary in which he recorded his assessment of the many plays and entertainments he saw (36 in 1963). This wonderfully edited selection of extracts from the diaries, and from letters written to Brenda when they were apart, reveal him as an acute observer, a hypochondriac and a constant worrier about his professional life. He noted down his dreams, his moods, his attempts at self-analysis and the intimate details of his married life. (Lovemaking is recorded as “h.t.d.,” an acronym that is never deciphered for the reader. My mind was sent racing to the kind of Latin phrases I suspect Davies would have relished.)

Most of all, the diaries’ mix of mundane and momentous events reveal a self-critical man with a great gift for enjoying life. We learn how frequently he dyed his beard (sooty black in these years) and we see his deep commitment to raising intellectual standards in this country. We meet an anglophile who has rejected most of the worst traits of his British contemporaries, including their sexism and snobbery. Writing of a British play that is about to transfer to Broadway, he mused: “Wonder how it will go in the U.S., for the most-used joke is the English snob one that there is something inescapably common and funny about being a dentist. Americans do not feel this: the dream of every third Jew is to get out of old iron and into old ivory.”

Two themes dominate the five years covered by these selections. The first is Davies’s private determination to produce an important literary work, even as he flails between genres and takes on major administrative commitments. The volume opens with Davies’s attempt to adapt his early novel Leaven of Malice into a play, with the help of the English theatre giant Tyrone Guthrie. He leaves his family in Canada in the summer of 1959 to travel to Northern Ireland, where he spends three weeks working on the script with “Tony” in the Guthries’ house Annagh-ma-Kerrig. Guthrie is helpful and the writing goes well, but in letters home Davies notes his horror at “a discomfort … of a special quality: the all-embracing damp cold is a big part of it; so is the oniony, very greasy food; so is the dirt—never a clean towel, and my napkin stinks and is grey. Judy [Guthrie] grabs any fat off my plate that I don’t eat and consumes it with relish.”

The play would prove a flop on Broadway, and Davies’s ambitions as a playwright would slowly crumble. Fighting off a sense of humiliation, he retreated into the sanctuary of his family and the walks in the woods that he always found restorative. There were plenty of distractions—the lectures he was giving at the University of Toronto, a recently published volume of his critical writing and an interesting offer of a new role. But he yearned to fulfil literary ambitions, remaining “obstinately a writer … The novel 5B [Fifth Business] continues to shape itself in my mind,” he noted in late 1961. Two years later, he almost despaired: “I feel my writing trivial and my life a mess,” he wrote after a year of accomplishment in other fields. He continued to jot down ideas for “a Thamesville novel.” But it would be another seven years before Thamesville had been transformed into Deptford, and Fifth Business was finally published. It would be a further two before The Manticore, the second volume of The Deptford Trilogy, won a Governor General’s Literary Award, giving Davies the laurels he craved. In the years covered here, the façade of macho confidence obscured creative frustration.

The second theme in A Celtic Temperament is Robertson Davies’s public role, as a champion of the arts in this “strangely obtuse country.”

When he and Brenda arrived in Canada in the early years of the Second World War, the cultural activities on offer were few and bleak. British artistic influences were waning, and American cultural domination threatened. Responding to these pressures, the government established a royal commission into the state of the arts in Canada in 1949, headed by Vincent Massey, the future governor general. Davies himself submitted a memorandum on the pathetic state of live theatre in Canada. Two years later, the Massey Commission reported “good will alone can do little for a starving plant.” Ottawa was dragooned into financial support for the arts. By the end of the 1950s, Canada had the Canada Council for the Arts, a National Library, and a newly invigorated National Gallery and National Film Board. Thanks to private initiative, it also had the Stratford Festival, with Tyrone Guthrie (he of the dirty towels) as its founding artistic director.

Robertson Davies was immediately appointed to the board and regularly attended the quarterly board meetings. He was an important promoter of the festival, not least in the enthusiastic reviews of its productions that he wrote for Saturday Night magazine. Thanks to his immersion in the Shakespeare canon while at Oxford and his knowledge of London productions, he communicated a well-informed delight in watching the festival successfully establish itself. The opinions in his diary are harsher. He described the 1962 Macbeth as “a misconceived production” and actress Kate Reid as “a bad actress; how does she get away with it?”

Throughout these years, Davies was much in demand as a public speaker, literary adjudicator and columnist. The most dramatic change in his circumstances came in December 1960, when he received an offer from Vincent Massey, now the most distinguished man in English-speaking Canada. Would Robertson Davies consider becoming the first master of Massey College—the as-yet unbuilt post-graduate residential college at the University of Toronto to be modelled on Oxford’s All Souls College and funded by the Massey family foundation?

Such a role represented to Davies both academic credibility and an escape from Peterborough. He accepted with alacrity, encouraged by a positive horoscope (Davies treasured such omens). Such a college would be uncharacteristic of Canada, “but perhaps some changes can be made in some aspects of Canada, or rather, some aspects of Canada revealed of which Canada is not yet conscious.” Soon the diarist was immersed in every detail of the college, from its dishes to its rituals. “Why do I have to discuss the teapots?” he muttered a few months later.

The Masseys would prove exasperating patrons in this endeavour, alternating between financial magnanimity and pettiness. Davies also had to deal with Ron Thom, the brilliant but disorganized architect of the college. Their negotiations are described with delicious irony. In March, they discussed the placement of the cornerstone. “Thom wanted it on the ground: I pointed out the impropriety of placing it where dogs could pee on it.” As the college took shape, so did the new master’s determination that learning and scholarship must be its foundation. “The Masseys waffle a little about grand dinners in Hall, wine cellars, and kindred Oxonian pomps which are the ornaments and not the necessities of what they want.”

The college finally opened on October 4, 1963, with all the theatrical sense of occasion that the master always enjoyed. The following morning Robertson Davies “woke with a feeling of peace and accomplishment.” For the next 18 years, he oversaw an educational establishment that, while remaining close to its Oxford model, evolved into a sturdy self-governing Canadian institution with both quirky traditions and high academic standards.

A Celtic Temperament is the best kind of published diary. It takes readers back into a different era, reminding us of forgotten achievements. It tells the compelling story of the inner doubts and frustrations of an outwardly self-confident, larger-than-life personality. The vocabulary and the speech rhythms may be mid-century British, but the wit and good humour are timeless.

This volume made me want more of the author and diarist. I dusted off those romantic copies of The Deptford Trilogy. I speculated how much had been pruned from the diaries in Surridge and Derry’s editing process—as a biographer, I know how much is cut as one “shapes” a story. I look forward to the digital release of Robertson Davies’s complete diaries, edited by Professor James Neufeld, starting in 2017. Until then, A Celtic Temperament gives us a fascinating foretaste of the pleasures to come.