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The Life and Legacy of Robertson Davies: A Comprehensive Biography

The Life and Legacy of Robertson Davies: A Comprehensive Biography

Robertson Davies was a Canadian author, playwright, and journalist who left an indelible mark on the literary world. With a career spanning over five decades, he produced an impressive body of work that includes novels, essays, and plays. This comprehensive biography explores the life and legacy of this remarkable man, delving into his personal and professional life, his literary achievements, and the impact he had on Canadian culture. From his early years in rural Ontario to his rise to literary fame, this biography offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of Canada’s most beloved writers.

Early Life and Education

Robertson Davies was born on August 28, 1913, in Thamesville, Ontario, Canada. He was the third child of Rupert Davies, a newspaper publisher, and Florence Sheppard McKay, a schoolteacher. Davies grew up in a family that valued education and literature, and he was encouraged to read and write from a young age. He attended Upper Canada College, a prestigious private school in Toronto, where he excelled academically and developed a love for the classics. After graduating from Upper Canada College, Davies went on to study at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938. During his time at Queen’s, Davies was involved in various literary and theatrical activities, and he wrote for the student newspaper and literary magazine. After completing his undergraduate studies, Davies went on to pursue a Master of Arts degree in English at Balliol College, Oxford. It was during his time at Oxford that Davies began to develop his distinctive literary style and voice, and he wrote his first novel, “The Salterton Trilogy,” which was published in 1951.

Early Career

Robertson Davies began his career as a journalist, working for various newspapers in Canada and the United States. He also wrote plays and novels, but it wasn’t until the publication of his fifth novel, “Fifth Business,” that he gained widespread recognition as a writer. The novel, which was the first in a trilogy, explored themes of guilt, redemption, and the role of the artist in society. It was praised for its complex characters and intricate plot, and it established Davies as one of Canada’s most important writers. Over the course of his career, Davies wrote more than 20 books, including novels, plays, and essays. He was also a respected academic, teaching at several universities in Canada and the United States. Despite his success, Davies remained humble and dedicated to his craft, always striving to improve his writing and to explore new ideas and themes.

The Salterton Trilogy

The Salterton Trilogy is a collection of three novels written by Robertson Davies. The trilogy includes Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. The novels are set in the fictional town of Salterton, which is based on Davies’ hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The Salterton Trilogy is known for its satirical portrayal of small-town life and its exploration of themes such as love, ambition, and the human condition. The novels are also notable for their use of multiple narrators and their complex, interwoven plots. The Salterton Trilogy is considered a masterpiece of Canadian literature and is a must-read for fans of Davies’ work.

The Deptford Trilogy

The Deptford Trilogy is perhaps Robertson Davies’ most famous work, consisting of three novels: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. The trilogy explores the interconnected lives of three men from the small town of Deptford, Ontario, and delves into themes of guilt, identity, and the search for meaning. Fifth Business, the first novel in the trilogy, introduces us to Dunstan Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher who reflects on his life and the pivotal role he played in the life of his childhood friend, Percy Boyd Staunton. The Manticore follows Staunton’s son, David, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery with the help of a Jungian analyst. Finally, World of Wonders tells the story of Magnus Eisengrim, a magician and former protege of Ramsay, as he recounts his life story to a biographer. The Deptford Trilogy is a masterful work of literature that showcases Davies’ skill in crafting complex characters and exploring the depths of the human psyche.

The Cornish Trilogy

The Cornish Trilogy is a set of three novels written by Robertson Davies, which includes The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus. The trilogy is set in the fictional town of Cornish, Ontario, and explores the lives of various characters, including academics, artists, and eccentrics. The novels are known for their intricate plots, richly drawn characters, and Davies’ signature wit and humor. The Cornish Trilogy is considered one of Davies’ greatest literary achievements and has been praised for its exploration of themes such as art, religion, and the nature of creativity.

Later Novels and Plays

In the later years of his career, Robertson Davies continued to produce works that showcased his unique blend of wit, intelligence, and storytelling prowess. One of his most notable works from this period is the novel “Murther and Walking Spirits,” which was published in 1991. The novel tells the story of a man who is murdered and then finds himself in the afterlife, where he must come to terms with his past and the choices he made in life.

Davies also continued to write plays, including “The Cunning Man,” which was first performed in 1994. The play explores the relationship between a doctor and his patient, who is convinced that he has been cursed by a witch. As with much of Davies’ work, “The Cunning Man” is a complex and thought-provoking exploration of human nature and the mysteries of the universe.

Despite his advancing age, Davies remained a prolific writer until his death in 1995. His later works are a testament to his enduring talent and his ability to captivate readers and audiences alike with his unique brand of storytelling.

Academic Career and Literary Criticism

Robertson Davies’ academic career and literary criticism played a significant role in shaping his legacy as a writer. He began his academic journey at the University of Oxford, where he studied literature and philosophy. Later, he became a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he taught for over twenty years. During this time, he also served as the Master of Massey College, a residential college for graduate students.

Davies’ literary criticism was highly regarded, and he wrote several books on the subject, including “A Voice from the Attic” and “Reading and Writing.” In his criticism, he emphasized the importance of storytelling and the role of the writer in society. He believed that literature should be accessible to all, and that it had the power to shape and transform the world.

Davies’ academic career and literary criticism were closely intertwined with his creative work. His novels often explored themes related to literature and academia, and he drew on his own experiences as a writer and professor. His unique perspective and deep understanding of the literary world contributed to his success as a novelist and playwright.

Overall, Davies’ academic career and literary criticism were an integral part of his life and legacy. They helped to shape his worldview and his creative work, and continue to inspire readers and writers today.

Personal Life and Relationships

Robertson Davies was a man of many talents, but his personal life and relationships were just as fascinating as his literary achievements. He was married twice, first to Brenda Mathews and later to Brenda’s sister, Judith Skelton Grant. Davies and Brenda had three daughters together, and their marriage lasted for over 30 years until Brenda’s death in 1986. Davies then married Judith, who was also a writer and editor, and they remained together until his death in 1995.

Davies was known for his wit and charm, and he had many close friendships throughout his life. One of his closest friends was the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who he met while they were both students at the University of Toronto. They remained friends for over 50 years, and Atwood even dedicated her novel “The Blind Assassin” to Davies.

Despite his success as a writer and his many friendships, Davies was known to be a private person. He rarely gave interviews and preferred to keep his personal life out of the public eye. However, his legacy as a writer and his impact on Canadian literature continue to be celebrated today.

Awards and Honors

Throughout his illustrious career, Robertson Davies received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to literature and the arts. In 1972, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. He was also awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award three times, for his novels “The Manticore” (1972), “World of Wonders” (1975), and “The Cunning Man” (1994). In addition, he received the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1955 and the Lorne Pierce Medal from the Royal Society of Canada in 1976. Davies’ legacy continues to be celebrated through these accolades and the enduring impact of his work.

Legacy and Influence

Robertson Davies’ legacy and influence are far-reaching and enduring. As a writer, he left behind a body of work that continues to captivate readers around the world. His novels, plays, and essays are known for their wit, intelligence, and insight into the human condition. Davies’ writing is characterized by a deep understanding of the complexities of human relationships, as well as a keen sense of humor and a love of language.

Beyond his literary contributions, Davies was also a respected academic and cultural figure. He served as the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, where he was known for his dedication to fostering intellectual curiosity and creativity in his students. Davies was also a passionate advocate for the arts, and he played a key role in the development of Canadian theater and literature.

Davies’ influence can be seen in the work of many contemporary writers, who have been inspired by his unique voice and perspective. His legacy continues to shape the literary landscape of Canada and beyond, and his contributions to the arts and academia will be remembered for generations to come.

The Robertson Davies Collection

The Robertson Davies Collection is a treasure trove of literary works that showcase the brilliance of one of Canada’s most celebrated writers. The collection includes over 2,000 items, ranging from manuscripts, letters, and photographs to personal effects such as his typewriter and desk. The collection is housed at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where it is available for scholars and researchers to study and appreciate.

Davies was a prolific writer who produced over 30 books in his lifetime, including novels, plays, and essays. His works are known for their wit, intelligence, and depth, and have earned him numerous awards and accolades. Some of his most famous works include the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, and The Cunning Man.

The Robertson Davies Collection is a testament to the impact that Davies had on Canadian literature and culture. It provides a glimpse into his creative process and the evolution of his ideas, as well as his personal life and relationships. The collection also includes materials related to his work as a journalist, academic, and cultural commentator, highlighting his multifaceted career and contributions to Canadian society.

Overall, the Robertson Davies Collection is a valuable resource for anyone interested in Canadian literature, culture, and history. It offers a unique perspective on one of Canada’s most beloved writers and serves as a reminder of his enduring legacy.

Adaptations and Productions

Robertson Davies’ literary works have been adapted into various productions, including stage plays, operas, and television series. One of his most famous works, “Fifth Business,” was adapted into a stage play by the Canadian playwright Tomson Highway. The play premiered in Toronto in 2007 and received critical acclaim for its faithful adaptation of Davies’ novel.

Another notable adaptation of Davies’ work is the television series “The Fifth Business,” which aired on Canadian television in 1980. The series was based on Davies’ Deptford Trilogy and starred actors such as Kenneth Welsh and Kate Reid. The series was praised for its faithful adaptation of Davies’ work and its strong performances by the cast.

Davies’ work has also been adapted into operas, including “The Golden Ass,” which was composed by Randolph Peters and premiered in 1999. The opera was based on Davies’ novel of the same name and was praised for its beautiful music and faithful adaptation of the novel.

Overall, Davies’ literary legacy has been celebrated through various adaptations and productions, showcasing the enduring appeal of his work and the impact he has had on Canadian literature.

Controversies and Criticisms

One of the most significant controversies surrounding Robertson Davies was his portrayal of women in his novels. Critics have argued that his female characters were often one-dimensional and stereotypical, with little agency or depth. In response, Davies defended his writing, stating that he was simply reflecting the societal norms of his time and that his female characters were meant to be archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out individuals. However, this defense has not been enough to satisfy some readers and scholars, who continue to criticize Davies for his treatment of women in his work.

The Daviesian Philosophy

The Daviesian Philosophy is a term coined to describe the unique worldview of Robertson Davies. It is a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of storytelling, the interconnectedness of all things, and the power of imagination. Davies believed that stories were essential to human life, and that they could help us understand ourselves and the world around us. He also believed that everything in the universe was connected, and that we could learn about ourselves by studying the natural world. Finally, Davies believed that imagination was a powerful tool that could help us create new worlds and new possibilities. The Daviesian Philosophy is a testament to the creativity and insight of one of Canada’s greatest writers.

The Daviesian Voice

The Daviesian Voice is a term used to describe the unique writing style of Robertson Davies. His voice is characterized by its wit, intelligence, and depth. Davies was a master of storytelling, and his works are known for their intricate plots, complex characters, and rich symbolism. His writing is often compared to that of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, and he is considered one of Canada’s greatest literary figures. Davies’ voice is still heard today through his many works, which continue to inspire and captivate readers around the world.

The Daviesian Humor

Robertson Davies was known for his wit and humor, which he often infused into his writing. This style of humor, which has come to be known as the Daviesian humor, was characterized by its dryness and irony. Davies had a keen eye for the absurdities of human behavior and was able to highlight them in a way that was both humorous and insightful. His humor was often used to comment on the social and cultural norms of his time, and he was not afraid to poke fun at the establishment. Despite his wit, Davies was also a deeply serious writer, and his humor was always used in service of his larger themes and ideas. The Daviesian humor remains a hallmark of his writing and continues to be celebrated by readers and critics alike.

The Daviesian Mythology

Robertson Davies was not only a prolific writer but also a master storyteller. His novels are filled with intricate plots, complex characters, and a deep understanding of human nature. However, what sets Davies apart from other writers is his creation of the Daviesian mythology. This mythology is a collection of stories, symbols, and archetypes that Davies used throughout his novels to explore the human condition.

At the heart of the Daviesian mythology is the idea of the “fifth business.” This term comes from the world of theater, where the fifth business was the person who played a supporting role in a play but was essential to the success of the production. In Davies’ novels, the fifth business is the person who is often overlooked or underestimated but who plays a crucial role in the lives of others. This character is usually an outsider, someone who is not part of the mainstream society but who has a unique perspective on the world.

Another important element of the Daviesian mythology is the use of Jungian archetypes. Davies was a student of Carl Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, and he used these ideas to create characters who embodied universal symbols and themes. For example, the character of Magnus Eisengrim in “Fifth Business” represents the archetype of the magician, while the character of Dunstan Ramsay embodies the archetype of the hero.

The Daviesian mythology also includes a number of recurring symbols, such as the tarot cards, the theater, and the idea of the double. These symbols are used to explore themes such as fate, identity, and the search for meaning in life.

Overall, the Daviesian mythology is a rich and complex system of symbols and archetypes that Davies used to explore the human condition in his novels. It is a testament to his skill as a writer and his deep understanding of the human psyche.

The Daviesian Spirituality

Robertson Davies was not only a prolific writer but also a man of deep spirituality. His beliefs were rooted in the Anglican Church, but he was also influenced by the works of Carl Jung and the concept of individuation. Davies believed that each person had a unique purpose in life and that it was their responsibility to discover and fulfill it. He also believed in the power of storytelling and the role it played in shaping our understanding of the world and ourselves. This Daviesian spirituality is evident in his novels, which often explore themes of identity, destiny, and the search for meaning. Davies’ legacy as a writer and spiritual thinker continues to inspire readers and scholars alike.