Friday, November 6, 2015

Robertson Davies as diarist

A selection of diaries kept by Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s most important literary figures and its leading man of letters in the mid-20th century, has been published for the first time. The diaries, which had been embargoed for 20 years after his death, provide a wealth of detail about his daily life, and for this they are important, and often interesting, but they do not provide evidence for the publisher’s claim that Davies must now be considered ‘one of the great diarists’.

Robertson was born in Thamesville, Ontario, in 1913, third son to William Davies, a Welsh-born Canadian publisher and politician. He was schooled at Upper Canada College and then went to Queen’s University, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a BLit in 1938. He wished to make a career in the British theatre world, and joined the staff of the Old Vic, led at that time by Tyrone Guthrie, and worked alongside the likes of Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh. In 1940, he married the Australian-born Brenda Mathews, whom he had met at Oxford, but who had also worked at the Old Vic. Shortly after war broke out, Davies was advised to return to Canada. Because of poor eyesight, though, he was unfit for military service. He worked as a literary journalist in Toronto until, in 1942, his father pressed him to take over one of his company’s newspapers, the daily Peterborough Examiner.

Davies, despite his full-time job, and Brenda continued to be involved in the theatre world, with Davies writing (and directing) several plays during the 1940s. He also collected his humorous essays for publication under the pseudonym, Samuel Marchbanks. Frustrated by an inability to get his plays noticed outside of Canada, Davies began writing novels in the 1950s, alongside more plays, publishing what came to be known as the Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost in 1951, Leaven of Malice in 1954, and A Mixture of Frailties in 1958). A major turning point for Davies came in the early 1960s, when he began teaching at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and two years later was appointed Master of the new university graduate Massey College, conceived by one of Canada’s most notable figures, Vincent Massey, and funded by his foundation.

In all Davies’ endeavours, Brenda was a constant companion - stage managing her husband for six decades, according to an obituary in The Globe and Mail. Together, they had three daughters, one of whom, Jennifer (Surridge), would become her father’s literary executor. And Brenda helped organise many of the Master’s functions at Massey College during Davies’ near-20 years tenure - despite being excluded, as were all women, for the early years. In the 1970s, Davies again found form with the novel, publishing Fifth Business in 1970, The Manticore in 1972 and World of Wonders in 1975 - collectively known as The Deptford Trilogy.

Davies retired from academic life in the early 1980s, but continued to write novels, some of his best. What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), which became the middle book of The Cornish Trilogy, was short-listed for the Booker Prize for fiction. He published two books in the 1990s, but failed to finish the third of what would have been The Toronto Trilogy. He died in 1995. There are no dedicated Robertson Davies websites that I can find, and thus surprisingly little detailed information about him on the web, other than at The Canadian Encyclopaedia or Wikipedia (and in a few obituaries - The New York Times or The Independent, for example). The Paris Review has the text of an audience interview with Davies from 1986.

Although a great fan of Robertson Davies, having read most of his novels over the years, I never knew he was a diarist. Indeed, it seems, he dictated that, after his death, the plethora of his diary material - many different volumes and around three million words - should not be published for at least two decades. Now those 20 years have passed, McClelland & Stewart has just published A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, as prepared and edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry. From his teens and throughout his life, Davies kept a variety of diaries: a personal daily diary, a ‘big’ diary for more considered entries, a theatre-going diary, travel diaries on trips, and, occasionally, other diaries for a specific topic, such as one kept during production of his play Love and Libel, and another about Massey College. Surridge and Derry say of their book that it covers ‘a particularly busy time in his immensely productive career’ when he was already known as Canada’s leading man of letters.

The editors have eschewed the idea of identifying the exact provenance of the diary entries, interleaving them seemlessly, ‘in order to maintain an easily readable ongoing narrative’ - though I, personally, would have liked to know which entries came from which diary. However, and very interestingly, there is a project, well under way, to create digital editions of all the diaries. The Davies Diaries project, as it is known, is under the guidance of James Neufeld, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Trent University, and is being funded by Editing Modernism in Canada and Library and Archives Canada. Ambitiously, the project expects to allow readers to browse and search not only digitised images of all diary pages, but verbatim transcripts, corrected transcripts, and annotated texts. Moreover, the presentation will be enhanced with links to visual, audio and texts from other archives and collections ‘to provide background and colour for the events Davies describes’. Online publication of the theatre diaries in 2017 has been set as a first target.

Surridge and Derry conclude their introduction to A Celtic Temperament by claiming: ‘[T]he diaries are more than social history, as we hope this introductory selection shows. In their variety, intimacy, and honesty, they present an extraordinary rich portrait of the man and his times and an entertaining account of a life as it is being lived.’ All of which I can agree with. However, I don’t buy the publisher’s claim that this first book of Davies’ diaries establishes him ‘as one of the great diarists’. Far from it. Much, if not most, of the diaries are filled with, if not banal then, straightforward records of his daily activities. These records are, as a whole, hugely important, because Davies is one of the greatest of Canadian authors, but in the detail they are fairly dull. Davies was a decent, hard-working, family man - privileged and successful - and the detail of his daily life reflects these realities. Although not yet reviewed in the British press, a review in Canada’s The Globe and Mail calls the diaries ‘delightful’ but complains that there is ‘no dirt, little gossip’ and that, though fun and whimsical, they reveal little more than ‘the banalities of a privileged life in letters’.

Here are a few short extracts from A Celtic Temperament - and many thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.

9 February 1961
‘Bill Broughall lunched with me at the University Club. He tells me Vincent Massey says “a gentleman never takes soup with luncheon at his club” because Lord Curzon said it. I fear I shall run into many things a gentleman does not do, and which are unknown to me; but I am writer, and therefore a bit of a bounder.’

25 February 1961
‘Nothing in the Globe and Mail about my appointment because I write for the Star: what small behaviour! Write a Star column in the morning and a critique of Saint Joan. In the afternoon, loaf and read Jung; Rosamund comes for the weekend, very lively; in the evening go through Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” with her and read Rabelais.’

27 February 1961
‘Now that the news is out, and the world has received it with exemplary calm, and my Proposals are out of my hands, I feel a deep depression, a regression of the libido, what might be called the Hump. What have I let myself in for? What am I, a mere magpie of leaning and certainly no scholar, doing with a learned appointment in that collection of medieval schoolmen and learned but vulgar thrusters, the University of Toronto? My one desire is to crawl into a hole and work on the novel which has been in my mind since before A Mixture of Frailties.’

20 August 1961
‘Lay late reading Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh. Dye my beard too dark - must look into this. Loafed all day never stirring from the place and found this very refreshing: my condition of mind asks for inactivity; worked on my speech. I am indeed changing: trying to purge my writing of ornament and mere eccentricity and my thinking of bile, emotionalism, and vulgarity. Oh! that I may make some progress in these things!

13 November 1961
‘Worked on Saturday Night piece “Pleasures of Love.” In the evening looked over old MSS of novels and plays and reread diary of Love and Libel a year since: still painful, and it might have succeeded; useless to repine.’

25 February 1962
‘Bouts of sinus, headache, nausea, and cold sweats have left me unwell for the day. Brenda and I lay on sofas and read. Went for short walk. What a hateful winter! Every winter has its low point and I hope this it: is it age or bodily rot that brings this appalling tedium vitae?’

19 December 1962
‘Minor bothers: car goes crook; parcels get mislaid, etc. Rosamund is out of school at 12. Give a good lecture at 2. We call on the Edinboroughs and have mince pies and rum punch. In the evening to Kind Hearts and Coronets, my favourite film.’

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