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Furtive autobiography: the Peterborough journalism of Robertson Davies.

 Many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public;
 and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful
 friends to a bookseller's shop.

ON a Dominion Day long ago, CBC radio visited Orillia to collect opinions from people who had once known its most famous citizen, Stephen Leacock. One was a taxi driver who, when asked if he liked Leacock, replied, "No, I don't like him because he didn't like us." Robertson Davies, listening to this, wondered why it was considered necessary for Leacock to like the people of Orillia or anyone else. Perhaps it had to do with Leacock being a humorist, and therefore untrustworthy. Davies took Leacock's side because he loved the man's work and because he considered himself, some part of the time, a humorist.

But the issue doesn't arise only in the context of humour. A close reader of Davies will notice that the question of being liked or not liked played a significant part in the formation of his self-image and his view of the world.

He was at least a part-time journalist all his life, and he wrote an agreeably smooth and occasionally pawky style. For most of his career his journalism was charged with a persistent tension, the conflict between a philistine society and a writer determined to challenge and possibly change it--not always directly, not often with vehemence or anger, but persistently, year by year, as if it were both a duty and a pleasure.

He saw Canada governed by "a cult of genial mediocrity" and wanted something better for his fellow citizens, a larger, more expansive life, culturally and emotionally. In his late novels, beginning with Fifth Business, he set this dream in the context of fiction. Earlier, he expressed it in journalism. Why, he wondered, did Canadians settle for so little?


Writing for Mayfair magazine in the autumn of 1949, he imagined how his fellow citizens had spent the summer:
 They have rushed about the lakes in noisy little boats .... they have
 sat in hot little boats waiting to catch fish which they have then had
 to eat.... They have amused themselves after their fashion and I have
 no quarrel with them. But their ways are not my ways, nor are their
 thoughts my thoughts.

His apparent tolerance ("I have no quarrel") was more rhetorical than real. No one was fooled. In truth, he had many quarrels with the people among whom he spent his life, and he was extremely conscious of those things that set him apart from them. He had little time or tolerance for those who did not read--and his acquaintance with many such Canadians did not soften his views. In a lecture in 1992, three years before his death, he quoted Sir Nathaniel in Love's Labour's Lost on a dullard who knew nothing of books: "His intellect is not replenished, he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts."

Davies was not an unqualified admirer of democracy. His alter ego, an invented Davies-like diarist given the name Samuel Marchbanks, announced at one point his agreement with Theophile Gautier, the nineteenth-century Romantic poet, who divided "men into two groups, The Flamboyant and The Drab." Marchbanks/Davies placed himself firmly among The Flamboyant. "But this is very much the age of the Drab--the apotheosis of The Squirt. The Squirts and Drabs are not worth much singly, but when they organize into gangs and parties they can impose Drabbery and Squirtdom on quite a large part of mankind."

Comments like that suggest he harboured a certain fear of the mob. Perhaps that's why, in an age of display, he hid himself with care. Symbolically, he spent his life in hiding. His beard, while exuberantly announcing his status as a man of letters, also provided a form of concealment. It was so extravagant that had he shaved it off he might have been unrecognizable; as a result, most people who knew him, even over several decades, never caught so much as a glimpse of his whole face. In retrospect this seems part of a plan. Davies did disclose his true nature--but slowly, and only to those who read his work with care.

Lecturing at Yale in 1990, he remarked: "For the greater part of my life the luxury of devoting the best hours of the day to my writing has been denied me. I have always had a job. For twenty-one years I was a journalist, and for much of that time the editor of a daily newspaper."

This was one of the commanding facts of his life. Like Dickens, like Hemingway, like a thousand lesser novelists, Davies was a professional journalist, though working on a daily newspaper was never among the goals the young Davies set for himself. In fact, as a newspaperman he was a conscript.

DAVIES first came to journalism, as many do, because it seemed an agreeable way to earn a living while using a talent for words. In 1940 he returned from England with his wife, Brenda, to begin a family. He had Oxford behind him, and the Old Vic, where they had both worked under Tyrone Guthrie.

In Toronto, as he recalled late in his life, he first thought of a job on the Globe and Mail but discovered it "was going through a mid-life crisis which has existed with it for fifty, sixty, and seventy years." Instead he went to work at B.K. Sandwell's Saturday Night, then a slick-paper weekly. He was literary editor as well as second-string drama critic and second-string music critic, his views sometimes appearing under pen-names such as Eleanor Rumming, Margery Maunciple, and Amyas Pilgarlic. This was a genial fraud, more common at the time than today, by which a publication pretended it had a larger staff than was the case. Lucy Van Gogh, the regular drama critic, was in fact Sandwell himself.

Davies liked his job and had no desire, so far as we know, to enter daily journalism and what E.M. Forster called "the world of telegrams and anger." His father, Rupert Davies, an aggressive force in that world, a loyal Liberal elevated to the Canadian senate, needed an editor for the Peterborough Examiner, which was the lesser of his two dailies and lived in the shadow of the Kingston Whig-Standard. He decided his clever 28-year-old son was the man for the job.

In financial terms, it was a promotion, as Davies realized--but only in financial terms. Otherwise, as Judith Skelton Grant says in Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, it felt more like an imposition. It would be hard to identify the charms that a life in Peterborough offered during the Second World War. Moreover, he had no desire to leave Toronto or Saturday Night. He had been making a reputation and building a life that was happily some distance from Rupert's dominating personality. In Peterborough he would be just up the road from his father's home in Kingston; and once more he would be put in the adolescent position of having to please his father. His feelings, however, appear to have been irrelevant. It turned out that the offer was no offer at all, more like a command. Rupert Davies, as usual, had his way. In March 1942, Davies became editor of the Examiner.

In Peterborough he heard people say, "You know, if you think too much, it will send you crazy." He discovered that Peterborough parents saw education mainly as a means to authenticate their own opinions. Ideally, their children would go off to university and learn that everything they had already heard in Peterborough was true.

Whatever he thought of Peterborough, he took his profession seriously. If he had to be a newspaperman, he would make the best of it. He went at it with will, energy, wit, and considerable success. Soon he was writing some 12,000 words a week for the Examiner--editorials, reviews, various items of commentary, and a diary column attributed to the grumpy Marchbanks. When he was editor and then publisher, from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, the Examiner's editorials were quoted more often than those of any other paper in the country.

He refused to edit the Examiner as a provincial Ontario daily with a circulation of 22,000 just because it happened to be a provincial Ontario daily with a circulation of 22,000. It's clear that he was determined to bring civilization to Peterborough whether Peterborough liked it or not. There was something pathetic in this ambition, and something magnificent as well.

In that regard, he had his triumphs. In the early 1940s Hugh Kenner was an adolescent in Peterborough who had never heard of James Joyce. One day, glancing through the Examiner, he came upon a piece about him by Davies. That article arrived at the right time in the right hands. Kenner became an interpreter of modern literature and produced three books about Joyce. While Davies did not make Kenner the wonderfully articulate scholar he became, he helped open him to the possibility of a larger world--roughly the goal of all the journalism Davies produced.


On the other hand, Davies as an editor was capable of obstinate absurdity. In June 1947, the British critic James Agate died. It occurred to Davies that he should write an article saluting this remarkable man, whose work he had often read during his time in England. According to the normal rules of newspapering, the idea of an obituary for Agate in the Peterborough Examiner was preposterous. Agate was the drama critic of the Sunday Times, the film critic of the Illustrated London News, the literary critic of another paper, and a regular on the sort of BBC radio shows where three or four critics would quarrel quietly over the cultural events of the week--some of which, as Agate occasionally confessed later, he never quite got around to attending. He had a taste for Guardsmen and no taste at all for paying his taxes, which made him the centre of both sexual and financial scandals.

Davies ignored those aspects of Agate and wrote of him purely as a drama critic, predicting a great posthumous reputation for him. True, readers of the Examiner had never heard of Agate, but Davies predicted their children would hear much of him and their grandchildren even more. There could hardly have been three dozen people in Peterborough who knew that Agate had lived and therefore might be interested to learn that he had ceased to do so. But he was, Davies argued, comparable to Hazlitt, Beerbohm, and Shaw. "The death of Agate means nothing in modern Canada, where the theatre does not flourish; but, as our country assumes the amenities of civilization, his name will mean more and will become in its special sphere a great name."


That was not the most accurate of Davies' prophecies. My guess is that nowadays fewer people in Peterborough know of Agate than in 1947. Still, that wasn't the point. Davies felt like praising a writer who deserved praise. The readers of the Examiner could like it or lump it.

He may not have wholeheartedly subscribed to his father's views, but his editorials identified him as a devoted member of the Canadian Establishment. That became clear during a controversy over Vincent Massey's knighthood. In 1954 Prince Philip privately delivered a message from the Queen: Her Majesty wished to confer on her then governor general the Order of the Garter.

The Garter is the greatest gift the Queen can bestow, the highest order of chivalry in England, and the oldest order in the world, having been founded in 1384. Massey would become the first person in the overseas Commonwealth ever to receive it. This was possibly the most ecstatic moment in his life; no upward-striving Anglophile could ask for more.

But, as anyone knows who has read about the career of Lord Black, accepting an honour from the crown is no simple matter for a Canadian. The government did not normally allow Canadians to accept British titles. Massey knew he had to ask Prime Minister Louis St Laurent's permission. St Laurent, no Anglophile, delayed a decision as long as he could, until finally he lost the 1957 election and left office. His successor, John Diefenbaker, said he was delighted to hear of Massey's honour but put off for the moment his permission.

Eventually Diefenbaker's chronic procrastination turned into reluctance, and Massey began to despair. He consulted his friend Rob Davies, and Davies came through with an editorial in the Examiner.

He argued that, given Massey's great service to crown and country, granting him this favour would be a reasonable exception to an existing policy. He depicted the government's reluctance as an example of narrow-minded Canadianism. Davies asked whether the sovereign was to be allowed to express her gratitude to Massey--"Or are we going to put on our holier-than-thou face and ask her not to smirch the lily whiteness of our egalitarian principles? Could anything be more provincial, more perversely colonial?"

Diefenbaker was not moved, and eventually Massey had to surrender this greatest of all his dreams. The Examiner was influential, but not that influential.

FOR Davies, journalism was a way of exhibiting himself in public. Often, readers could glimpse elements of autobiography elbowing their way into the text. An examination of his book reviews will tell us when his enthusiasm for Sigmund Freud paled and he became instead a devotee of C.G. Jung, who was to have such a profound influence on the novels of his middle age and later. But only the most perceptive reader could have guessed what seems obvious now, that Davies seized on Jung not as an explorer of the psyche but as a source of literary ideas. Davies would treat Jung as Graham Greene treated God; he would draw inspiration from Jung without being governed by him. Jung gave Davies a superstructure for fantasies he was incubating.

In 1961, Davies discussed what he saw as a missed opportunity in J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Most critics thought that Franny's obsessive repeating of a prayer to Jesus was a sign of derangement; we were relieved when her brother somehow talked her out of it and persuaded her that to live properly is prayer enough. Davies, to the contrary, wished Salinger had let Franny keep her obsession; that might have pushed Salinger over into Dostoyevsky country, where something quite interesting could have happened. Was this Davies thinking of his own future? He was then the author of three delightful comic novels about Kingston (thinly disguised as Salterton), but he had--we now know--larger ambitions.



Davies seems to have seen elements of himself in Don Quixote. He wrote that the Don is courteous and chivalrous toward those who use him badly. He's ready to help the distressed or attack tyranny and cruelty. In Davies' view, the Don, mad or not, is "manifestly a greater man than the dull-witted peasants and cruel nobles who torment and despise him." When he mentioned dull-witted peasants, was he thinking of newspaper readers in Peterborough? When he cited cruel nobles, did he think of those who dealt carelessly with his work?

Attending a community theatre production of his play Fortune, My Foe, he was startled to hear lines he hadn't written, lines of (as he said) "stupefying vulgarity and foolishness."

The director, it turned out, had changed the script without his approval. The newspaperman in the cast, as Davies had written him, "wasn't stupid enough for a newspaperman," the director said, so the director rewrote the part.

Rather than throttling the man, as some might, or calling his lawyer, as others might, Davies restrained himself. He was playing the game. He had to be a good fellow. After all, how much theatre was there in Canada? How often would his plays be produced? But an incident of that kind, however sublimated, can never be less than upsetting.

In roughly the same period, Davies finished Leaven of Malice and sent it to Clarke Irwin. There it fell under the scrutiny of Irene Clarke, a dragon who breathed fire on all those whose manuscripts displeased her. Mrs Clarke sent back word that she would prefer a happier ending. Davies considered his ending quite happy enough, but (and here the story becomes touching as well as symptomatic) he actually tried to satisfy her desire for what he called an extra half pound of sugar. Twice he sat down to write a new conclusion. Finally he gave up, and so did Mrs Clarke. There must have been times when the phrase "pearls before swine" passed through his mind.

In the early 1960s he wrote for the Toronto Star a syndicated column that ran in half a dozen Canadian and American newspapers. It rather annoyed him that the entertainment editor sometimes cut out paragraphs he found displeasing. In any case, Davies withdrew his services after a couple of years. He wrote to a friend: "It pays handsomely, but it is whoredom. To write about ... Logan Pearsall Smith for housewives in Sioux Lookout is all right for a while, but in the end it makes one a Tinpot Pontiff." (Smith was the writer who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading"--a phrase so attractive to Davies that sometimes he imagined he had invented it.)

Later we find self-evaluations of Davies lurking behind his attitudes to the triumphs and miseries of the celebrated. When Laurence Olivier died in 1989, Davies wrote an obituary for Maclean's that sounded like Davies on Davies: "Nobody dared to call him an actor of the old school, but that was precisely what he was and when the old school is the Great Old School it cannot be beaten.... He loved to act, to impersonate ... what he liked best were the assumptions of extraordinary personalities."

Despite everything, Davies as a journalist remained charming. But beneath the charm something wondrously passionate was waiting to be unleashed. Those who were watching Davies carefully at the time might have glimpsed it in a paragraph that appeared in the Toronto Star about 1960. It concerned Giacomo Casanova. He's often treated as a comic version of Don Juan, but on closer examination he turns out to be a stirring writer, a soldier, a scholar, a musician, and a crook who knew precisely what he was doing and watched himself with an amused eye. The thought of Casanova brought back to Davies something said by the headmaster of Upper Canada College, W. L. Grant, when Davies was a student there. One Sunday evening Dr Grant startled an audience of schoolboys by shouting "Live dangerously; sin nobly!"

CASANOVA, Davies wrote in the Star, had certainly done that. But the boy Davies must have wondered if he could ever follow advice so outrageous. Could he develop an imagination that was grand, dangerous, and in traditional Canadian terms sinful? He took many years to find the answer, but in the end it was a triumphant Yes.


ROBERT FULFORD is a columnist for the National Post.
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Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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