Copyright © 1999 Pendragon Ink. All rights reserved.
January 1976-March 1979 The Rebel Angels planned
In 1976, the year he turned 63, Robertson Davies was at the peakof his powers. The warm American critical reception of thenovels of the Deptford trilogy had by now established his reputationas a major novelist. Their success had attracted the first of a seriesof contracts with Penguin Books, which would see reprints of his booksdistributed worldwide. By 1976, too, Davies had become an established,respected figure at the University of Toronto. As the first Master of MasseyCollege, he had made it a centre for intellectual gatherings and ceremonialevents, and as a professor in the Drama Centre and in the GraduateDepartment of English, he had gained his colleagues' respect for histeaching. His earlier journalistic career as editor of the PeterboroughExaminer 1942-63, literary editor of Saturday Night magazine 1940-42and 1953-59, and columnist for the Toronto Star newspaper syndicate1959-62 had provided him with a reviewer's familiarity with Canada'sliterary scene. His knowledge of the theatre was extraordinarily broad,the product of his lifelong enthusiasm for drama as playgoer, actor, director,playwright, collector, and professor. He had learned much from theworks of Freud as a young man, but by 1976, he had become a thoroughgoingJungian, capable of talking about complex psychological issuessimply and clearly. He wrote with easy authority in a wide range of keysto correspondents of many sorts.
Davies was a very busy man. He found time for many commitments inaddition to College administration, teaching, and the writing of novels. Inthe summers of 1976, 1977, and 1978, for example, he spent a week atthe Wesleyan-Suffield Writers' Conference in Connecticut giving lecturesand counselling students. He wrote and gave many speeches, collectedfor publication as One Half of Robertson Davies (1977). In the course ofthe 1976-77 university year, he wrote his last play, the full-length Pontiacand the Green Man, for the University's sesquicentennial celebrations (itdrew scathing reviews). And he responded as well as he could to the manyletters sent to him by readers and students studying his work.
His private life at this time had a regular rhythm: with his wife, Brenda,he spent weekdays living in the Master's Lodgings at Massey College,and weekends and university breaks at Windhover, their country housenear Caledon East, an hour's drive from Toronto. Their three daughters,Miranda, Jennifer and Rosamond, were by now living independent lives.Both Jennifer and Rosamond had married, and Rosamond had four children.Theatre continued to be a great pleasure, and Davies and Brendasaw, on average, a play once every week or two, in Toronto, at the ShawFestival in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Stratford Festival (both an easydrive from Caledon East), and in London during jaunts abroad.
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To J. G. MCCLELLAND
University of Toronto
January 6, 1976
Thanks for your letter of December 24; it did not reach me untilDecember 31, and I did not have time to read the MS until last night.You ask for a comment you can use. Very well: here goes
The theme of Bear is one of the most significant and pressing in Canada in our time the necessity for us who are newcomers to the country, with hardly four hundred years of acquaintance with it, to ally ourselves with the spirit of one of the most ancient lands in the world. In our search for this spirit, we are indeed in search of ourselves.
There that being done, let me say a few other things, not forquotation. I thought the book admirably written, spare and taut, witha good command of tone throughout; the changes from reality tofantasy are very well managed, and the pathos of the lonely womanis conveyed without too much agonizing and feminine self-pity. Itreminded me of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, because it explores thesame ground the search for healing in the wilderness but I thoughtit a much better book as a work of art. I am not surprised MargaretLaurence and Adele Wiseman urged you to publish it: it is, in thebest sense, a woman's book, and they know what they are talkingabout. But this must be put delicately neither Margaret nor Adele,who are both dears, labour under the burden of a strong sense ofhumour, and when the book is published you had better prepareyourself for some explosions, not of outrage but of ribaldry.
Writing from my own recent experience, I think you may runinto a few things like this: MacSkimming will like the book andunderstand it; French will not like the book and won't understand it,and will be vulgarly jocose about it; Brian Vintcent will complain thatit is elitist (not every woman has a bear, so why should any womanhave one?) and will hint that bears are well-known to be homosexuals(like all sensitive people) and should not be bothered by importunatearchivists. All critics, everywhere in Canada, will tell the wholeplot in the course of what they think of as reviews, thereby spillingthe beans. Gordon Sinclair will declare that he has never slept with abear, but served under a sergeant who was a bear in World War One.Pierre Berton will have an evening of The Great Debate on the themeWhy Not Bears? Peter Newman will discover and publish the bear'sIncome Tax file. The Ontario Public Archives will be queried in theLegislature about what goes on there during lunchtime, anyway? TheCBC will offer an hour-long (50 minutes, and 10 minutes of commercials)drama about Goldilocks, a social worker, who attempts tomend the marriage of Father Bear and Mother Bear, which has cometo grief because Father Bear thinks Baby Bear looks altogether toomuch like Farley Mowat, and wants to know what has been goingon in the den when he was out looking for acorns and honey. PeterGzowski and 99 other TV and radio interviewers will lure Miss Engelto their studios and after a lot of humming and hawing, ask, "NowMarian, I hope you'll take this question as it's intended, but did youever really let me phrase this carefully you know what I mean witha bear?" Judy LaMarsh will ask a similar question, but not havingread the book, will think it was a porcupine. The SPCA and theecology people will protest against the sexual solicitation of bears, andthe Gay Lib people will counter by asking what is wrong with a consentingbear, especially if it is a sailor-bear or a truck-driver-bear?....All of this you and Miss Engel will have to endure philosophically.Where you will be driven to the uttermost pitch of endurance willbe when the Society for the Advancement of Native Peoples monthsafter publication (slow readers because of the poor educationimposed on them by unsympathetic governments) will demand thatin the paperback the line "Shit with the bear" be changed to "Excretewith the bear, having first provided the bear with an ample supply ofFace-Elle, preferably pink." You are all set for a lively Spring.
More seriously, I thought the book a fine treatment of a trickytheme tricky because intercourse with a large animal is one of thecommonest of feminine fantasies, and in a country like Canada onethat is rarely given public voice. But it is recurrent in all mythologies,and its roots lie very deep. Men do not fantasize about large femaleanimals, and books like Wild Animals I Have Known are quite free ofsuch material incidentally, Miss Engel must be prepared to meetladies at cocktail parties whose names figure in Peter Newman's bookwho will think the popular work named above is the one she haswritten; rich women don't seem to read, and when they do, they don'tread straight.... I wish you luck, and my congratulations to MissEngel, whom I do not know, but whose work I have long admired.
PS: Of course this letter is for your eye alone.
To SIR JOHN GIELGUD
University of Toronto
April 5, 1976
Dear Sir John:
Forgive me for taking so long to reply to your delightful letter ofMarch 1: I have been laid low by pneumonia, and am just gettingback to work. Your letter cheered me greatly at a time when I neededcheering, so thank you very much. How did World of Wonders comeinto your hands? It has not been published in the U.K., but has justappeared in the U.S., and is being greeted with kind words and largesales; I am delighted that its romance and the wonder of life give satisfaction,and apparently a kind of reassurance, to so many people.Not many authors nowadays seem to like life or think it rich, andoften I feel very lonely and somewhat odd; but people just readerswho do not suffer from literary ennui and sourness of spirit oftenagree with me.
No, I never knew [Sir John] Martin-Harvey or worked for himin any capacity. Nevertheless he was a determining element in mygrowing-up (what Jungians call a "transformation-symbol") and Ifeel an affection and gratitude toward him. I wonder if you actors areoften aware of the extraordinary influence you have on impressionableyoung people who encounter your work at a critical time in theirlives? My parents were keen theatre-goers, and when I was twelvethey took me to see JMH in The Corsican Brothers; it bowled me over,for I was just at an age when I longed for a whiff of assurance thatlife was not as commonplace as it was in my school world, and thereit was, provided by Dumas, and JMH a world of wonders, indeed!I often wonder if the keen political reformers of our time have anyconception of the need in people for some aristocracy of spirit andfeeling, which is so inimical to their well-meant but determinedlydowdy notion of the world and of human society, but so necessary ifthere is to be any flowering of the spirit.
Anyhow, I became a Martin-Harvey fan, and saw him as often asI could. Inevitably, as I grew older and began to know everything,I thought I had outgrown him. I recall that as a schoolboy of 17Iwent with a friend of mine to see a matinee of The Only Way; wewould go, we thought, and have a sophisticated giggle at the oldman and the old play. But we were both soggy with tears before theend, and I really don't think I have ever felt I knew everything sincethat memorable afternoon.
Later, when I was at Oxford, I went up to London to see his farewellperformance as Oedipus at Covent Garden. Startling combinationof Greek splendour and nineteenth-century romanticism; it washis voice, I think that was most impressive, because it was too mellifluousfor the ferocity of Greek tragedy, but nevertheless revealedthings in the Greek story that one had not suspected as being partof it.
So, you see, I never knew him, though I did at one time know hisson Michael, and that was very revealing. JMH was a tyrant as afather, and wrecked Michael, who was a pretty good small-part actor,but best at grotesque comedy. (He looked extraordinarily like hismother [Nina de Silva], who was I believe a charming woman, anda fine comedy actress, though perfectly awful as romantic heroines.)In time I began to collect things relating to the theatre, and acquireda large group about 450 of JMH's letters, and through these Ibegan to know him better. He was not, of course, the elegant melodramahero or villain I had seen on the stage; just a nice man, muchplagued by gout, finances, and bewildered that the theatre world waspassing him by. He regarded himself as the inheritor of Irving'smantle, and rejection of him was rejection of Irving which wasthe rejection of all sane theatre art, and contrary to God's manifestwill. Poor man; it makes sad reading.
He was also an important figure in the history of the stage inCanada; his tours were heroic in scope and the number of productionshe carried. He gave us some very good Shakespeare Hamlet(with a Gordon Craig setting), Richard III, a wonderful sly ogre andCanada's first professional production of a Greek tragedy Oedipus,directed by Reinhardt; and of course he allowed twentieth-centuryplaygoers like me to peep into the past, and see Corsican Brothers andThe Lyons Mail and The Bells in very good, coherent and artisticallysincere productions, as Irving had done them; there was a quality ofjocose terror in some of those things that I have never seen any otheractor achieve; he had a wolfish quality which presumably was a legacyfrom Irving.
The passage in my novel, about the Irving Centenary Matinee isvirtually all imagination; I had heard that JMH had wanted to be init, made rather an ass of himself, and had also been somewhat shoulderedaside by younger organizers. But otherwise I invented it; I hopeyou did not mind being made part of the scene though notidentified by name in the role of the actor who tried to comforthim. But if it rang true I am of course complimented.
Thanks for your recollections of the trouble about A Tale of TwoCities; certainly he does not seem to have behaved very well on thatoccasion. I suppose one must make allowance for the devouringegotism of actors of the Irving era, and their followers; those extraordinaryand electric personalities were bought at the cost of a verylarge chunk of human decency and may well have been worth theprice. It must have cost Martin-Harvey a great deal in the coin ofordinary good behaviour, the sort of fair-play philosophy that makesa man a good member of a club, the ordinariness without which lifewould be a series of rancorous confrontations to be what he was.But when one counts that against what he was able to do for his audiences,perhaps the price was not too high.
It is now about a year since I saw you in No Man's Land. Stunning!Real star acting, and a splendid change from all the committee actingwe saw in London performances of plays which had obviouslyreached the stage after a great deal of committee discussion amongthe actors (including, of course, all the understudies, in the interestof democracy) and a firm understanding that under no circumstanceswould any glimmer of romance assert itself. The stage owes somethingto this kind of work, but it has cost us much theatre magic.
You ask how I know some of the things I use in World of Wonders.Well, when the first volume of this trilogy (it was Fifth Business) cameout, a New York journalist, Israel Shenker, demanded to know howI knew that the Bollandists write in purple ink. "I divined it," Ireplied, and he was somewhat miffed, because he had letters fromthem in purple ink and thought it was his little secret. One eithertwigs things about the past or one doesn't, and I have been lucky.
Again, my warmest thanks & all good wishes
To RAYMOND MASSEY
University of Toronto
Congratulations on When I Was Young; I had to wait till I had reada pile of examinations before I could get at it, but I finished it lastnight and it gave me extraordinary pleasure because apart fromreading about someone I knew, the book is such a good piece ofwriting! You seem to have the things writers strive for years to attain simplicity, immediacy and economy. With the unerring skill of ashingler you repeatedly hit the nail bang on the head. I hope the succeedingvolume is already well advanced, and you will have crowdsof people waiting for it.
Because I am understandably concerned about writing, will youexcuse me for saying that your book stands out among theatrical reminiscences,which tend to fall into two main categories: Solemn Massin Honour of Myself, and Twee Me, the Baby Genius. But you havewritten a true and frank book about a recognizably real person. Avery great achievement.
I was particularly happy about the childhood chapters and thepicture they gave of Toronto at the turn of the century. When Vincent[Massey] wrote his reminiscences, I urged him to do another, smallbook, which would be an affectionate picture of Toronto in the past,but he never got around to it. His book, if I may say so, suffers incomparison with yours, because yours shows us a man, whereas hispointed out the salient features of somebody who seemed other thanthe writer. He could not do otherwise, or didn't want to. When hewas preparing What's Past Is Prologue he showed me the MS and askedfor an opinion. I was stumped, but felt I must be honest about writing,as it was my own job, and begged him to warm it up a bit. I wasdriven at last to say, "Vincent, you must choose between being anauthor and being a gentleman!" He misunderstood me; he thoughtI wanted him to liven up the text with raunchy anecdotes. What Ireally meant was that he must allow himself to be an artist whichwas a side of his character he kept very much under wraps, thoughit was there. But you have written like an artist, and I congratulateyou most sincerely.
The College seems to have turned a corner. As you know, we havehad our troubles with the discontent that has swept all universities,and which now seems to be quiescent for a while: we have also hadproblems with the University, for the President [John Robert Evans]is not among our admirers, though he likes to use us when we areuseful. The greatest blow this College ever suffered was when theUniversity made it clear that it had never intended to do anything butthe minimum about supporting us with money. The reasons wereplain; they were short of money. Nevertheless, they had made promises,and even a token of interest in keeping those promises wouldhave been friendly. But at last we are receiving assurances from ourformer members and from outside the University, that we are fulfillingour ambition to be a serious and effective centre of research andadvanced scholarship. A book I shall send you shortly is one evidenceof this, and since the Gordon Lectures we have been the centre fora very good economic discussion, related to the bicentennial of AdamSmith's Wealth of Nations. As for finance, we are keeping our headsabove water, and have hopes that we may even make some additionto our capital fund. I have been begging assiduously, and though Ihate the work it seems at last as if it might come to something. Perhapsbest of all, we now have a group of former Junior Fellows who beatthe drum for us wherever they go. The accusations of preciosity andelitism that used to be made against us continue, but there are nowcontradictory voices. So given another three hundred years weshould be well and truly established. I shall be retiring in a fairly shorttime, and I hope the next Master will bring the qualities I have lacked better administrative method, a keen financial sense, and lots ofothers. But I have enjoyed it, even when the going was rough.
All good wishes to you both
Sorry about the messy typing, but I did not want to dictate this:dictation doesn't really work for me.
To ELISABETH SIFTON
Caledon East ...
Many thanks for your kind letter of July 29; so glad your holidayrinsed and refreshed you. How I envy you; I have not had a chancefor a mental wash-up and brush-up since 1970, though I have hadwhat are laughingly called holidays but they are never holy in thetrue sense, and no single day goes by without some wretched dutycrying out to be done.
About Penguin, and a name for the Trilogy: I am rotten at names,but cudgelling my brain brings up these poor suggestions:
The Deptford Trilogy
Three Men of Deptford
The Fifth Business Trilogy
I don't care much for Number Two, and the others are jejune; as youmay have heard a movie is mooted of Fifth Business, so perhaps somereference to it would be sensible.
Thanks also for your comments about my speech on CanadianNationalism; it is a very hot topic here, and nationalism always bringsa lot of idiots into prominence who cannot see beyond the ends oftheir noses. Of course we don't want to be eaten by the USA, butanybody with any wits knows that small countries (and we are smallin population) must be linked with somebody, and the USA is theobvious link for us, in economic matters; as for art and literature, theyare nationalist at their peril. I think myself lucky that in my lifetimeCanadian writers have ceased to be asked by publishers in NY tochange the venue of their stories to somewhere south of the border.That certainly happened to me in connection with several plays. Ourindependence is a dicey affair and can never be complete; who iscompletely independent? We just don't want to be chawed down toa nubbin.
As we seem to be linked ever closer as the years pass by perhaps Ihad better let you know what I am doing. This summer I am verybusy preparing a series of special lectures for next autumn (a namedlecture series at the University of Toronto) called Masks of Satan:Aspects of Evil in 19th and 20th Century Literature. It proves to be aboutthe length of a small book, and takes a devil of a lot of work, but isrewarding. Whether it would ever be of any use as a publication Ican't say, but Macmillan are interested, though cautious. It is basicallyabout the decline in public acceptance of religion in the past 150years, the probable consequences of that, and the unexamined turntoward a kind of dualism in the thinking of people who think at all.
I am committed to write a play [Pontiac and the Green Man] for productionin the autumn of 1977, and must get at it soon. It is aboutMajor Robert Rogers (of Rogers' Rangers) but in his character as aplaywright; did you know he wrote a play called Ponteach; or theSavages of America? It is very pro-Indian. But the piece is to be acomedy, and not an Advancement of Red Men as Opposed to PinkMen diatribe. It is to have a lot of music, and a splendid cast, includingmy wife [Brenda], for whom I am writing a great part; haven'tdecided yet whether she is to have a wooden leg or a patch over oneeye; it is a sort of female pirate.
When these things are cleared away I shall set to work on anothernovel [The Rebel Angels], which might just possibly turn out to beanother trilogy. Subject: money, the love thereof and the rich comedythat ensues therefrom. Setting: a university, because nowhere ismoney, and the greed for benefactions, so great. But I swear to youon the Holy Evangelists that it will not be another one of those booksabout the most trivial of faculty squabbles, filled with improbablecharacters; I expect a murder in it, and maybe two. It nags at me nowand wants to be written but although I make copious notes I can't getat it soon. Possible title: Hard Food for Midas (from The Merchant ofVenice). There have been several splendid university novels, and scoresof mediocre ones, but I don't know of any on quite the theme I havein mind. If I can manage it, it will make Fifth Business seem a Tale forTiny Tots.
Back to the grindstone now
To NICHOLAS PASHLEY
[after November 12, 1976]
Dear Mr. Ashley:
I am pleased that my Table Talk was stained with nothing worse thanred wine: when I was a boy I used to borrow the plays of G. B. Shawfrom the Public Library in Kingston, & they wore the marks of areader who had used his pipe-stem as a bookmark, so that they boreunpleasing brown stains & stank of hot spittle & Old Chum tobacco.They were also scribbled over in pencil by dissident readers, presumablyclergymen. But if you will encourage public libraries, thoserobbers of the literary poor, I can do nothing for you. Yes, I can:go out, buy a decent copy of T.T. & paste this letter in it; & sell it toa rare book dealer (Hugh Anson-Cartwright is a soft touch) for $2more than you paid.
To RONALD BRYDEN
[late 1976 or early 1977]
Many thanks for the loan of Trilby; I read it with great satisfaction;it supports one of my contentions which my students sometimesthink perverse that extremely effective theatre can exist without anystrong literary content. If I had to choose between seeing Trilby andseeing yet another company hurl itself upon the thorns of The Wayof the World I know which I'd take.... As you say, it is a great archetypalsituation the Wizard and his Doll, or the man Who UtterlyDominates and Grabs the Triumph of a Woman. I was astonished tosee how jokey and goblin-like Svengali had been made for Tree, Isuppose; in the book he is much more the demon, but I suppose Treeput that into the acting. My father [Rupert Davies] saw Trilby, but Irather think it was Wilton Lackaye, and not Tree he saw; he used totell me of the mystery and terror of the moment when Svengalirepeats his own name several times and gets the girl under his spell.This is great Jungian drama. I have several times addressed Jungiansocieties on Archetypes in the Theatre, and am to talk to the NewYork Society next October; I shall certainly say a good deal aboutTrilby. Does this aspect of drama interest you at all?
In reply to your question about page 199 in World of Wonders andSir John's adjuration of Eisengrim to do his juggling slowly: severalpeople in my young days in the theatre gave me this advice. One wasEdward Carrick, Gordon Craig's son, when I was a commedia dell'artefigure in The Taming of the Shrew (I played five roles, including theWidow!) at the Old Vic; I had some showy stuff to do not juggling as I entered by leaping through a window. And EC was emphaticand most helpful about the need to go slowly so as not to confuse theaudience; the purpose of what I was doing was to enthrall and enchant,not to baffle by whirlwind rapidity. And very true it is; and muchharder to do. Another old actor, Frank Moore, helped me in the sameway: few gestures, and take them slowly and hold 'em long. (I put oldFrank, who was a dear, in World of Wonders.) And Ben Webster (fatherof Margaret, and the first Algernon in Importance) gave me muchadvice, all golden, and showed me how Irving did things, and Irvingnever flashed or bustled get it clean, and do it deliberately and slowlyand gracefully because nobody will think you a nobleman, or a hero,or anything else of the first rank if you rush like a common person deliberation is distinction (I quote Ben). And of course I sawMartin-Harvey many times, who embodied all of this, and I havetalked about his style of acting with his old pupil Eric Jones-Evans(who takes him off a treat) and being able to do things slowly andbeautifully was part of it; Eric says this came from Irving.... I shouldlove to talk to you about this some time.
The watchword is: don't do BE! rather like Yoga.