Robertson Davies

Joan Smith reviews Judith Skelton Grant's book "Robertson Davies: Man of Myth".

Published December 16, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

There was always something theatrical about the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, who died two weeks ago at age 82. He began acting and writing plays as a child and was one of Canada's best-known playwrights long before his novels -- "The Deptford Trilogy,'' "The Rebel Angels,'' "What's Bred in the Bone'' -- brought him international literary acclaim.

But more than most celebrities, he always cut a figure, with his formal old-fashioned clothes, his courtly accent and his flowing God-the-father hair and beard -- out of place (despite his Canadian settings and themes) and out of time. In this fortuitously-timed biography, Judith Skelton Grant, who has made the explication of Davies her life's work, traces for the first time, in meticulous (and often tedious) detail, the origins of the Davies myth and mythos.

Davies was born in the tiny Ontario village of Thamesville (the model for Deptford) and raised by his well-read and relatively arty parents in the equally provincial town of Renfrew. His father published the local newspaper. Davies was unathletic and intellectually precocious; his schoolmates were contemptuous of his physical inadequacies and suspicious of his mental gifts. Like so many artists, he grew up feeling both superior and alone.

His defense, according to Grant, was to cultivate a powerful inner life and a defiantly eccentric persona with which he managed to make his way in the world. And though he seems to have come into his own only after leaving for England and Oxford University, he had imbibed provincial life with all its strange personalities and the deep and conflicting influences it "bred in the bone.''

Davies was always fascinated by the grotesque, the eerie, the mythical. He was deeply influenced by Carl Jung's theories of universal archetypes and the collective unconscious. According to Grant, he believed writing was a way to understand the self. But he was also fascinated by the larger social world, by the great tension between the personal and the public, the provincial and the cosmopolitan.

Davies, whose novels offered a generation of readers a very specific vision of what it might mean to be a Canadian, was, like the Canada of his imagination, the product of that tension. Like Canada, emerging from its isolation, yet anxious to preserve an identity separate from its more worldly neighbor, the man behind the enigmatic Davies myth was a gregarious and public creature who also valued a private and eccentric imagination.

By Joan Smith

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