Today in Literary History – August 28, 1913 – novelist Robertson Davies is born

Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist, playwright, actor, critic and newspaperman, was born on August 28, 1913 in the town of Thamesville, Ontario, which he fictionalized as Deptford in his most famous trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders).

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His father, Rupert Davies, was a Welsh immigrant who later became the publisher of The Kingston Whig-Standard and a Liberal member of the Canadian Senate. Davies grew up in a household full of books and ideas and amateur theatrics.

Davies graduated from Upper Canada College in Toronto and attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, before enrolling in Oxford University. After graduating from Oxford he stayed on in England taking on small acting roles in touring companies.

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After returning to Canada he became first the editor and then the publisher of the newspaper The Peterborough Examiner (which his family owned) from 1942 to 1965.

Davies wrote a column of humourous essays at The Examiner under the pen name Samuel Marchbanks and they provided the material for three books. He also wrote plays during this time and was one of the founders of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

But it was with his novels that he found his greatest fame and popularity, beginning with The Salterton Trilogy in the 1950s (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties), The Deptford Trilogy in the 1970s and The Cornish Trilogy in the 1980s (The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus).

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His books are set mostly in small town Ontario or Toronto and have many autobiographical elements. They also include many allusions to Davies interest in drama, medecine, magic, mythology and Jungian psychology.

In 1963 Davies became the first Master of Massey College, a residential graduate college at The University of Toronto, established along Oxford and Cambridge lines. He remained as master until 1981.

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Davies always had a striking appearance, but in his later years it took on decidedly theatrical shape. A tall man with long white hair and a flowing white beard, billowing black capes and wolf’s head cane he became unmistakable, looking almost like a sort of Victorian magician. When I lived in Toronto in the 1980s and nineties I used to see him striding about town or at various literary events.

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I remember a particularly delightful night in 1988 when Davies shared the stage with the equally theatrical British novelist Anthony Burgess for an evening of readings, anecdotes and one-upmanship. (It helped that I was sitting right behind novelist Michael Ondaatje).

Davies died in 1995 at the age of eighty-two.

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