Robertson Davies: My Favorite Author

Years Ago My Super Cool Aunt visited an old friend in Denver. I was still living in Boulder at the time, so I went down to take the ladies to lunch. Lottie really wanted to go to the Tattered Cover bookstore — one of the big, independent stores that has a huge variety of books. She wanted something to read on her travels.

The only photo I could find of my mother’s late sister, Lottie, 1990s.

“I’ll be right back,” I told her as she was perusing the stacks. Sure enough, they had what I was looking for, so I grabbed a copy, found my aunt, and handed it to her. She raised an eyebrow at the thickness. “It’s a trilogy,” I said. “Trust me.”

She bought it, and a few days later she called me to say two words: “Damn you!” She couldn’t put it down.

A clip from a letter to his publisher shows Davies’ exquisite hand.

I don’t remember how I found the Canadian author Robertson Davies (1913–1995), but he quickly became (and still is) my favorite author. It’s not just that he tells a good story (and he does), or that he’s simply a fantastic writer with exquisite command of the English language (he was), but he wandered very convincingly through Jungian psychology, medical diagnostics, art forgery, illusions (magic), the art of the luthier, and more …and more …and more.

A promotional card issued by publisher Macmillian Canada in 1970. (From the Digital Collections of McMaster University.)

Davies is not just entertaining, his work is interesting and thought-provoking. A true master.

He mostly wrote in trilogies. What was a minor character in one book becomes the narrator of the second, and an ancestor of the third.

The one I suggested to Lottie was The Deptford Trilogy (Amazon links *), his most famous. The first book of the three, Fifth Business (1970), was originally a lackluster seller in Canada, but when it hit the U.S. it caused a sensation.

It was a New York Times best-seller, then featured by both the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, which gave him great leverage with his Canadian publishers. It was followed by The Manticore in 1972 and World of Wonders in 1975 to complete the trilogy.

My personal hardcover copy of Davies’ last book is a treasured possession. (Photo by me, minutes ago.)

One of his books grabbed me as soon as I opened to Page 1: the protagonist dies in the first sentence …and the book moves forward from there, telling what happens to the guy afterward.

That one, Murther and Walking Spirits (1991), was the first book in what was to be Davies’ final trilogy, which some have dubbed The Toronto Trilogy, but he died a year or so after the second book in that series, The Cunning Man (1994), was published, and was still researching and plotting the third. I would have loved to read how he tied the stories all together.

Previous to Deptford was The Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost, 1951; Leaven of Malice, 1954; and A Mixture of Frailties, 1958). After Deptford was The Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, 1981; What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985; and The Lyre of Orpheus, 1988.)

Note that since they all have been out for quite some time you can almost always find good-condition used copies for a reasonable price. Check at a good used bookstore if you are lucky enough to have one near you, or look for the hard-to-spot “## used from $1.20” links on each book’s page on Amazon.

I’ve read all of these at least once (Deptford at least twice), and this is why I thought to write about my love for Robertson Davies’ work today: I have had an itch to put down business books for awhile and dive into fiction;  I’m about to start reading them all again.

Yeah, they’re that good.

My aunt died in 2011, at 90. I hope she got to more of Davies’ books before then.

October 2022 Update

I’ve finished all the trilogies, finishing with Murther and Walking Spirits, his second-to-last. If you were to read only one of his books, that’s the one: it’s absolutely fantastic. Deptford Trilogy is the best trilogy, with a trigger warning: reading it again reminded me that one of its books includes ongoing sexual abuse, and how its victim overcame it. (And maybe got his revenge? That conclusion is left up to the reader.)

Next is his collection of short stories, High Spirits, ghost stories that he told to his students around Halloween. And hey, it’s October…!

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14 Comments on “Robertson Davies: My Favorite Author

  1. Robertson Davies was part of the English curriculum in my senior year (and “supersenior” – we had grade 13 in Ontario back then) of highschool. This would have been around 1974/75. Fifth Business and The Manticore if I recall correctly. Imagine teaching that to school kids nowadays! The school board and PTA puritans would have a screaming fit of the vapours!

    I would be surprised if he WASN’T a common subject in Canadian schools! But alas you’re probably right: he’s too advanced for the simplification of schooling in North America. -rc

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  2. I discovered Fifth Business pretty much by accident: the library had a very limited selection of books on tape. It was love at first sight (or first listen), and I’ve read everything else I could find by Davies. (I too am due to reread the Deptford trilogy. And the beginning of Murther and Walking Spirits has some of the best writing I’ve seen.)

    Another author I discovered thanks to those books on tape was Graham Greene. That book was The Quiet American. Again, I went on to devour Greene’s works.

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  3. As the third Canadian in a row to leave a message here, and a published novelist, i want to emphasize that ‘low sales’ on books from an American perspective usually amounts to a best seller in Canada. 😉 My favourite Davies novel is Rebel Angels, as he parodies our UToronto Trinity College. Davies as Master of Massey College became the epitome of all that is wondrous and notorious at my alma mater. That i think is why he grew the beard.

    My understanding is that Fifth Business sales were lackluster for Canada. But book buyers took a second look once the Yanks started snapping it up. -rc

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  4. I and my ex-wife read as much of Davies as I could find in the 70’s and early 80’s. Simply a great writer! Without the internet and living in Israel we often read them out of order and still loved them.

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  5. Absolutely love his books, was also delighted to find out from Neil Young’s autobiography that he used to go to Robertson Davies’ house when he was a boy to play charades at Xmas.

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  6. On your recommendation, I went straight to Better World Books and purchased all three trilogies. I join your aunt in her expletive — do you have any idea how tall my to be read book pile is already???

    Seriously, thank you for the recommendation. I look forward to reading them.

    You can’t say I didn’t warn you! 🙂 Enjoy. -rc

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  7. One of my community theater friends (real friend, not one of those “theater friends who hug you so they can be more accurate with the knife in the back” folks), a big fan of almost all things Canadian, directed me in a play set in “Trana”, Toronto to folks outside the city. His present to the cast was copies of “The Cunning Man”. Davies’ work has been on my “reasons to retire and just read books” list ever since.

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    • And i trust you’ll swing around the Golden Horseshow to actually visit T’rana once that happens? There are loads of his books in any used book store near the university. 🙂

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  8. Just what I didn’t need … another set of books from someone whose tastes I admire. On order from Amazon as of today. I’ll update after read (as another commenter said … do you have any idea how high my to read book stack is? I’ll put this on top since there’s only a couple in Gordon Dickson’s long Childe Cycle series books that I haven’t read before. Ggrrrr)

    I’m now in The Deptford Trilogy, and I’m again in awe over how the story unfolds. Some is obviously familiar, but I have forgotten the detail enough that it’s almost like reading it for the first time. Loving it, and I look forward to your (and everyone else’s) feedback on his work. -rc

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  9. Marion again, just having finished Davies’ The Lyre of Orpheus ~ and a more cunning clever coniving contributor to Literature would be hard to find, unless it were his colleagues at Toronto, Northrop Frye & Marshal McLuhan. They were a generation of writing giants, casting shadows and lights with words.

    I know of McLuhan (though didn’t realize he was Canadian), but have never read him. I guess I should try his work. Thanks! -rc

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  10. Thanks for the recommendation, Randy; I ordered the first trilogy and didn’t surface for several days, devouring the lot! You were spot on — great writing, fascinating characters, well drawn and amazing, hard to figure out plot. On to the rest of them — and, I suppose, to check out your reader’s comment “Gordon Dickson’s long Childe Cycle series”.

    Great! Enjoy. If you liked the first trilogy, you’ll love Deptford …and Murther. -rc

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  11. Based on your recommendation, I asked for a copy of The Deptford Trilogy for some holiday or another last year, but didn’t finish it until this Spring. You’re right about maybe needing a trigger warning; that first book is sure to give PTSD to some people, and I was truly surprised at the content given when it was written. Time for another trilogy, I think, though my reading shelf is already overfull. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Yeah, it’s pretty unflinching. I was a bit surprised too on re-reading it. -rc

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  12. One more Canadian who read at least some Robertson Davies in school.

    If anyone is looking for another recommendation of a great writer, I offer John Irving (American-Canadian writer). Many of his books have been made into films but please don’t judge his writing by them. The books offer much much more than the movies do.

    When I’m reading something by this author I often have to say to my wife “listen to this paragraph …”

    Probably Irving’s best-known book is The World According to Garp, the first of his films to be adapted for the screen (starring Robin Williams). -rc

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  13. I was turned on to Robertson Davies in a college lit course (in the US, by the way) as one of the many recommended books. I quickly snapped up everything he had written and watched for new books to come out. I was truly sad when he died before finishing the Toronto trilogy. Time to dust off those books and reread.

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