The Time for Discretion has Passed

Ian Hunter - - Art & Books
The London Yodeller

IAN HUNTER RobertsonDavies“The diaries reveal a man bursting with ambition, frequently chafing at life in a provincial Ontario city”

Readers everywhere should rejoice at the publication of the diaries of the grand old man of Canadian letters, Robertson Davies.  Davies died in 1995 (at 82) and “for reasons of discretion” placed a 20 year embargo on the publication of his diaries.  Now Davies’ daughter, Jennifer Surridge (with the assistance of Ramsay Derry), has edited the first volume, A Celtic Temperament (McClelland and Stewart), diaries spanning the years 1959 to 1963.  

 Robertson Davies was an actor, a journalist and playwright, a newspaper editor and columnist, the first Master of U. of T.’s Massey College, and one of Canada’s best novelists. In 1959, when the diaries begin, Davies is 45 and the editor of the Peterborough Examiner; his Salterton Trilogy of novels has earned critical attention but scant sales. He was busy adapting aplay for the New York stage, and worked closely with celebrated British theatre Director, Tyrone Guthrie.

 The diaries reveal a man bursting with ambition, frequently chafing at life in a provincial Ontario city (“Peterborough the same old dump”; August 10, 1959). He is sometimes moody and depressed (“Felt middle-aged and grey and unsuccessful and declining.” April 3, 1960). Even his Canadian nationalism was sometimes tested: “I am out of love with Canada these days, a country of stupid, ill-educated, timid, narrow-gutted pseudo-Scotchmen.” (February 23, 1960)

 Davies was actually keeping three diaries: a daily journal; a theatre diary; and a diary recounting the negotiations that would culminate in the creation of Massey College. All three are drawn upon here. Whatever his subject, momentous or trivial, Davies is observant, thoughtful, and witty.

 He seldom wrestles here with the universal themes that will dominate his fiction; rather, we see him going about his daily grind, but his narrative skill renders even quotidian activities winsome. As the diaries draw to a close in 1963 Davies is preoccupied with themes for his next novel, Fifth Business. It was the publication of FifthBusiness that would bring Davies the worldwide acclaim he so coveted.  

 One theme that remains ambiguous throughout Davies’ workis his religion. His diaries record the occasional visit to Church but they shed scant light on what he really believed. Davies was brought up in a Presbyterian home – indeed he once credited the Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian Church with providing the “theological skeleton” for his fiction. On February 3, 1961 he records: “My Presbyterianism often asserts itself”. While an undergraduate at Oxford University he was confirmed in the Church of England. But in both his art and life, as the diaries make clear, Davies prized clarity, discipline, and order – qualities notably absent from Anglicanism.  

 Of course the Anglican Church was not always the amorphous blob that it has become today, but it was never noted for theological rigor, one reason why many of Davies’ contemporaries – men like Graham Greene, Alec Guinness, and Malcolm Muggeridge – converted to Catholicism. Davies was never so tempted; indeed he mocks Guinness in the diaries for becoming “a Papist”; Davies considered it a search “. . . for some certainty, some unfailing distinction or patrician note, in his personal life”. Of religious denominations Davies once said:  “You must find the church that suits you, that you can stand and that can stand you, and then stick with it.”

 From the diaries it is evident that Davies sat lightly to the central tenets of Christian belief. And yet he saw life “. . . as a sort of lonely pilgrimage . . . in search of God”. He believed in prayer, though not in individuals petitioning for divine favour; rather prayer for him was to be a kind of waiting upon that which is unchanging and eternal. And unlike many “intellectual” Christians he believed in the malign presence and temptations of the devil.

 What sheds most light on Davies’ religion is his last novel, The Cunning Man, published in 1994 just a year before his death. The concluding lines there sum up his personal credo: “This is the Great Theatre of Life.  Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good Night.”  

 John Fraser, who succeeded Davies as Master of Massey College, has written:  “Robertson Davies was an original and his diary may prove to be the best and most revealing ever produced by a Canadian”.  I agree.  Buy and enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.  His latest book, Telling Lives, is available from Cardinal Books.

 

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