Monday, March 1, 2010

Robertson Davies's Salterton Trilogy

Tempest-Tost (1951)

An amateur theatrical company in the fictional city of Salterton, Ontario, has decided to put on an outdoor summer production of The Tempest.

The company (calling itself the Little Theatre, a nice touch of Davies’, perfectly highlighting the self-satisfaction that can lurk under the most determined self-deprecation) is run by a middle-aged woman named Nellie Forrester, but instead of directing the play herself she asks back an old acquaintance named Valentine Rich, who has since gone into the professional theater world in New York. Val, single, is back in Salterton to supervise the estate sale of her recently-deceased father (?), and consents to direct the play as a favor.

There’s a slight whiff of the predictable to what ensues: Davies’ satirical target in this, his first novel, is the familiar pretensions of amateur theater people. This has never seemed to me quite as rich a source of satire as many others think it is; I didn’t particularly like Waiting for Guffman, either. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe the topic was fresher in 1951, however.

And of course Davies is a more dedicated humanist than that. He’s not really after amateur actors; he’s setting his sights on nothing less than a comic anatomy of mid-century provincial Canadian life. Unlike his later trilogies, this one is told through the eyes of a wide variety of characters – we shift around between the points of view of Val (occasionally), Griselda and Freddy Webster (daughters of the rich man on whose lawn the play will be performed), Hector Mackilwraith (a local math teacher who falls in love with Griselda), and a wide variety of other actors.

The larger plot is, of course, the preparations for the play, culminating in opening night. The real interest lies in the main subplot, which is Hector’s growing love for Griselda. Hector is over forty, and Griselda is eighteen; they’re mismatched in other ways, too, Griselda being a thoroughly modern, socially well-adjusted girl, and Hector being, well, a stuffy old math teacher whose sole experience with women was a not-very-near miss at a Normal School dance when he was Griselda’s age.

Hector has two rivals for Griselda’s affections: Solly Bridgetower, a Cambridge boy home from school, taking care of his decrepit and controlling mother, and Roger Tasset, a womanizing soldier.

I believe Davies’ truest milieux are the worlds of art and academia: the life of the mind is what he’s going to show you. His own learning is so broad and joyful, and so connected to a voracious and unbound love of life, that he’s at his best when he’s dealing with characters who can express themselves in conversations with the best that the best minds past and present have offered.

Here he hasn’t quite found that out yet. He’s concentrating mostly on people from other walks of life. As I say, his task here is to take apart provincial society. And he does this well: already he’s displaying his sharp eye for character, his sure hand with plot, and his sure, sharp tongue. But, and perhaps only because I know what he’d do in the future, I do get the feeling that here and there something a little wilder is trying to burst out. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a very accomplished novel, thought-provoking and entertaining, but a little conventional compared to the sublime oddities he’d ascend to later. But there are hints, such as the chorister Humphrey Cobbler, a wild-eyed freethinker whose iconoclasm is drawn from a familiarity with the arts and thoughts of premodern Europe, rather than from any jejune bohemianism – which is, after all, a pretty good blueprint for the Davies hero.

Most of his female characters here are already strong, well-rounded, and lively, a mark of his later fiction. Various of his narrators and male characters speak in terms of an essentialist view of women, and do all through his fiction, but the sheer vitality, the intelligence and strength, of his women tends to mean more. And in Freddy, the precocious fourteen-year-old ciderist and book-collector, he’s created perhaps the most intriguing character in the book.

If the book has a main character, it’s Mackilwraith. I think his name is meaningful: his father was a depressed pastor who not only found no joy in life himself, but killed it in his wife and son. Son of Kill-Spirit: he’s spiritually dead himself. Hector’s a self-made man, of sorts: through the rigorous application of planning and common sense, as he formulates it, he’s worked himself up from a position of abject poverty to where he is now, which is not quite as abject poverty, and a position of authority over a classroom. For most of the book he’s a classic, almost cliché, figure: the rationalist whose plans are overthrown by the sudden intrusion of a disordering love. But Davies never sentimentalizes him: in fact, he reserves his harshest satire for Mackilwraith, who never stops being both comical and repulsive. It’s a shock, then, when at the end of the book (in the aftermath of Mackilwraith’s botched suicide attempt) we find ourselves pitying him. Not liking him, but able to pity him for the thing his life and soul have made him. It’s even more of a shock when Davies lets him hint at a capacity for redemption – which in his case simply means unclenching himself a little bit, and seeing himself for what he really is.

Leaven of Malice (1954)

Continues very much in the same vein as Tempest-Tost. Same strategy of shifting the point of view around between a number of different characters, aiming at a composite view of Salterton and its ways; same interest in exploring various levels and facets of Salterton society, this time even delving into the working class. It has in common with the middle installments of the later trilogies the notion of involving characters from the first book, but shifting the focus so that previously main characters are now minor, and vice versa, and both are supplemented by lots of new characters.

The milieu this time is the town newspaper, The Bellman. Someone places in it a notice that Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace, both of whom we know from the first book, are engaged. Not only does this turn out to be false, but it turns out that the Bridgetowers and the Vambraces are enemies from many years prior.

Of course in the end Solly and Pearl do get engaged – that you can see coming a mile away. But the fun is in how they get there, because it represents a triumph of common sense and goodness over the ingrown spitefulness of their parents.

That spitefulness seems to be the book's main target, if you believe its title. And inasmuch as the book is a condemnation of malice, it's in the end a rather small book. Like its predecessor with its warning against pride, if it all boils down to a satire on familiar human venalities, then it's pleasant, accomplished, full of delights, but not spirit-shaking. Later, he'd write spirit-shaking things, and not coincidentally his later books would take a much different view of pride, malice, and indeed sin.

What this book is really about, though, is the different ways in which Pearl’s father and Solly’s mother domineer over their progeny. Vambrace is an undisguised egoist, a large man who has cowed his family with his histrionic behavior as well as his physical strength. Mrs. Bridgetower, on the other hand, is an unfailingly genteel little woman, hiding her poison behind Old World pretensions to class and taste. Pearl is just plain scared of her father, while Solly is scared for his mother, who (to steal an idea from The Godfather) has been dying from the same heart condition for decades.

We meet Gloster Ridley, editor of the Bellman, and the occasion for much humor at the expense of small-town papers. This kind of humor is a bit dated: in an age when the news media, at least in this country, seems actively interested in torching our society, the kinds of foibles Davies points out (banality and a certain self-importance) just seem quaint. But I would imagine this aspect of the story is the most deeply-rooted, since Davies himself was a newspaperman for a while.

We also meet Dean Knapp of one of the city’s cathedrals; the first of a long line of Davies religionists. He’s a great comic figure, striving mightily toward an ideal of clerical urbaneness that nobody else in town has even heard of.

But it’s the image of filial children that makes this novel memorable. Children, that is, who are filial to parents who hardly deserve it. Children who are, therefore, self-sacrificing to an ideal that their parents have self-servingly taught them. I don’t know enough about Canadian history to really say, but I get a real sense from this trilogy of the ‘50s being a period of change in Canadian society. There are a lot of vestiges of Englishness everywhere, a class consciousness and a Toryism that seem to be under siege, but not giving ground gracefully. Solly’s battles with his mother seem to have sociopolitical overtones to them. His very meekness (not quite spinelessness, but close) in the face of his mother’s implacable disapproval seems to say something about relations with England…

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)

Mrs. Bridgetower dies and leaves her considerable fortune to her son Solly and his wife Pearl (Veronica, as she’s called here – she chooses to go by her other name when she marries Solly), on one condition: they must bear a son first. Until then the money is held in trust; Solly gets virtually nothing. He gets to live in her mansion, but only on sufferance – it belongs to her Trust – and in fact he goes broke trying to keep it up. The income from her trust goes, not to him, but to a young Salterton woman who is to be sent to Europe for an education to become an artist.

These impossible conditions are called by Solly and Veronica the Dead Hand of his mother. Of course they can’t admit it – one of the interesting motives of this book is the inability of people to admit that someone they love can be truly, unreservedly cruel toward them.

But most of the book is only peripherally concerned with Solly, Veronica, and the rest of the Saltertonians – although they make for some rich comic scenes. Instead, once they’ve chosen the lucky beneficiary of the trust, we focus on her for the rest of the book. (In this the concluding book of the trilogy breaks the pattern of the first two.)

This is Monica Gall, and she’s a fascinating creation, certainly Davies’ most vivid and intriguing character to date. Daughter of a family of fundamentalist Christians, she’s blessed with a wonderful natural singing voice that just might benefit from serious training. The Trust selects her to go to England to find out.

Most of the book concerns Monica’s education in England. It’s both an artistic and a sentimental education, as she moves through a succession of teachers who give her wisdom about her art and through one epic, disastrous love affair that gives her the emotional depth she’ll need to complete her art.

Her teachers are: Sir Benedict Domdaniel, a middle-aged singer; Murtagh Molloy, an Irish voice coach, poor and old-fashioned but full of the pith of art; and Giles Revelstoke, a young composer who is constantly at odds with Domdaniel, but who also has valuable insights to impart. It’s Giles who Monica falls in love with, too. All three of these men are sharply evoked: Domdaniel the slightly fulsome gentleman artist, hiding the essential disreputability of the artistic nature behind the cloak of his peerage; Molloy the eccentric whose incompatibility with the modern world, not to mention common propriety, signal a true alignment with the truths of the ages (he in particular is already a familiar figure in Davies, and will remain so; he’s almost a double of Humphrey Cobbler, and is echoed in just about every character in the Deptford Trilogy); Revelstoke the insufferably pretentious young artist, completely gorged on his own needy ego, able to use Monica horribly without a second thought.

It’s a bildungsroman, in a way. Monica is the ne plus ultra of Salterton provincialism, and thus of Canadian provincialism (in Davies’ eyes), and the book is the story of how in learning to master and honor her gift she also learns to navigate a wider world, and to find herself within it. She’s fiercely loyal to her upbringing at first, both because she believes in loyalty and because her proudly ignorant mother has conditioned her to resent anything that smacks of greater education and sophistication than she was born to. Of course Monica quickly realizes how limited that worldview was, and struggles to locate herself between authenticity to her familial and national roots and honesty toward the new things she’s learning.

Davies is wonderfully clear-eyed about this process. He doesn’t romanticize England; Monica’s culture shock upon arrival and her never-fading outsider status are brilliantly rendered. At the same time Davies doesn’t allow Monica to kid herself or the reader that the opportunities back home are anything like what she needs. There’s a rich tension here between a cultural-political pull toward Canada – or more precisely toward a wise and proper refusal to completely renounce one’s background – and an intellectual-artistic pull toward England – a place where Monica can fully develop her art, her heart and mind. This tension is never resolved, which is one of the strengths of the novel: how could it be resolved?

Her love affair with Giles is also left unresolved, in a way. The reader sees immediately what a cad Giles is, and that he’s no good for her; others around her see it, as well. He uses her body and her money – she’s madly in love with him, so she gives himself to her sexually, but he never reciprocates her love, and she diverts her trust to finance his first opera, but he only resents her for it. Monica never admits to herself how miserably he treats her, but the reader can sense that she knows it, just under the surface. But she chooses to stay with him anyway, and I think Davies convinces us that she does it, not because she lacks autonomy, but because she has autonomy – she believes in his talent, and is willing to abet it, and because in the process she’s also abetting her own talent she ends up coming across, not as stereotypical artist’s moll/muse, but as an artist in her own right who has to go through this for her own reasons.

The ending. After his opera is a smashing success in Venice, but he’s humiliated in his attempt to conduct it, Giles throws a huge temper tantrum and goes back to London. Because he’s finally dealt Monica too much emotional abuse, she writes him that she’s breaking up with him. He kills himself – turns on the gas. She finds him, finds her letter in his hand, and takes the letter away so as not to implicate herself, then doesn’t alert anyone until the following morning, when she pretends to find him in the company of his landlady. This is a wise move for her, in terms of her career; but the autopsy reveals that he was probably still alive when she first found him. She could have saved him, in other words, although she didn’t know it at the time.

The guilt almost destroys her, but doesn’t quite; we’re told through hints here and there that after the novel ends she’ll go on to fame and fortune. As the novel ends she’s gotten a proposal of marriage from Domdaniel, the only person she’s told about her role in Giles’s death. We don’t know how she answers him; most likely yes, since Domdaniel has been set up as a voice of reason and wisdom throughout the novel, and furthermore as a voice that Monica ends up listening to when she most needs to.

I find it really interesting, though, that Davies would load his heroine down with such a burden of guilt – guilt that she and we can only partially rationalize away – right at the end of the book, right when she’s about to be left truly independent by the disappearance of the trust and her entrance into professional singing. As I say, Davies is wise enough to set out a lot of conflicts that he leaves unresolved because they’re unresolvable, and in this book I think many of them come down to the idea that it’s wrong to be too ready to cut ties with parents, home, teachers, mentors, etc., but that at the same time it’s often necessary to leave them behind. If we want to grow, we leave home; but we shouldn’t be too happy about it. It’s right to feel conflicted – to feel guilty. Is this last guilt Monica feels the secret burden that lets her become an adult and a true artist?


I doubt this trilogy was conceived as such. It doesn’t have anything like the fine symmetry of the next two. Rather, it’s two novels in one style and one in another; they happen to share the same setting and a lot of the same characters, but the glaring fact is their disunity, not their unity. In fact A Mixture of Frailties is much closer in spirit to the Deptford and Cornish trilogies than it is to the two previous books in this series. I don’t know much about Davies’ biography, so I find it really curious that he took over ten years off from novels after this. Curious, because he so clearly hits his stride with this book.

1 comment:

g dawg said...

This was a really interesting read. I've never heard of this R. Davies fellow. Could you recommend a book to start with? It seems you prefer his later books...