Saturday, September 21, 2019

Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy


Opening Passage: From Tempest-Tost:

"It's going to be a great nuisance for both of us," said Freddy. "Couldn't you make a fuss about it, Tom?"

"If your father said they could use the place, it's no good for me to make a fuss," said Tom. (p. 3)

From Leaven of Malice:

It was on the 31st of October that the following announcement appeared under "Engagements", in the Salterton Evening Bellman:

Professor and Mrs. Walter Vambrace are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Pearl Veronica, to Solomon Bridgetower, Esq., son of Mrs. Bridgetower and the late Professor Solomon Bridgetower of this city. Marriage to take place in St. Nicholas' Cathedral at eleven o'clock a.m., November 31st. (p. 251)

From A Mixture of Frailties:

It was appropriate that Mrs. Bridgetower's funeral fell on a Thursday, for that had always been her At Home day. As she had dominated her drawing-room, so she dominated St. Nicholas' Cathedral on this frosty 23rd of December. She had planned her funeral, as she had planned all her social duties and observances, with care. (p. 481)

Summary: In the small town of Salterton, Ontario, the local am-dram group is putting on The Tempest with the help of Valentine Rich, a professional director. She has her work cut out for her, as she has to deal with the self-important members of the troupe (Professor Vambrace, who, of course, thinks he knows everything about Shakespeare, and Nellie, who is the all-organizing all-busybody social climber), and with the obsessives (Major Pye the set guy, Cobbler the musician), and the inevitable tumult of the guys (Solly, Roger, Hector) mingling with the girls (Griselda, Pearl). Tempest-Tost is very entertaining (the character-work is excellent), but it is also very oddly structured. It ends quite abruptly, and has a number of features that make it seem as if Hector were the main character (we get much more of his backstory, and he is the mover of the major final crisis), but other parts don't. I've read somewhere that it may have originally been conceived as a play, and it does in some ways read like a play about Hector that has been filled out by description and occasionally following other characters in such a way that the author just adds whatever interests him. But the humor is constant, and sometimes surges into funniness.

Leaven of Malice moves us forward a bit, and focuses on journalism. The editor of the local newspaper, Gloster Ridley, is in a bit of trouble when a false announcement of a marriage between Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace appears in his paper. The histrionic Professor Vambrace is livid over the matter, as is Bridgetower's overbearing mother. This work has much more of a coherent structure than the first; it is structured plainly as a mystery story, although a somewhat unconventional one. A little leaven of malice can change almost everything.

In A Mixture of Frailties, Solly and Pearl (now preferring to go by her middle name, Veronica) have married and are dealing with the death of Solly's mother, who continues to be as overbearing in the grave as she was in life. In her will, Mrs. Bridgetower, who was quite well-to-do, leaves almost everything to Solly on a set of conditions that guarantee that he will have to struggle for some time. The most significant is that all of the money is to be used to fund the education of an artist until such a time as Solly and Veronica have a baby boy; and, in the meantime, if he is to get the legacy at all, he must maintain his mother's large house and her two servants on his professor's salary. The artist chosen by the Bridgetower Trust is Monica Gall, a girl with a lovely voice who sings on the radio for her fundamentalist church. She is sent to London, where she takes various lessons with teachers set up for her by the conductor, Sir Benedict Domdaniel; in the course of this she meets the brilliant young composer, Giles Revelstoke, and falls in love. Her musical education, I think, is well depicted, as is her overall education; Davies is very good at capturing the mix of real maturing and nonsensical bluster that characterizes growing up. This work is the best written of the three, although Salterton is really only used as a frame for the story of Monica Gall, which in most ways could simply be a novel standing on its own. But it is all tied together fairly well.

Of the three, Tempest-Tost, despite its odd character as a mix of unblended things, is easily the most entertaining. Part of this is probably that amateur actors are by nature more entertaining than journalists or professional and semi-professional musicians. Part of it, though, is probably the lavish attention paid to characterization; while the characterization is good all through the works, Tempest-Tost develops its characters in a leisurely and rich way. Much of the interest of the more organized Leaven of Malice is simply in seeing what happens to the Vambraces and Bridgetowers whom we met in Tempest-Tost; while you could read Leaven alone, I think it benefits massively from being read specifically as a sequel. Mixture partly foregoes this advantage; yes, we get some of the characters carrying over, but in a small amount and in such a way that they are little more than an occasion for the story to open and then later to close. It's technically a sequel, but for the most part its sequel-ness is incidental to the story it is telling. I also had the difficulty with Mixture of not being impressed by Revelstoke. The fundamental difficulty with writing about volatile musical geniuses is that writing only conveys all of the volatility and very little of the actual musical genius, so while in real life we might give some leeway to brilliance excusing or at least counterweighing bad behavior, in a literary context we get nothing more than the bad behavior in full view and a sort of rumor that maybe there is a brilliance that partly compensates for it, which is not the same thing.

All three of the books were great reading, though; the 800 or so pages of the omnibus edition were remarkably easy to get through, while nonetheless being richly written. To manage a kind of writing in which one can either just follow through with the flow of the story or stop and savor the writing at almost every point is a significant talent, and Davies certainly has it.

Favorite Passage: From Tempest-Tost:

The Torso was a silly girl, and a hoyden, and unseemly in her desire for the attentions of the male. But like many silly, hoydenish, man-crazy girls, she had a great charity within er. One of her admirers had said that she had "a heart as big as a bull", and if this special enlargement carries with it a certain sweetness and generosity of nature, the phrase may be allowed to stand. She ran up the stairs after Pearl. What she did cannot be related here, but in ten minutes they were both in the drawing-room, drinking sherry, and Pearl looked better than she had ever looked in her life; if there was any makeup on her face, it had been applied with The Torso's artful hand.... (pp. 190-191)

From Leaven of Malice, in which the classicist meets the Freudian:

"Professor, let's get down to brass tacks. I'm only here because I want to help. I want you to understand right now that my job is simply to understand, not to accuse. Now, you're an intelligent man, so I don't have to beat about the bush with you. We can take the gloves off right at the start. I take it that you've heard of the Oedipus Complex?"

"I am familiar with all forms of the Oedipus legend."

"Yes, but have you understood it? I mean, as we moderns understand it? Have you got the psychological slant on it?"

"Mr. Yarrow, I should hardly be head of the Department of Classics at this University if I were not thoroughly acquainted with all that concerns Oedipus."

"But the Complex? You know about the Complex?"

"What Complex are you talking about? All art is complex." (pp. 419-420)

From A Mixture of Frailties:

Ripon solemnly removed his hat. "This is a sacred moment," said he. "Sacred to me, anyhow, as a student of literature. You have just made the great discovery that behind every symbol there is a reality. For years you have accepted holly as a symbol of Christmas, unquestioningly, like a true Anglo-Saxon believer. And now, in a flash, you know why it is so. It is because, in this land which gave you your Christmas, holly is at its finest at this time of year. Perhaps we should cause a carved stone to be erected on this spot, to identify forever the place at which, fo rone human being out of the whole confused race, a symbol became a reality." (pp. 630-631)

Recommendation: Tempest-Tost is Highly Recommended; Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties are Recommended.


Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy, Penguin (New York, 2011).

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