BORN: Thamesville, Ontario • 28 August 1913
DIED: Orangeville, Ontario • 2 December 1995
At the height of his influence, he was a striking, unforgettable figure: six feet tall, with ample hair and beard white as snow. He was an old man, but his manners and apparel were even older. He had a piercing gaze and an imposing demeanour.
To all appearances he was a bourgeois Victorian who had landed, improbably, in late twentieth- century Canada. Yet no one suggested he did not belong; he never actually seemed out of place. Somehow, only Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, could have pulled it all off.
That he managed to bring it off speaks volumes about his revered place in the Canadian imagination. Davies, like so many influential Canadians, enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was sent to the best schools, then completed his formal education at Oxford—a place that suited his upper-class pretensions perfectly.
His chosen vocation was the theatre, and at university and afterwards he enjoyed some success as an actor in Britain. But being on the stage, or writing for it, was a nearly hopeless career at the beginning of the Second World War, so Davies returned to Canada in 1940 to work in his father’s expanding newspaper business.
He wrote constantly: editorials, reviews, and plays. In the mid-1950s he attempted novels, but was known chiefly for his major contribution, as both a writer and a promoter, to the burgeoning Canadian theatre scene.By 1963 he was respected enough to be appointed the first master of Massey College in Toronto.
Academic life was well suited to Davies: his formal bearing and ancient costume, a mask that cloaked a shy personality, was posi¬ tively professorial, and his thoughtful lectures were popular. The nearly two decades he spent in academe were also the peak years of his creative output; so much so that by the early 1980s he was rightly regarded as the founding father of modern Canadian literature.
In a series of remarkable novels, beginning with Fifth Business in 1970, the first of the Deptford trilogy, Davies changed the way many Canadians thought about them¬ selves. He vividly demonstrated that Canada was more than a two-dimensional country—that myth, fantasy, and legend veritably oozed from the dark corners of the national pysche.
Davies borrowed unapologetically from the analytic psychology of Carl Jung, and explored religion, magic, and the grotesque in Canada’s past. His fully realized epic stories recounted all sorts of bizarre behaviour and, astonishingly, found much of it in the sleepy small Ontario towns of his youth.
The success of Davies’ novels in the 1970s, along with those of Margaret Atwood, was the first solid evidence that something called Canadian literature, distinct from British literature and American literature, actually existed. This recognition created a new demand for teaching the subject, and Davies’ sustained production ensured that new CanLit classes would have worthwhile books to read.
CanLit also became the bulwark of an assertive new Canadian cultural nationalism in the 1970s and, to the surprise of many, Canada’s foremost cultural export. Davies’ novels, for example, are today being read in Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, and Estonian, among other languages.
For these readers, Davies’ Canada is almost certainly the only one they know.Davies’ international reputation was assured in 1986, when, within a few weeks, he was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This proper, antiquated personage had brought a new understanding of Canada to the world. Since his novels are regarded as among the most spectacular of the century, he doubtless will continue to do so. But that was only part of the story: Davies also brought a new understanding of Canada to Canadians.