Growing up, Davies was surrounded by books and language. His father, Senator
William Rupert Davies, was a newspaperman, and both his parents were voracious
readers. He, in turn, read everything he could. He also participated in
theatrical productions as a child, where he developed a lifelong interest
He attended Upper Canada College in
Toronto from 1926 to 1932 and then studied at Queen's University in Kingston,
Ontario from 1932 until 1935. At Queen's he was enrolled as a special
student not working towards a degree. He left Canada to study at Balliol
College, Oxford, where he received a BLit degree in 1938. The next year
he published his thesis, Shakespeare's Boy Actors, and embarked on an
acting career outside London. In 1940 he played small roles and did literary
work for the director at the Old Vic Repertory Company in London. Also
that year Davies married Australian Brenda Mathews, whom he had met at
Oxford, and who was then working as stage manager for the theatre.
Davies' early life provided him with
themes and material to which he would often return in his later work,
including the theme of Canadians returning to England to finish their
education, and the theatre.
Davies and his new bride returned to Canada in 1940, where he took the
position of literary editor at Saturday Night Magazine. Two years later,
he became editor of the Peterborough Examiner in the small city of Peterborough,
Ontario, northeast of Toronto. Again he was able to mine his experiences
here for many of the characters and situations which later appeared in
his novels and plays.
During his tenure as editor of the Examiner,
which lasted from 1942 to 1955, and when he was publisher from 1955 to
1965, Davies published a total 18 books, produced several of his own plays
and wrote articles for various journals.
For example, Davies set out his theory
of acting in his Shakespeare for Young Players (1947) and then put theory
into practice when he wrote Eros at Breakfast, a one-act play which was
named best Canadian play of the year by the 1948 Dominion Drama Festival.
Eros at Breakfast was followed in close
succession by Fortune, My Foe in 1949 and At My Heart's Core, a three-act
play, in 1950. Meanwhile, Davies was writing humorous essays in the Examiner
under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks. Some of these were collected and
published in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of
Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and later in Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (1967).
(An omnibus edition of the three Marchbanks books, with new notes by the
author, was published under the title The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks
Also during the 1950s, Davies played
a major role in launching the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada.
He served on the Festival's board of governors and collaborated with the
Festival's director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, in publishing three books about
the Festival's early years.
Although his first love was drama and
he had achieved some success with his occasional humorous essays, Davies
found greater success in fiction. His first three novels, which later
became known as The Salterton Trilogy, were Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven
of Malice (1954) (which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour), and
A Mixture of Frailties (1958). These novels explored the difficulty of
sustaining a cultural life in Canada, and life on a small-town newspaper,
subjects of which Davies had first-hand knowledge.
In 1960 Davies joined Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where
he would teach literature until 1981. The following year he published
a collection of essays on literature, A Voice From the Attic, and was
awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal for his literary achievements.
In 1963 he became the Master of Massey
College, the University of Toronto's new graduate college. During his
stint as Master, he initiated the tradition of writing and telling ghost
stories at the yearly Christmas celebrations. His stories were later collected
in his book High Spirits (1982).
Davies drew on his interest in Jungian psychology to create what was perhaps
his greatest novel: Fifth Business (1970), a book that draws heavily on
Davies' own experiences, his love of myth and magic and his knowledge
of small-town mores. The narrator, like Davies, is of immigrant Canadian
background, with a father who runs the town paper. The book's characters
act in roles that roughly correspond to Jungian archetypes according to
Davies' belief in the predominance of the spirit over the things of the
Davies built on the success of Fifth
Business with two more novels: The Manticore (1972), a novel cast largely
in the form of a Jungian analysis (for which he received that year's Governor-General's
Literary Award), and World of Wonders (1975). Together these three books
came to be known as The Deptford Trilogy.
The 1980s and 1990s
When Davies retired from his position at the University, his seventh novel,
a satire of academic life, The Rebel Angels (1981), was published, followed
by What's Bred in the Bone (1985). These two books, along with his next
one, became known as The Cornish Trilogy.
During his retirement he continued to
write novels which further established him as a major figure in the literary
world: The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) (the final installment in The Cornish
Trilogy), Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) and The Cunning Man (1994).
He also realized a long-held dream when he penned the libretto to an opera:
The Golden Ass, based on The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, just like
that written by one of the characters in Davies' 1958 A Mixture of Frailties.
The opera was performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Hummingbird
Centre in Toronto, in April, 1999, several years after Davies' death.
Awards and recognition
Won the Dominion Drama Festival Award for best Canadian play in 1948 for
Eros at Breakfast.
Won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1955 for Leaven of Malice.
Won the Lorne Pierce Medal for his literary achievements in 1961.
Won the Governor-General's Literary Award in the English language fiction
category in 1972 for The Manticore.
Short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1986 for What's Bred
in the Bone.
First Canadian to become an Honorary Member of the American Academy and
Institute of Arts and Letters.
Companion of the Order of Canada.
The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947)
The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949)
Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (1967)
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985) (an omnibus of the three Marchbanks
books, with new notes by the author)
Shakespeare's Boy Actors (1939)
Shakespeare for Young Players: A Junior Course (1942)
Renown at Stratford (1953) (with Tyrone Guthrie)
Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded (1954) (with Tyrone Guthrie)
Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mew'd (1955) (with Tyrone Guthrie)
A Voice From the Attic (1960)
A Feast of Stephen (1970)
Stephen Leacock (1970)
One Half of Robertson Davies (1977)
The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979) (edited by Judith Skelton Grant)
Well-Tempered Critic (1981)
The Mirror of Nature (1983)
Reading and Writing (1993) (two essays, later collected in The Merry Heart)
The Merry Heart (1996)
Happy Alchemy (1997) (edited by Jennifer Surridge and Brenda Davies)
The Salterton Trilogy
Leaven of Malice (1954)
A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
The Deptford Trilogy
Fifth Business (1970)
The Manticore (1972)
World of Wonders (1975)
The Cornish Trilogy
The Rebel Angels (1981)
What's Bred in the Bone (1985)
The Lyre of Orpheus (1988)
The "Toronto Trilogy" (Davies' final, incomplete, trilogy)
Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)
The Cunning Man (1994)
High Spirits (1982)
Fortune My Foe (1949)
Eros at Breakfast (1949)
At My Heart's Core (1950)
A Masque of Aesop (1952)
A Jig for the Gypsy (1955)
A Masque of Mr. Punch (1963)
Question Time (1975)
Brothers in the Black Art (1981)
Hunting Stuart (1994)
The Voice of the People (1994)
The Golden Ass (1999)
For Your Eye Alone (2000) (edited by Judith Skelton Grant)
Discoveries (2002) (edited by Judith Skelton Grant)