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Doug Gibson: Robertson Davies’s personal diaries shed new light on the man behind the fiction

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Nov_RobertsonDaviesI must confess that I began to read A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, published in October by McClelland & Stewart, with some alarm. I had been Rob’s editor from World of Wonders (1975), onward, and he even joked about our long association in his handwritten dedication in my copy of The Cunning Man (1994, his last novel): “For Douglas Gibson (‘my partner frequent’), Sairy Gamp a.k.a. Rob Davies.” Based on this long association, I had – greatly daring – written a chapter about him in my Stories About Storytellers (ECW Press), and had roamed the stages of the country proclaiming the real truth about Robertson Davies.

Now I was about to see the real R.D., in his own words, collected in private diaries between 1959 and 1963. What if they proved I had been hopelessly wrong? We all pretend to like reading things that upset our previous opinions, that correct our mistaken views, and make us better and wiser. In fact, we much prefer to read material that confirms, or even repeats, our beliefs.

I’m relieved to report that I got some things right. For example, the fact that he really wanted to make his literary mark as a playwright, not a novelist.

He once famously compared himself (in an interview with Val Ross) to “the Ugly Duckling,” a reference to his long years of struggle to become Canada’s great playwright. We see it in diaries from 1960; he slaved through month after month of rewrites on Love and Libel as the play toured, then closed on Broadway, instantly. The experience of constant revisions requested by “the humblest actor, money counter, or baggage man” soured him: “Why would an author of any pride submit to the impertinences of theatre people?” The lesson sunk in. It was not until the publication of Fifth Business that it became clear the Ugly Duckling playwright was really a Swan, gliding along the stream of the finest Fiction.

I knew, too, that he was always interested in astrology, seeking predictions about his own life, and having charts drawn up. Ah, well, we all have our weaknesses, especially if we are possessed of a Celtic background. Rob was once fascinated to learn that my very Scottish mother would describe insane people as being “away with the fairies.” In a New York entry in the November 1962 diary, he writes: “Visit Hugh MacCraig, the astrologer. He says I am in the new phase of my life which began at the end of August this year and will continue for seven years. … From 1969 to 1972 will be the ‘peak period’ of my life.”

Hmm. Fifth Business appeared in 1970, and changed his life.

Nov-DaviesCoversThe diaries deal with two other life-changing events that are linked. I have written about the huge effect of his journalism on his fiction. As the editor of The Peterborough Examiner, he learned many of the swirling secrets all small towns possess, providing him with a rich and inexhaustible supply of human detail. And he wrote all the time. He wrote every day, day after day, and in the times before the Internet he learned how to do research the hard way, seeking out information in books, or from experts. His novels are full of hard-w0n arcane knowledge about saints, gypsy practices, even the scientific study of excrement. We have all benefitted from his years as a journalist, and it’s fascinating to see how much writing he did, not only for his own paper, but for others, like the Toronto Star. He once wrote that the writing muscle is like any other, needing constant exercise.

In the diaries, we see this hard-working writer mingling with captains of industry on the Stratford Festival board, and marvelling at how little work they seem to accomplish. His irritation with that world is the major theme of his great change, when he left Peterborough to become the founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

The diaries devote much time to this life-altering event. The reader is dazed by the complex details of establishing and furnishing a new college from scratch (Davies was even involved in choosing the knives and napkins for the dining hall). But it all pales beside the diplomatic struggle to keep the college advancing into successful existence while dealing with the university, and, much worse, the Massey family. We must all be grateful that he persisted, and that he and wife Brenda finally moved the family to the master’s lodgings in Massey College.

A quick word about Brenda. I have spoken admiringly about her role as The Organizing Principle in Rob’s life, the person who ran the household, did the driving, was his first reader, and so on. It was clear that they were a devoted couple. But who knew what a passionate pair of lovers they were? Now we all know, thanks to the diaries, which routinely record every time intercourse occurs, under the code “h.t.d.” (High tempo debauchery? Or “hic tempus delectat”?) He even kept score: “H.t.d. 56 in 1962.” Then, defensively, “Brenda absent five weeks.”

For many of us, this will be a new Robertson Davies.