Why Robertson Davies?

This week I thought I’d join in the Robertson Davies reading Weekend organised by Lory, over at The Emerald City. I’d planned to think about some of his essays, as I recently bought the collection, The Merry Heart. The first one is actually a lecture, from 1980, called A Rake at Reading. It begins: “ ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ Did I say that? No, Logan Pearsall Smith said it, but I have thought it so many times that sometimes I mistake it for my own.

…and that was all I needed to remind me that Robertson Davies wrote just for me.

I’ll allow that some of you may feel something similar, but I can assure you, that I was, and am, his ideal reader.

My first Robertson Davies novel was borrowed from the local library, a couple of decades ago. I hadn’t heard of him then, but there was a book with a jester on the cover, and I’m drawn to the motley. Amorality in life is to be avoided, but in fiction? It’s exciting.

My choice wasn’t only based on that cover. The book was a doorstep, and in those days, that mattered.

I weighed my reading from the library. The building wasn’t on any of my usual routes, so borrowing books meant a special journey and that effort needed to result in two bags at bursting point.

I hadn’t checked the blurb of What’s Bred in the Bone. I did my usual test, and read a couple of random paragraphs. I’d no idea I was taking the middle volume of a trilogy.

In the course of my life there have been several significant novels I’ve looked forward to discovering for myself: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Orlando. These and others I heard about long before I was old enough to get hold of copies. Many have proved to be trusted friends.

What those novels gave me was the theory of fate. In fiction, it’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively. But, I can give you chapter and verse on how it’s shaped my life, and particularly my reading.

I knew, within a few lines of What’s Bred in The Bone, that it was a novel I was meant to discover. I read it at every daylight moment when I wasn’t working, at breakfast, lunch and tea, and until past midnight.

The world of Robertson Davies was wicked: not just in the modern slang sense, but in a deliciously dangerous way. There were twists and turns that kept me guessing, and laughing. Reading it was an audacious adventure, something that was different to anything I’d read before, and yet I knew that it was what I’d been working my way towards all of my literate life.

His characters entranced me even when I was appalled by them. His Canada was visceral. It smelled of wet tweeds, freshly baked bread and cool, deep water.

I’ve no idea whether any of those things featured in that Davies story. What I retain is a memory, because rereading this novel is a treat that’s always before me. I’m looking back at impressions, in the same way that I recall details of a wedding attended around the same time. That also is, I know, true to me only.

Reading this novel left me with a landscape that was endless, spacious and welcoming. I was never going to visit any of it in real life, because that would be asking for disappointment all I wanted was to move on to another of those worlds. Reading it, was to recognise that although I hadn’t realised it until that moment, his was a world I’d always hoped existed.


This week, in his essay, A Rake at Reading, there was so many things about which I could say, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s it exactly,’ and sometimes I said it with envy, other times with a smile, because really, when you look at the argument from that angle, it actually is rather funny.

…”A Rake at Reading.” The phrase comes from a letter written to a friend by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “I have been a rake at reading,” she says. The word rake, in the middle of the eighteenth century when Lady Mary make her confession to the Countess of Bute, still meant to roam or stray, but I think she also meant to have a hint of what was dissolute and irresponsible. So – I confess I have been a rake at reading. I have read those things which I ought not to have read, and I have not read those things which I ought to have read… I can only protest, like all rakes in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time.

27 thoughts on “Why Robertson Davies?

  1. When I think of Davies I think of novels of ideas; and because ideas in books are expressed in words I regard his writing as a kind of magic, ‘spells’ in the truest meaning of that term. Thanks for confirming my delight in having been introduced to him.

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  2. Robertson Davies sir, I will be meeting you soon, in your wonderful world so that I can learn all about the magical spells and forget about time.
    Many thanks to Cath, your ‘ideal reader’ for this.
    Cheers! 😀


  3. Oh, this is delicious, Cath! I love this essay for its own sake alongside for the arguments you make on each creating our own truths and on the joys of rakishness. And perhaps I shall come to love it for being the nudge that tipped me into the world of Robertson Davies. His is a name I see around the blogosphere. I feel I would like him; I know I like Canada and Canadian fiction and yet…. I know I have a resistance to giving him a whirl – my rakishness coming to the fore perhaps? More likely is my wariness about things too quirky, too edgy, too …. wicked. But maybe – maybe – you’ve nudged me over the precipice… I hope so!

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    • Thank you, Sandra. I do hope you find Robertson Davies to be worth the wait, and the journey. I think rakishness in reading is worth cultivating. So many of my best reading experiences have happened when I’ve taken on texts that seemed unlikely matches for my usual tastes.

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  4. Hee hee! I think I’m a rake at reading, too. I don’t like being told “This is a classic, therefore YOU must read it and LIKE IT or you don’t really like books.” Gah, that’s such nonsense. Someone may not be in the right headspace for a certain kind of story, or one’s mind may NEVER be fit for a certain kind of story. I LOATHED The Count of Monte Cristo in college, but I highly enjoyed it when I read it a few years ago. Bo loves reading nonfiction because he enjoys facts, learning what’s true. The only fictional genre he’ll occasionally dabble with is mystery because it’s still “real,” if that makes sense. He’s never been one for the fantastic, just as I’ve never had the mind for reading ten biographies on Groucho Marx. When we allow ourselves to be rakes at reading, then we all have a good time, and THAT is what truly matters! 🙂

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