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.

ROBERTSON DAVIES, UNDATED. © WALTER CURTIN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

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.