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Robertson Davies: The Deptford Trilogy

This is the second of Robertson Davies’ trilogies and the one that seems to attract most interest but most controversy. In this trilogy, Davies moves away from the realistic, Trollopean approach of The Salterton trilogy and moves into the area of myth, psychology and personal responsibility, as he tracks the life and death of Boy (né Boyd) Staunton and the various people linked to him.

The first novel is Fifth Business. The fifth business, in drama or opera, is “those roles which, being neither those of hero or heroine, confidante nor villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the recognition or the dénouement.” The fifth business is Dunstan (né Dunstable) Ramsay, the narrator of this novel and the best friend of Boy(d) Staunton. The book starts with the young Staunton throwing a snowball, containing a stone, at Ramsay. Ramsay ducks the snowball, which hits Mrs. Mary Dempster, wife of the local minister, causing her to go into premature labor and give birth to Paul, (later to become the magician Magnus Eisengrim) and, at the same time, causing Mrs. Dempster to become somewhat mentally unbalanced. Only Ramsay knows of Staunton’s crime and he tells no-one but conceals it from everyone till the end of the novel. Staunton goes on to marry the prettiest girl in town (and the one with whom Ramsay is in love) and to fame and fortune in business. Ramsay wins the VC in the First World War and becomes a schoolteacher in a boys’ private school and an author, specializing in hagiography. The story is taken up with Ramsay’s narration of these events and the related ones, culminating with Staunton’s mysterious death, seemingly suicide.

The second novel in the series, The Manticore, starts off after the death of Staunton and is almost entirely taken up with a narration by David Staunton, the son of Boy Staunton, in the form of a Jungian analysis of Staunton fils by the Zurich-based Dr. von Haller. Staunton fils, of course, goes over many of the events of Fifth Business but, clearly, from a different perspective and, also, adding in a few things, not least of which is his sexuality (he is single and has had sexual intercourse just once, with an older woman, when aged seventeen, arranged by his father). Staunton fils is very much under the shadow of his father, even after the death of the latter, and much of what he does is because of his father – setting up a career contrary to his father’s wishes, for example. This book is, for me, the least satisfactory book of the three, firstly because Staunton fils is not a very interesting person and secondly because the Jungian analysis seems so crude.

The final book, World of Wonders, is the narration of Magnus Eisengrim, né Paul Dempster, from his traumatic childhood via his kidnapping by Willard, the conjuror, (who buggers him regularly till drugs prevent him doing so) to his successful career as a great magician. His activities and growing-up in the World of Wonders fair and Sir John Tresize’s travelling theatre are discussed in considerable detail as is his fight with the intellectual Cambridge-educated novelist, Roly (Dempster is avowedly anti-intellectual) whom he first meets in Tresize’s theatre and later as part of a group making a television film starring Eisengrim. The dénouement, of course, is the resolution of the mantra first openly uttered by David Staunton at Eisengrim’s show – Who Killed Boy Staunton? – which most readers had probably worked out for themselves.

Davies touches on many themes in this trilogy. Identity is obviously important. Many of the main characters change their names, if only slightly. Even Dr. von Haller adds to the mix, as Staunton fils (and, presumably, the reader) had assumed that Dr. von Haller is some bearded Hollywood-style psychiatrist but she turns out to be a woman, happily married with children and with whom Staunton fils falls in love. Many of the characters are trying to find out who they are. Ramsay is a case in point. He wins the Victoria Cross for bravery but does not consider himself a hero. He is an expert on saints but not a Catholic. He feels attached to Mrs. Dempster, feels guilt for her condition, even considers that she might be a saint but is unsure how he relates to her and she to him. Staunton fils is continually try to establish an identity separate from his father while Eisengrim has rejected his parents and has established a completely new identity (he even has Ramsay write a spurious autobiography for him). Who are we? Davies asks, and can we change who we are? The opening scene, the snowball hitting Mrs. Dempster, sets the tone for all the major characters, changing the lives, forever, of Ramsay, Staunton, the three Dempsters and, ultimately, all who come into contact with them. Davies seems to be saying that who we are can be determined by a single event, which may even occur before we are born. “You don’t believe,” Eisengrim asks at the end of the trilogy, “that a man is the sum and total of all his actions, from birth to death? “, and he clearly expects – as does Davies – everyone to believe this. Yet, all the main characters do change, do, in fact, become someone else, for better or for worse.

As part of our problems with our identity is our place in the world. Boy Staunton is very concerned with this and his second wife, who pushes to have him appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Staunton compares his place with that of Ramsay, a lowly schoolmaster, unmarried at that. Eisengrim feels it very strongly, too, though in a different way. He felt excluded as a child when the local village children taunted him because his mother was a “hoor”, he felt it in the World of Wonders fair, in Sir John’s theatre and continues to feel it despite his success. Eisengrim/dempster’s father, a minister, feels it too when he is found unsuitable to be a minister because of his wife’s actions. This is, of course, the perennial artist-in-society theme, a staple theme of literature from Shakespeare via Dostoievsky up to Joyce, though perhaps less prevalent nowadays. Like most writers, Davies comes to the not very original conclusion that artists are different from the rest of us.

Linked to this theme is the idea of illusion and reality, a standard of artists throughout the ages. It is, of course, best seen in the life of Eisengrim, whose life and art are both illusions. He lives under a variety of names and completely fabricates his life, while practicing illusion. Sir John Tresize, the actor manager, who takes the young Eisengrim under his wing in the third book, specifically mentions the role of his theatre as creating this illusion. But this issue is also important for others – Staunton père who is always trying to create an illusion of conventional harmony, Staunton fils who is trying to separate the reality and illusion in his criminal law practice as well as his life and, of course, with his lives of the saints, which may or may not be illusory, depending on your point of view.

One other theme strikes me – Davies’ anal obsessions. Staunton fils starts off his narrative with a fairly detailed description of his grandfather’s efforts to make him (Staunton fils) defecate, for which he has a complex and painful contraption, and ends with his shitting himself when trying to get out of cave through a narrow, dark passage, with a woman just behind him (oh, what a symbol that is!) Staunton fils is not the only character who shits himself. Dempster/Eisengrim’s buggery at the hands of Willard and its subsequent effect on Dempster/Eisengrim is also given some prominence. A dig at the Freudians and their anal obsessions?

Publishing history

Fifth Business
First published 1970 by Macmillan, Toronto

The Manticore
First published 1972 by Macmillan, Toronto

World of Wonders
First published 1975 by Macmillan, Toronto

Published as a trilogy
First published 1983 by Penguin