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Robertson Davies: The Salterton Trilogy

Davies’ first trilogy reads very much like Trollope. Yes, it is set in Canada in the 20th century and not England in the 19th century but, allowing for those differences, the similarity is considerable. This is not to take away from Davies’ achievement. He has constructed three highly enjoyable novels set in the small Canadian town of Salterton, using substantially the same cast of characters in all three (though A Mixture of Frailties veers off to London with its own set of characters.)

Tempest-Tost, the first in the trilogy, is about an amateur theatrical group putting on an outdoor production of The Tempest. (Davies was, of course, a professional actor with the Old Vic in London). Davies wittily dissects the group and the foibles of their members, their various love affairs and, in particular, their pomposity. He mocks the pretensions of the various members of the group, the social ambitions of the people of Salterton and their various sexual peccadilloes in a manner which would have made Trollope proud.

The second book, Leaven of Malice, starts off with a simple prank, an announcement in the local paper of the engagement of a couple who, at least at the beginning, barely know one another (though they both acted in The Tempest in Tempest-Tost). The repercussions of the announcement are considerable, not least as we try to guess the identity of the culprit, though the inevitable result is never in doubt. One of Davies’ other careers – that of a newspaperman – is given prominence, as the editor of the local paper, The Bellman takes a major role as he tries to deal with the problem, both of discovering who has been playing a prank on him and the lawsuit brought by the woman’s protective father. Indeed, he is one of the few sympathetic characters in the book, though even he has his dark side as we find out.

The final book – A Mixture of Frailties – seems to me the least satisfactory, partially because much of it takes place in London. The mother of the man whose false engagement announcement appeared in Leaven of Malice dies and leaves her considerable fortune to a trust to fund a local person to spend time abroad in pursuit of some artistic learning. After some problems, a young singer, Monica Gall, is chosen. Most of the novel is about her time in London and, in particular, her relationship with a young composer and an older conductor, both on the emotional and professional level, and how she moves away, emotionally and geographically, from her small town roots. Davies is able to satirize the London arts scene, of which he was a part, as he satirizes small town Canada, but it does not work as well. His strong characters – the church organist Humphrey Cobbler, Mrs. Bridgetower, the lady who dies and leaves her money to the trust and Professor Vambrace, the litigious father of the alleged fiancee – are all far superior to the London musicians and artists. Read all three but you’ll enjoy the first two more.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Clark, Irwin, Toronto

Leaven of Malice
First published 1954 by Clark, Irwin, Toronto

A Mixture of Frailties
First published 1958 by Macmillan, Toronto

Published as a trilogy
First published 1986 by Penguin