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English-Canadian Writers

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

William Robertson Davies was born in 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario to a Welsh father and a strict Presbyterian mother. His father, sent to Canada when his family's tailoring business failed, became an influential and important newspaper owner and senator. Robertson inherited a love for reading from his parents. He boarded at Upper Canada College in Toronto, then studied at Queen's University in Kingston before attending Balliol College in Oxford, U.K. His initial passion was for the theatre and he pursued life as an actor in London. In 1940 Davies married Brenda Matthews whom he met at Oxford. In the same year the couple returned to Canada where Davies took the position of literary editor of Saturday Night.

Robertson Davies worked in his early career to increase the quality and profile of Canadian drama. He started the Dominion Drama Festival and was an early member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival board. In 1948, he produced his first commercially successful play, Fortune, My Foe. The play involves the questions surrounding Canadian culture and arts, from the point of view of a newly arrived immigrant, a young Canadian and an aging Englishman teacher. He wrote several plays during his career, but after a theatrical disaster in New York in 1960 with Love and Libel, or The Ogre of the Provincial World, Davies chose to instead focus on his novels.

Davies' best-known work is the Deptford Trilogy of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975). Setting his novels in semi-rural Ontario, Davies uses biting satire in order to critique what he saw as a narrow-minded and emotionally repressed community. Starting from childhood, the trilogy follows the divergent lives of three boys: Percy Boyd Staunton, Paul Dempster and Dunstan Ramsay. The three boys are connected by one event in their childhood (Percy throws a snowball, meant for Dunstan, but instead causes the premature birth of Paul), and the three novels move between the three characters perspectives and different points in their lives.

Robertson Davies received the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour in 1955, the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1961, the Governor-General's Award in 1972, as well as 23 honorary degrees. He was the first holder of the Massey Chair position at the University of Toronto in 1961. He co-founded the U of T’s graduate center for the Study of Drama in 1966. He died in Orangeville, Ontario in 1995. CBC covered his funeral live, and featured elegies by Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findlay, among many others. His legacy to Canadian literature and culture can be seen the number of novels and works of fiction and non-fiction alike, as well as the number of scholars and intellectuals who interacted with while he was at the University of Toronto. (Lee Skallerup)

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