Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s great novelists, perhaps best-known for The Deptford Trilogy. These three books were written between 1970 and 1975, using Jungian psychology to delve into the characters. While the novels can stand alone, each has questions that are answered by the other two novels. The reader who starts one novel will find his thirst for more quenched by the others in the series.
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Fifth Business: Book 1 in The Deptford Trilogy
Fifth Business is the story of Dunstan Ramsay, told in the form of memoirs addressed to the school Headmaster. The novel examines the question of moral responsibility as Dunstan wrestles with the consequences of a childhood event: dodging a snowball thrown by his friend Boy Staunton. The snowball hits the Baptist pastor’s wife, causing her to go into premature labour and become “simple.”
Dustan becomes Mary Dempster’s only friend in the village, even when she commits an unpardonable act and is tied in her house by her husband. Mary is always in the back of Dunstan’s mind as he goes away to war, completes his Ph.D., teaches school, and in his spare time pursues stories of unusual saints. Although Dunstan isn’t Catholic, he presents an interesting perspective on saints and views Mary Dempster as a saint.
The Manticore: Book 2 in The Deptford Trilogy
The Manticore is the story of Boy Staunton’s son David, who travels to Zurich, Switzerland, after his father’s death to seek the help of a psychiatrist. He tells his story in the form of “briefings” for his counselor, whom at first he dislikes but slowly begins to respect. David is the victim of Boy Staunton’s emotional abuse, hinted at in Fifth Business and now clearly seen in David’s troubled life.
David’s counselor guides him through an examination of his life and character as he seeks answers and direction. The novel has the reader wondering how much we shape who we become and how much forces outside of us shape who we become. At the end of The Manticore, David meets Dunstan Ramsay and must confront the question of what he will do now with his new knowledge of himself.
World of Wonders: Book 3 in The Deptford Trilogy
World of Wonders finally tells the story of Paul Dempster, now known to the world as the magician and conjuror Magnus Eisengrim. Dunstan Ramsay is once again the narrator, recording Magnus’ revelations about his past and also noting the conversations that follow among those who hear his story.
Like the first two novels, World of Wonders reminisces the past, and includes discussions of how much those memories are shaped by what came after them. Eisengrim’s listeners contribute parts of their own stories, making this novel an interesting look at memory and the development of who a person is.
Robertson Davies shows great insight into human character as well as a great skill with words and descriptions. His characters come alive and walk off the pages into the reader’s memory, leaving them with much to think about. The Deptford Trilogy is a fast, easy read, yet one that readers will want to come back to again.
More about Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies was born in 1913 in Ontario, Canada. He was active in theatre as a child and a young man and wrote a thesis on Shakespeare’s boy actors. He studies and acted in Oxford, England, before returning to Canada to become the editor of Saturday Night and then Peterborough Examiner. He wrote several plays (including one about Agnes Strickland, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill) and humour essays. Davies taught literature at the University of Toronto for over twenty years.
His first three novels were written in the 1950s, while he edited and published the Peterborough Examiner. The Salterton Trilogy explores the difficulty of sustaining a cultural life in Canada. During this time, he also helped launch the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. In the 1970s, he wrote the Deptford Trilogy, considered his best novels. He wrote several more novels before his death in 1995.
Photo of Robertson Davies via Harry Palmer.