Obituary: Professor Robertson Davies

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The Independent Online
William Robertson Davies, novelist, playwright and English scholar: born Thamesville, Ontario 28 August 1913; Editor and Publisher, Peterborough Examiner 1942-63; Professor of English, University of Toronto 1960-81 (Emeritus), Master of Massey College 1963-81 (Emeritus); Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour 1955; Lorne Pierce Medal of Royal Society of Canada 1961; Governor-General's Award for Fiction 1973; books include The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks 1949, the "Salterton Trilogy" - Tempest-Tost 1951, Leaven of Malice 1954, A Mixture of Frailties 1958, the "Deptford Trilogy" - Fifth Business 1970, The Manticore 1972, World of Wonders 1975, the "Cornish Trilogy" - The Rebel Angels 1981, What's Bred in the Bone 1985, The Lyre of Orpheus 1988; married 1940 Brenda Mathews (three daughters); died Orangeville, Ontario 2 December 1995.

My first meal with Robertson Davies in 1986 was celebratory, writes Felicity Bryan. I had been his literary agent for only a year and on the eve of his arrival in London I tracked him down at his Swedish publishers to tell him that his novel What's Bred in the Bone had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

This recognition was exactly what we needed. For, while he was already a cult author in America and his books sold throughout the world, recognition in England had eluded him. There was a group of enthusiasts (including Anthony Burgess, who always said Davies should have won the Nobel Prize) who had experienced his extraordinary "Deptford Trilogy" and never looked back. But it was tiny.

Rob put this down to a general British prejudice that found all things boring if they hailed from Canada. It was not something he resented. Indeed, he took positive pride in the boringness of Canadians, saying that he and his Swedish hosts had waxed quite competitive about which country was the most boring.

The Canada he wrily observes in his novels has as many layers as an onion and brims with memorable eccentrics. Rob and his wife Brenda invited me there one year to stay in the fine house they had built in the woods an hour from Toronto. It was a place to write and enjoy the countryside, but also to escape. For in Canada Robertson Davies was a hero. His books were both best- sellers and classics and thousands would attend his famous readings which - as a former actor - he performed with brillance and brio.

His belated recognition in Britain did mean a lot. London, where he had been an actor, and Oxford, where he had studied, were close to his heart. When he was made an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College he admitted to being "quite inordinately proud of it"; when he received an honorary degree in the Sheldonian, looking like an ornate Father Christmas, he was thrilled to bits.

Representing Robertson Davies was pure pleasure. His old-fashioned good manners and appreciation were refreshing and his letters fizzed with bizarre anecdotes and sly comments on critics, publishers and all literary types. In his last letter in October, he wrote that he was much enjoying writing his next novel which was to be the third of a loosely linked trilogy (with Murther and Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man).

"I am puzzled," he wrote, "to determine whether it has no plot at all or more plot than the Bible. Certainly a lot of things happen but the characters keep talking all the time which may give a somewhat static impression. However, there's lots of time to take care of that". I feel fate has cheated me of another rare treat.

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