Friday, October 19, 2012

The Salterton Trilogy

The first batch of novels by Robertson Davies makes use of his interest in theatre, journalism, and opera. They are united by setting (the fictional Ontario city of Salterton and seat of Waverly University), and by their exposure of people whose lives have been emasculated by a lack of feeling and culture.

Tempest-Tost 1951

An amateur outdoor production of The Tempest results in comedy due to an inept, egotistical, and misguided cast and crew.

Ferdinand and the assistant director (Solly Bridgetower) get into a fist-fight over Ariel, and the makeup artist (Puss Pottinger) is so old she needs a magnifying glass to apply her greasepaint. Caliban is a practical joker who crashes a rehearsal on horseback with unfortunate consequences. On opening night a seedy musical trio shows up just before the play begins: "Can we just have a little run over the play before we start? You tell me where you want the music to come in, and we’ll fit it in somehow." Prospero (Professor Vambrace) defies the director by eating grapes while reciting his lines, Juno gets sloshed, and Gonzalo tries to hang himself.

One of the central characters is a schoolteacher named Hector Mackilwraith, aka Old Binomial, who hands out negative marks to students who had "fallen into mathematical sin." Though outwardly successful, he has not been able to escape a chilly upbringing. Aged forty and living at the YMCA, he suspects something is missing in his life.

His opposite number is a raffish musician named Humphrey Cobbler, one of the few characters who, along with Solly, Solly's mother, Puss Pottinger, and Professor Vambrace's daughter Pearl, appear in all three books. Cobbler's appearance "was of the sort which causes housewives to lock up their spoons and their daughters." Yet he was "so alive, and so apparently happy, that the air for two or three feet around him seemed charged with his delight in life."

The funniest of the three novels, Temptest-Tost had me laughing throughout.

Leaven of Malice 1954

A notice in the Salterton Bellman announces the engagement of Solly and Pearl, but the announcement is a hoax and reopens an old feud between the two families.

Professor Vambrace takes particular offense. In Tempest-Tost he was portrayed as little more than a pompous boob. Now he is revealed as a domestic tyrant, "immoderate in self-esteem," who terrorizes his wife and daughter. He perceives the hoax as a blow aimed at him, and launches a libel suit against the newspaper.

Likewise Solly’s mother, who in the first book was merely a tiresome hypochondriac, is now revealed as a person for whom "pouring salt into wounds was a specialty…and the older the wound was, the better she liked it."

Caught in the middle is Gloster Ridley, the newspaper’s editor, and through whom we learn some of the tribulations of running a small-market newspaper. Due to a slip-up in record-keeping, the identity of the person posting the false announcement is unknown. Until it is discovered the issue cannot be resolved. Ironically Solly and Pearl are the least concerned and quite willing to let the whole thing drop.

Two of the best scenes in the book involve Professor Vambrace: first when he engages Ridley in a superb verbal duel, and later when he vanquishes a young half-baked psychologist who tries to foist an Oedipus complex on him.

Leaven of Malice won the Leacock Medal in 1955, but its humour is darker than in Tempest-Tost, many of its characters being malicious rather than merely foolish.

A Mixture of Frailties 1958

This book is markedly different from the other two, for while not lacking in wit, it is not a comedic novel. It has a larger cast of characters, deals with weightier situations, and more closely resembles the rich and complex novels that are to follow. Though it begins and ends in Salterton, most of it takes place outside of Canada.

Mrs. Bridgetower has just passed away, and because she resented the marriage of Solly and Pearl (now called by her middle name, Veronica), the old cow left a vengeful will. Though she had over a million in investments, the only cash she leaves her son is $100. Everything else goes into a trust to support a worthy young artist unless Solly and Veronica produce a son. Mrs. Bridgetower's friend, Puss Pottinger, who in the first book was hapless and in the second a busy-body, is now revealed as mean-spirited.

The recipient of the trust is a talented singer named Monica Gall, who is employed at the Salterton Glue Works. She goes to England where her musical development is overseen by Sir Benedict Domdaniel. Finding her suffering from "cultural malnutrition," he sends her to a vocal coach named Murtagh Molloy, who undertakes her "vocal and spiritual unbuttoning." She meets a gifted Welsh composer and "Satanic genius," Giles Revelstoke, who seduces her and treats her shabbily. She attains success when she sings in an opera written by Revelstoke, but before the novel ends she has to make several difficult decisions, one of which involves a body.

A Mixture of Frailties contains a number of things that Davies explored more fully in his later novels. For example, spirits make a brief appearance at the end of this book; in What's Bred in the Bone, they play a larger role. Davies's interest in Wales is pursued to a greater degree in Murther & Walking Spirits, as is his interest in opera in The Lyre of Orpheus.

Interestingly enough, the opera that Revelstoke writes is based on The Golden Ass. Davies himself wrote the libretto for a similar opera, which was performed after his death.