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Reviewed by:
  • Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic
  • Russell Morton Brown (bio)
Val Ross . Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. McClelland and Stewart. viii, 386. $36.99

Journalist Val Ross called her life of Robertson Davies a 'mosaic.' Chiefly assembled from new interviews, like an oral biography, it is enriched with extracts from sources already on record, such as Davies' father's memoir, radio interviews with Davies, newspaper profiles, and letters, and woven together with her bridges. She died as she was finishing this work, but it has a satisfying wholeness and suffers from a lack of final touches only occasionally. (There are a couple of passages repeated verbatim that a final edit would have caught.)

Even though writers are, as bookish individuals, famously unpromising subjects for biographies and even though Davies' life offers nothing in the way of real scandals or adventures, he is a meaty subject. A very public man of many accomplishments and an autodidact whose studies carried him into many odd corners, he was known for his merry wit and his flamboyant public style. As an articulate member of the last of [End Page 506] a generation who grew up in the 'old' Ontario mono-culture, his personal history tells us much about the roots of today's Canadian society and the development of Canadian culture in the second half of the twentieth century. An aspiring actor who became Canada's leading playwright before he turned to fiction, he was also the founding master of Massey College, an institution that gave him his last and best stage.

But do we need a new biography when Judith Skelton Grant's monumental Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, published in 1994, the year before Davies' death, offers completeness and scope? The two biographies cover much of the same ground and both give us a sense of their subject's achievements. Ross's book is especially good on showing us how, by spending his life playing the role of 'Robertson Davies,' Davies never ceased being the actor he first aspired to be, but Grant's biography also suggested this, if not as emphatically. Both books argue that Davies' careful crafting of an oversized public persona was a compensation for his deep insecurities. Both also show his private side: he was devoted to his family, and his wife Brenda played an important part in his life. Theirs was a real partnership: she steadied him and was his first audience and first editor. Neither biography makes much of Davies' faults, but they are apparent in both, alongside his virtues. He could be liberal or reactionary, depending on the situation and sometimes on his mood. He could be generous and immensely entertaining, but also pompous and overbearing. His insecurities led him to hold grudges - so much so that, as one of Ross's interviewees says, Davies 'never forgot a bad review.' While this trait recalls the 'moral bookkeeping' that concludes Fifth Business, Ross's book often resists making a connection between the life and Davies' writing, while Grant repeatedly traces out relationships between Davies' personal history and his drama and fiction.

Nevertheless, Ross's volume is welcome. The multiple perspectives it offers complement and often modify Grant's single point of view, giving a fuller sense of how Davies looked to the world at large. Grant's wasn't an authorized biography, but Davies, though uneasy with the process at first, ultimately provided complete cooperation, and Grant was very respectful towards, and admiring of, her subject. While Ross's biography is also generally approving, its form provides more distance from its subject, and its multiple voices sometimes contradict one another and sometimes offer stern judgments, giving Ross's life more critical edge and occasionally allowing for franker statements.

In judging Ross's biography, it is also worth recalling Davies' notion of his ideal audience, the 'clerisy' - which he defined as well-educated but non-professional readers who came to books for both enjoyment and enlightenment. Grant's study is accessibly written, but at nearly a quarter of a million words it is likely to intimidate such readers, who will turn to Ross's book at half the size. Detailed enough to satisfy most...


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