A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist ed. by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry (review)
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Reviewed by
Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry, eds. A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist. McClelland & Stewart. xviii, 382. $35.00

In a 1957 essay on Stephen Leacock for Claude Bissell's Our Living Tradition, Robertson Davies concluded that Leacock was ''a man to thank God for,'' perhaps in apology for having written a tepid appreciation of his great predecessor (Davies would reiterate in a thin critical monograph of 1970 his persistent misreading of Leacock as a failed comic novelist and timorous satirist). The diary excerpts under review show Davies to have been similarly ungracious and patronizing regarding the prime mentor in his first career as actor, the director Tyrone Guthrie, a blow-in resident of Ireland (and founder of our Stratford Festival), who must also bear some responsibility for Davies' finicky dislike of the Irish (though Davies' Anglophilia alone could well account for his Hibernophobia). In the period of these diaries, 1959 to 1963, Davies may not quite have claimed status as the éminence grise he would attain following the publication of Fifth Business in 1970 (he would also have been held back because he dyed his beard noir throughout his forties). Still, Robertson Davies wielded considerable cultural clout as Canada's presumptive leading man of letters from about 1950 onward: as playwright, novelist (with the delightful Salterton trilogy completed in 1958), essayist, editor, and presently founding First Master of the University of Toronto's Massey College. But Davies did Leacock's reputation disservice with the troubling critical appreciations; his anxiety of influence made him miss the opportunity to do for Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town what Hemingway did magnanimously for Twain's Huckleberry Finn: recognize it as the font of modern Canadian fiction (Mordecai Richler, our great comic novelist after Davies, eventually proclaimed the Sketches such). Regardless, I would return Davies' grudging compliment of Leacock in kind: Robertson Davies was a Canadian writer to thank God for.

Abounding gratitude is due the author of such a wealth of graceful prose as Davies published, of such witty and acerbic fiction chock-full of learning and arcana, for so much pleasurably acquired knowledge and wisdom, and challenging enjoyable reading. What's not to like? (The Yiddish-English inflection here may remind us that Davies' reflexive anti-Semitism, as voiced in these diaries, was one hidden thing not to like.) He had an incredible capacity for work, which he took for granted, and for socializing, which he thoroughly enjoyed; he possessed a gift for friendship (despite his true views of some friends, but that's a reality we all live, even with best friends); for such a stagy curmudgeon he was surprisingly suffering of fools; he was diplomatic in administrative crises and smoothed many a rough way to a worthwhile goal (say, a library for Massey College); he was honest, even overly exacting, in his self-analyses; he was professionally, and instructively, careerist; he was a much-loved [End Page 109] father (his daughter Jennifer Surridge co-edits these diaries – a Herculean endeavour); he was a devoted husband.

He also noted with cute acronym every instance of sexual congress with his wife, Brenda, and rated each act with one word (''admirable,'' ''surprising,'' etc.). At the end of each year he tallied up his performances and explained any falling off (partner away on vacation, intermittent bouts of impotence). His bigotries and prejudices abound (the Irish, Jews, etc.), some excusable for the times, but not all. In a period of increasing demand for women's equality, he refused to admit females to Massey College (this was the early 1960s, not the mid-nineteenth century). But then, Robertson Davies always suffused himself with an anachronistic air, with the high-Victorian tilt to the prophetically bearded visage declaiming graphically his stubborn allegiance to English literature's greatest century, even if the time had passed – most unfortunate – some hundred years earlier.

Davies could always turn a phrase, delight with a stentorian sentence, but there are too few in these selections from the many sorts of diary he kept. These records are more mundane reports than revelatory musings, and much is pedestrian, even boring. The stretches of tedium can still be interesting generally for...


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