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A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist

by Jennifer Surridge (ed.); Ramsay Derry (ed.)

Robertson Davies kept multiple diaries simultaneously. There was a sometimes cryptic private one, and a “big” one that was both narrative and contemplative. Then there were separate ones concerning his life in the theatre, his travels, and his role in the establishment of the University of Toronto’s Massey College (of which he was the first master). A Celtic Temperament includes parts of all these, plus a few relevant letters. It shows what a busy and useful life he led, but also reveals aspects of the man with which readers may not be familiar.

9780771027642People remember that Davies ran Massey College – an all-male institution – and sometimes used phraseology that, while common among members of his own generation, would make us wince today. In the diaries, however, he turns out to have been far more liberal in almost all other areas. Although he expressed a great dislike of “dirty Bohemianism,” he was not an antagonistic individual. Rather, he comes off as a shy man hiding behind his luxurious beard. “If I am to be master of a college,” he writes, “my sense of hospitality must be improved: if I cannot really delight in people, I can at least learn to be civil, and let them talk, which I believe is the great secret.”

This selection covers the period from 1959 to 1963 (all of Davies’s diaries will soon be available online). These were years when he was phenomenally busy writing drama and fiction, editing one of the Ontario daily newspapers his family owned, and wrestling with the super-rich Massey family about every detail of the college they were endowing. He writes: “My bowels are a basket of eels, I cannot hear what people say to me, I eat to quell my mounting dismay and sense of failure, yet beneath all this I am calm and resolute: the work will be done.” He was plagued by such stresses but also by their opposite. “I grow weary of boredom, always being kind, a good father, and all the rest of the bourgeois life.”

The book is enormously readable. Davies knew everybody who was worth knowing or who would one day become so (“Michael Ignatieff is a nice boy of 12”). His sly humour is a balm, as in these three observations from 1959: 1) “Had chats with Her Majesty about Stratford and Canadian literature and His Royal Highness the same.” 2) “Had the satisfaction of making the Queen laugh with a mild joke about the modest rewards of literature in Canada.” 3) “The great news is that the Queen is pregnant, thus explaining her fatigue in Canada – that, and the continued meetings with John Diefenbaker.”

In the end, the book is all about being a hard-working gent whose “joy is to write and to write well, and if fame and money do not follow I can do nothing about it.” It is skilfully (and beautifully) edited and annotated by Davies’s daughter Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry, his former editor at Macmillan of Canada.