Reading Robertson Davies Week: Fifth Business

I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.

I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”

Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.

The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?

Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.

This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.

My rating:


Some favorite lines:

“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”

“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”

It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:

“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”


“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”

23 thoughts on “Reading Robertson Davies Week: Fifth Business

    1. You’re right — unlike some ‘novels of ideas’, this was never hard going at all. I’ve enjoyed seeing everyone’s posts. The stories you reviewed sound like fun. I reckon I’ll stick to the famous trilogies for now, but maybe one day I’ll be hooked enough to seek out his more obscure work 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. i recently re-read the Deptford Trilogy – and just finished with another perennial Davis favorite, Bred in the Bone. It’s the 2nd book of the Cornish Trilogy and one of my favorite books, though the other 2 books never grabbed me like the Deptford books did. I’ve read them all several times over the years, and I always find new insights. The Cunning Man is also holds up well over multiple readings.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I discovered Davies when the middle vol of the Cornish trilogy was Booker shortlisted – then I read all the trilogies and more – loving them. I meant to try to join in with the reading week, but like all of my summer reading projects, got distracted! I will definitely re-read them though, as I can remember very little. (I can lend you any you want to read).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that must be how many in Britain discovered him. I may well take you up on that sometime in the future. For now I have one in progress and two more to come, so that will easily see me into next year 🙂 (And I’ve just checked and the university library has another five that I don’t own. But there may well be some I can’t find that way.)

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  3. “I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s” – Oh – I wonder if that’s why I liked him as soon as I discovered him! I am going to do a year of RD re-reading in 2021 – I did the Salterton Trilogy fairly recently so will do the others, find a biography (any leads?) and maybe revisit a great book of essays I have. Erica Wagner is brilliant, isn’t she.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did think that was probably one reason why you like him too 🙂 There are a number of critical works on Davies at my local university library, but no full biography that I can see. Maybe Lory knows of one? I will join you for whatever unread Davies books I have at that point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How exciting that you now have a new author to collect in earnest! I’m sure you’ll enjoy him all the way through. And keep an eye for his non-fiction writing about books and writing: a joy.

    You’ve made me want to reread these. Great pull-quotes! (Did you go on to WofWs after all?)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Try not to overthink the second. It really does make more sense after you’ve read the third – and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the third far more! (In fact, if you’re not particularly keen on the Jungian angle, you could probably just skip ahead.)


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