Marvels that defy

Our Lady of Guadeloupe

Robertson Davies: Fifth Business (1970)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin Books 2011 (1983)

This is a saga of three boys — the narrator Dunstable Ramsay, his contemporary Percy Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster, ten years their junior — told over the space of half a century from their origins in a small town in Ontario across two continents and on to a final chapter in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Yet, of course, it is more than that: this is a tale of love gained and lost, of magic and miracles, of action in a theatre of war to that of the theatre of illusions. We are presented with evidence both of abilities and disabilities; amongst all the fun and games there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of futility. Rabelais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”; but for us the show hasn’t ended, for happily this is just the start of a trilogy.

Ramsay is an entertaining narrator, and intelligent to boot. From small-town beginnings in Deptford at the end of the 19th century he rises, via the trenches of Passchendaele, to become a distinguished teacher and scholar, one who specialises in hagiography. He describes how a snowball with a stone at its centre, destined for him, hits instead the pregnant Mrs Dempster who goes into labour; guilt at the woman having to give birth to the premature Paul dogs him all his life. The odious Percy Staunton, who threw the snowball, has a symbiotic relationship with Dunstable all his life, but it is not until the three, four or so decades on, finally all meet up that matters truly come to a head.

However, Dunstable is an unreliable narrator. Yes, he owns up to things he isn’t proud of, but there are hints that not all is as it seems (though first-person narrative is seldom the whole truth anyway, I feel). The names given to his erstwhile lovers — Agnes Day, Gloria Mundy and Libby Doe — suggest as much, but it is the all-pervasive themes of magic, sainthood and the miraculous that give the game away, as does the fact that all three male protagonists end up known by different names.

What is true and what is not? The author will, I’m sure, have known George Bernard Shaw’s famous play Saint Joan (1924) which includes a discussion about the difference between a miracle and a fraud:

A miracle is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.

This distinction is a leitmotif throughout Fifth Business. It’s exemplified by Ramsay’s attempt to teach the young Paul Dempster simple magic tricks. Where Dunstable is maladroit Paul is a natural. To recreate an illusion convincingly one must never let on that it is an act, and this becomes Paul’s motivation. Yet the stage act is grounded on deception. On the other hand, Dunstan (as Dunstable later becomes) desperately wants to believe that Mrs Dempster is a kind of holy fool who unwittingly does miracles. It is partly what motivates him to ignore his Presbyterian upbringing and become an authority on Catholic saints (typically St Uncumber, whose fate was to have a beard and ultimately to be crucified). In chapter 5 he asks, “Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable fact?” before giving up all speculation on the matter.

Fifth Business is ostensibly about people (and appears to include semi-autobiographical details). If the men in this novel are no real saints, the women too appear somewhat lacking, certainly as far as the narrator is concerned. His mother is efficient but over strict, his childhood sweetheart will prove unimaginative; a lover wants to mother him, another who is visibly different both repels and attracts him. The sainted Mrs Dempster appears to lose her wits, while the second wife of his “lifelong friend and enemy” disdains him on sight. Here is a cast of a score or more, but you will search in vain to identify the principals implied in the title — Hero, Heroine, Confidante, Villain and Fifth Business — even if you think at times you know who they are.

I can’t emphasise how much I enjoyed this, for its perceptive psychological insights as much for its scintillating ideas. I could write a long essay about the accidental hero that is the narrator and about the magician, Magnus Eisengrim, who makes an enigmatic entrance a little over halfway through, only to disappear again. Here, however I will just note the little overt Arthurian mentions that sparsely pepper these pages (St Dunstan tweaks the Devil’s nose at Glastonbury, where the legendary king was reputed to be buried) and also the odd covert references such as the aged Jesuit scholar Blazon who must, I suppose, recall a certain Blaise.

You may remember that Blaise was a legendary chronicler who is said to have taught the young Merlin. As well as a stint as King Arthur’s adviser this Merlin is supposed to have been a great Magician. Now while ‘Merlin’ never appears by name in Fifth Business I think we are being gently urged to believe that Dunstan Ramsay may be a Merlin figure, magically transforming words into facts, true or not.


Over the next few months I intend to complete the remaining two novels in this trilogy, Manticore and World of Wonders, all in time to contribute to a discussion of Robertson Davies in August hosted by Lory Hess at Emerald City Book Review. If I’d realised his father was Welsh and that he lived for a time in Montgomeryshire I could’ve begun this trilogy for the Wales Readathon in March

24 thoughts on “Marvels that defy

  1. I have just discovered Robertson Davies this year and read The Deptford Trilogy that you have just embarked on. The middle book The Manticore is one my all time favourites. Now have The Cornish Trilogy to read next. Look forward to reading your review of The Manticore.

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    1. Yes, hasn’t The Manticore won an award or two? If it’s one of your favourites, Gert, I’m almost certain I’m bound to enjoy it! Do you think you’ll join in the Davies online discussion I mentioned above?

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  2. A fabulous review of one of my favourite books! 🙂 I agree with you that we’re being encouraged to think of Dunstan as a Merlin type character. I loved the magic and hagiography elements in the novel – when I first read it these were what grabbed my attention most. The book has the feeling of myth in a way, history made personal and meaningful.

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    1. “History made personal and meaningful” is an excellent description! It’s aided by my certain belief that the author (R.D.) wants us to see Dunstan Ramsay (D.R.) as a kind of alter ego (even though Dunstan has a Scottish rather than a Welsh ancestry), making this fictional history both personal and meaningful.

      And you will know, of course, that St Dunstan had a legendary reputation as an alchemist. Edward Kelly, the colleague of the Tudor scholar and magician John Dee, claimed he’d discovered a book by the saint in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, in which it described how to make the Philosopher’s Stone. (What are the chances of that?! About the same as a snowball’s chance in hell? 🙂)

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  3. I’m glad you enjoyed this. It does sound fascinating! I haven’t read anything by Robertson Davies yet but am hoping to join in with Lory’s reading week in August.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always good to read a book like this and not to be constantly checking how many more pages to go before the end (which has been the case with the odd book in the last little while). I hope to have finished this trilogy by the summer, it’s been that good! You should enjoy reading him, if this is anything to go by. 🙂

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    1. Ramsay’s obsession with the phenomenon of saints, sainthood and miracles attributed to them was matched by the author’s, I think, Laurie; it’s what both intrigued and repelled me in my Catholic youth and, from my present lapsed but happy state, still does!

      Apart from the details Davies is an excellent writer and has produced here, for all its length, a well-paced novel. I can see why so many fellow bloggers in the know have recommended him so warmly!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, you whet my whistle with this one! Not growing up religious, but with an interest, has really ‘saved’ me in a lot of ways, I think 🙂

        I think I will choose one of his for Lory’s event and I know I will learn something with that and what the others offer. That’s the beauty of this community!

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  4. Ah, you’ve evoked it so comprehensively that I shall have to go and track down the next two volumes, too. It’s one of those books that has stayed on my shelf as a promise, yes I will read you again, soon, I think as I pass it by. There’s so much I’d forgotten about the subtlety and joy of the story, and I think I missed the Arthurian references first time round.

    Nice post. I’m off to check out the Robertson Davies discussion plans now. What a setter of temptations you are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So sorry to strew temptations your way, Cath, you don’t have to pick them up you know! 🙂

      Those Arthurian references—it’s just that I’m attuned to them from a lifetime of obsessing about the topic which allowed me to spot them as I read. I’m sure there are other textual subtleties (Jungian archetypes and so on) that I’m less familiar with that passed me by!

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  5. Saints do feel a bit magical, don’t they? I don’t think all religious folk can see just how “magical” saints and miracles sound to those not of faith. It’s the impossible realized, fantasy made reality. How can we not appreciate this magic in life as well as in stories?

    Lovely post, Sir! 😉 xxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jean, glad you appreciated it! I read quite a few books on comparative mythology a few years ago, and have studied medieval Lives of Celtic (particularly Welsh) saints, most of them holy men and women who may or may not have existed. The monks who wrote these saints’ ‘lives’ frequently borrowed incidents from other saints’ biographies to make their model look good or better; there are lots of tales of saints carrying their severed heads, fooling local tyrants, suffering deprivation … and they’re borrowed from other saints’ Lives. So you can see how I’m rather dubious, to say the least! But as stories I find them really interesting narratives.

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      1. Oh heck yes. There’s a one-upping to be done, isn’t there? And it’s not like there’s any fact-checking to be done. There’s an entertainment factor–no, almost like a super-hero factor. People have always loved stories of people supernaturally powerful out to protect the lowly and meek like themselves.

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