Shadow play

Claud-Joseph Vernet, Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica (Bristol Museum):

by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1951)

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
All’s Well that Ends Well

The first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy is a provincial Canadian comedy of manners with a universal appeal, in which despite errors being compounded all’s well that ends well, which is as we like it.

From this corny introduction you’ll have gathered Tempest-Tost is a novel with a Shakespearean theme, and so it is. In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray. Except, as I hope to argue, the fictional parts they play in the comedy are not those they live during the course of the novel.

Fronfraith Hall, Llandyssil, Montgomeryshire: formerly owned by the Davies family, and a possible inspiration for St Agnes

An example of a episode being significant despite superficial appearances occurs at the end of an auction of a deceased’s effects. A box of romances wrapped in brown paper is bid for by three individuals, one an admirer who wants to give it as a gift to the admired one, another who values books for their own sake, and a third who knows the commercial worth of the sale lot. The books themselves therefore represent three functions: their essential use for reading purposes; their usefulness as a gesture; and their value as commodities. This then could be how the novel works: a light entertainment, yes; perhaps a work to share with bookish friends, certainly; but also possibly a work laden with significances, above and beyond its seeming nature.

As with many authors many names are not chosen at random: they are signifiers, conscious or unconscious, of other meanings. For instance, the novel is mostly set in St Agnes, the buildings and grounds of a wealthy Salterton family the Websters, which features a widower and his two daughters, Griselda and Fredegonde (known as Freddy). The family name reflects the ancient craft of weaving; so, in this case, the Websters’ tangled web of life is (as in All’s Well that Ends Well) made of “mingled yarn, good and ill together” when the gardens of St Agnes — the martyred Roman virgin became the patron saint of girls, appropriately for this novel — are selected for an open-air production of The Tempest. We therefore must envisage St Agnes as Prospero’s Isle for the purposes of the novel: Davies would quite well have known St Agnes to be the name of one of the Scilly Isles off Cornwall.

The author knew whereof he spoke as he’d done some acting in England and was later involved in the launch of the Stratford Shakespeare festival in Toronto, as well as being a published writer on Elizabethan theatre; all of which gives the ups and downs of his fictional theatre company a definite authenticity. (I wonder if Margaret Atwood, who attended some of the Toronto festival performances in the 1950s, was unconsciously alluding to this novel in her recent retelling of the play as Hag-Seed? She didn’t refer to Robertson Davies at all in her acknowledgements, however.) That close familiarity with Shakespeare therefore meant that all the puffed-up importance, rivalries, prejudices, anxieties and antagonisms besetting amateur performances come — if you excuse the pun — into play during the course of the narrative.

And, surprisingly for such a large cast of characters, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who is who because Davies has, dare I say, quite a bitchy way of describing individuals so that they immediately stand out in one’s mind. The girls’ father George Webster, for example, is painted thus: “He came of a generation to which any girl, before she is married, is a kind of unexploded bomb.” And there are plenty of other instances which the reader can savour for themselves.

Here’s the conceit that Davies has as the framework for his tale: though several individuals are assigned parts to play in the pastoral, they play different roles in the action of the story. For example, the director, the professional Miss Valentine Rich is in reality Prospero; despite a gender swap the author gives the game away with her ambiguous forename (the patron saint of lovers) and the retrospectively obvious surname. The fusspot pedant Professor Walter Vambrace — the name is derived from a piece of armour for the forearm — plays Prospero but is actually more like Prospero’s villainous brother Antonio in trying to usurp the director’s role. Meanwhile, though Griselda Webster plays Ariel, she is actually the equivalent of Miranda in this novel, loved by the inadequate Hector Mackilwraith; Hector, though cast as Prospero’s former adviser Gonzalo, is the equivalent of Caliban, except that he only chastely lusts after Griselda. The role of Caliban is played by practical joker Geordie Shortreed, who thus is actually Trinculo, jester to the King of Naples.

This is an enjoyable novel, Robertson Davies’ first ever, and superficially a light romantic comedy which lays no demands on the reader. Though there is no happy-ever-after in the conventional sense, there are rivals in plentiful supply for Griselda’s affections, and power-plays between old hands in the Little Theatre company and Valentine Rich. The author doesn’t resist pointing up any satire both on the main and subsidiary themes (religious denominations come in for some ribaldry, for instance) but neither does he resist how insubstantial everything is. For example, in Chapter Seven, there is discussion after the dress rehearsal about the shadows thrown by the stage lighting:

“I’d be happy if I could just get enough light to kill those shadows,” said Larry Pye; “but do what I will, everywhere an actor goes, he casts a shadow.”

“And why not?” said Solly. “What could be more natural? Here we are in bright moonlight, and every one of us has a shadow. Larry wants us all to be like Peter Schlemihl, who sold his shadow to the Devil.”

Shakespeare’s work is full of metaphors about shadows without substance: “Life’s but a walking shadow,” mused Macbeth; “If we shadows have offended,” said Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to his audience, “think but this, and all is mended, | That you have but slumbered here | While these visions did appear.” Also in the same play Theseus reminded us “as imagination bodies forth | The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen | Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing | A local habitation and a name.” So it is in The Tempest, when Prospero steps outside the fourth wall and describes what we have seen as an “insubstantial pageant”:

… These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air.

And so it is in Tempest-Tost at its end. Except that in truth it isn’t the end: Robertson Davies’ conjured his spirits back into existence for the sequels Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties.

Robertson Davies, born 28th August 1913, died 3rd December 1995

A piece for Reading Robertson Davies, an event run by Lory at Emerald City Book Review

34 thoughts on “Shadow play

    1. Compared to the Deptford novels this at first felt less focused, more insubstantial and, dare I say, rather undramatic — but I’m so glad I persevered, Gert, and saw some of the subtleties beneath the nose-tweaking of small-town characters.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks as always for your brilliant contribution, Chris! I’m glad you enjoyed this and that you’ll pursue more Davies. This is perhaps a weaker novel but I still love it as it was my own introduction to his work. A Mixture of Frailties is my favorite of the trilogy.

    I’m sure Atwood was aware of the book but I wonder if she had it consciously in mind when she did her own quite different take on the story. It would be interesting to know.

    I love your assessment of how each actor is really playing a different part. I think you’re quite correct in this and it’s one of Davies’s main points in his novels, how each of us may not be playing the part we think we are, and that leads to gaffes and foolishness. Those characters who come to deeper self-knowledge are in a way the ones who discover their true “part” in life and play it well.

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    1. I think I may gravitate to the Atwood soon, Lory, as I’m just rereading Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly set during … a theatre production. That play-within-a-play aspect, like ‘The Mousetrap’ in Hamlet, is an eternally fascinating conceit: even the lyrics of ‘Penny Lane’ allude to it: “And though she feels as if she’s in a play | She is anyway…”

      Anyway, I’m so glad you introduced me to Robertson Davies, Lory — not least because of the Welsh connection! — and this certainly won’t be the last of his works I’ll read: after this trilogy there’s the Cornish sequence and the unfinished final trilogy to go. And the other writings… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I read another Crispin but not that one, I’ll have to check it out. I love backstage stories! And another Canadian author I believe has a debt to Davies is Alan Bradley – read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and tell me if you don’t think that Flavia and Fredegonde are sisters under the skin!

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  2. I loved remembering the novel through what you say about it, especially the part about the three uses for books, “their essential use for reading purposes; their usefulness as a gesture; and their value as commodities.”

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    1. I thought Davies was clever to bring this out in his otherwise obscure episode of the rare editions being auctioned and the reactions of Freddy, Hector and the mystery bidder. It’s a perennial issue: does value reside exclusively in an object’s function, in the emotions invested in it, or in its monetary worth? This episode at first felt intrusive to the plot but I guess it was there as a focus on the nature of authenticity, which one could say is a thread running through the novel.

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  3. This,

    And, surprisingly for such a large cast of characters, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who is who because Davies has, dare I say, quite a bitchy way of describing individuals so that they immediately stand out in one’s mind.

    speaks well of this novel.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is one of the Davies trilogies I’ve not read anything from. Thank you for the crib sheet. It’s lovely to have a few pointers about sources and nuances.

    I’ve just moved Tempest-Tost up my wish-list, but it will have to wait until I’ve read the essays, which Lory’s reading weekend prompted me to into – such a joy!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cath! Pointers are what I aim to provide in these reviews (any spoilers I leave to discussion posts) so I’m glad mine have done their job. 😊

      I read Lory’s thoughtful crit (from last year, I think) about Davies’s non-fiction pieces and thought I’d leave them till I’d completed the fiction — I got the impression that a lot of his foibles and prejudices, which can be amusing and witty in a novel, are more uncomfortable reading in essay form and letters. Knowing an author has feet of clay can colour one’s response to their fiction, and I’d rather enjoy the novels without distractedly squirming in my seat!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm, you might have a point about those non-fiction pieces. I’ve only read the first of them, and I’ve still got several novels I’m looking forwards to. Thanks for the hint, Chris.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I have to put in a word for the essays vs. the letters here, I do not think they will spoil your enjoyment of the novels but greatly enhance it. If I had been Davies’s editor, I would have thought twice about publishing some of the letters she did — they were not after all intended for publication. (That’s what the title, For Your Eye Alone, meant!) The essays are far more thoughtful and considered.

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            1. Fair enough, Lory, I think I may have in my mind amalgamated Lizzie’s review of the letters with one I think you did of the essays. But I still think the essays may have to wait till I get a few more novels under my belt! Also sometime after this year I may explore Montgomeryshire (it’s only the northern part of Powys, while I live in the far southeast of the county) and maybe even get to visit Fronfraith, the property owned by Robertson’s Welsh father Rupert.

              Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, I do hope you get round to reading this, it’s great fun! There’s a UK troupe called Mischief Theatre who specialise in metafictional farce, in which everything that can go wrong in a play does indeed, and that’s the case with this Salterton amateur production of The Tempest.

      By the way, Mischief Theatre is best known for ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’, if you didn’t already know:


  5. Thank you for your insights about how Davies names his characters!

    I noticed that several characters other than Vambrace are also named for pieces of armor. Deeper meaning, or just the young(ish) Davies drawing on those terms for handy names?

    Mr. Vambrace and family–named after a piece of armor for the arm.

    Roger Tasset–a “tasset” is a piece of armor protecting the waist and thighs. (Appropriate for Roger, given his preoccupation with that part of the body?)

    Mrs. Pauldron–a pauldron is a term for shoulder armor.

    There are likely more, but that’s all I can remember right now…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just looked at Chapter 1 and found one more more “armor” name: Mrs. Sollerett (a sollerett is the metal “shoe” of a suit of armor). I think that’s all of them, though 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well, I guessed that Davies didn’t choose his characters’ names at random but I hadn’t really gone into all the origins of the supporting cast’s names, Erik, so this is enlightening and fascinating!

      I suppose the question we need to ask, which you do in fact consider, is why this rigorous allusion to armour? I suppose it is an indication of a provincial chauvinism, perhaps, a deep-rooted need to protect one’s self-image and beliefs from being questioned or criticised? Or just Davies being playful? After all, his father came from the Welsh border with England and knew all about the little love that could be lost when a bigger neighbour threatened or at least looked down on a culture?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The references to armor do seem to support your suggestion–and maybe to chivalry too? Tom Gwalchmai, jealous protector/trimmer of all things green in the Websters’ garden, is named for the Welsh version of Sir Gawain, who of course lopped off the Green Knight’s head.

    As for Canadian resentment of English condescension, there’s a wonderful bit somewhere in one of Davies’ books, wherein a Canadian bitterly notes that a fellow Canadian’s English obituary (or newspaper writeup, I forget which) says that he “went to school in Canada” but “was educated in England.”

    Liked by 1 person

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