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