Unhallowed eve

Robertson Davies

Leaven of Malice
by Robertson Davies,
in the Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1954).

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November…

Salterton, Ontario, 31st October 1949. An apparently innocuous announcement of an engagement appears in the Salterton paper The Bellman, but it will function like yeast in dough: once the fermentation process starts the components cannot be separated out. It turns out that ferment indeed is the purpose of the notice, the leaven that instigates the action, but whose is the malice that lies behind it, what is their motivation, and do they truly know how far the mixture will rise?

The second of Robertson Davies’s instalments in his Salterton Trilogy brings in some of the characters from the first, but it works equally well in isolation. We are given a picture of the bourgeoisie of a fictional provincial Canadian Town, one blessed with university, cathedral and an independent press, with most of the cast of characters acquainted with each other by name or in person. In such a seething cauldron the chances of submerged rivalries and hurt egos bubbling to the surface are infinite, and so it proves.

Despite the character list approaching (as I estimate) fifty individuals the main actors in Leaven of Malice are easy to distinguish, and what soon emerges as a comedy of manners manages also to be crime fiction without a murder, a courtroom drama without a court, a romance where dislike doesn’t run smooth, and a Halloween tale where some ghosts are eventually laid to rest.

On the 31st October the Dean of Salterton’s Cathedral is apprised of Halloween shenanigans in the church, instigated by one of the cathedral’s musicians. Gloster Ridley, editor of The Bellman, discovers on the first day of November that the engagement announced in the previous evening’s edition, between Pearl Veronica Vambrace and Solly Bridgetower, not only had the marriage taking place on the impossible date of 31st November but that it was a malicious hoax perpetrated by an unknown individual.

Together these incidents rouse the ire of a number of Salterton’s self-appointed custodians of the city’s morals: the busybody Miss Pottinger, Matthew Snelgrove the cathedral’s chancellor and an established lawyer, and Professor Vambrace, the very aggrieved father of the alleged bride-to-be. Snelgrove and Vambrace aim to take the Bellman to court for libel, and Miss Pottinger has convinced herself of the identity of the guilty party who maliciously placed the advertisement; meanwhile the editor’s attempts to discover who the perpetrator was meet with a blank wall.

As November draws on matters start to get impossibly complicated, drawing in incidental actors from the university, the cathedral, the newspaper, the legal profession and wider social circles in Salterton. Amongst the action two strands constantly hove in and out of view: where does the malice truly reside, in those responsible for the false announcement, or those who pursue personal vendettas while claiming the moral high ground? And the two supposed innocents caught up in the case, why do so few people consider whether they have been libelled, and why? Until the true perpetrator is found the caucus race continues apace.

Apart from a complex but satisfying plot much of the joy comes in the merciless, almost forensic, depiction of character, a dissection almost approaching parodic proportions of small-town personal politics. For example, Matthew Snelgrove

presented, in himself, one of those interesting and not infrequent cases in which Nature imitates Art. In the nineteenth century it appears that many lawyers were dry and fusty men, of formal manner and formal dress, who carried much of the deportment of the courtroom into private life. And Matthew Snelgrove […] seized upon this lawyer-like shell eagerly, and made it his own. Through the years he perfected his impersonation until […] he was not only a lawyer in reality, but also a lawyer in a score of stagey mannerisms…

Chapter Two

Pearl Vambrace, one of the injured party, is having a disagreeable discussion with Solly Bridgetower, the other injured party to whom she has been forcibly but wrongly linked; Solly says to her,

“Didn’t it occur to you that I might want to contradict that notice?”
“Surely I am the one that’s been dragged into this mess.”
“Why you more than me?”
“Because—” Pearl was about to say “because I’m a girl,” but she felt that such a reason would not do for the twentieth century.

Chapter Three

While Pearl develops self-awareness for herself others, such as her pompous and precipitate professor father, may have to have self-awareness forced upon them as the comedy plays itself out.

What particularly helps to make this novel so delicious is the knowledge that the author was fully aware of all the situational comedy he described: with experience of the theatre, of academic life, of newspapers, of literature, and being an enthusiastic student of human nature, he ensured that the ins and outs of his set pieces allow us to suspend any disbelief that so much folly could abound within such frail creatures. Typical of his many jokes is the name of the paper: The Bellman takes its title from the late medieval figure of the town-crier, but it is also a synonym for a gossip. And of course a large proportion of the novel’s machinations can be attributed to the influence of the town’s gossips. Additionally, we are introduced to a certain Bevill Higgin, an English elocution teacher, who though insisting there is no ‘s’ in his surname inevitably brings to mind a certain professor of phonetics in Shaw’s Pygmalion; there, however, the resemblances end.

Preceding this novel is Tempest-Tost in which several of the dramatis personae here are involved in a stormy amateur production of a Shakespeare comedy. While there are no staged theatrics this time Davies has a gentle side-swipes at Victorian poet Charles Heavysege, a Canadian immigrant from Huddersfield on whose work Solly Bridgetower has been considering basing his academic reputation. Though Solly is impressed by Heavysege’s doggerel (such as the example that follows) I can’t help but imagine the author enjoying describing an academic desperately staking his reputation on a writer of turgid poesy.

“Man is a pipe that life doth smoke
As saunters it the earth about;
And when ’tis wearied of the joke,
Death comes and knocks the ashes out.”

Charles Heavysege

Davies followed up this instalment with A Mixture of Frailties, part of which is set in North Wales where, as with Leaven of Malice, he brought personal experience to bear: he came from Welsh stock himself. I shall of course be expecting more wit and insights into the human condition in my reading of this final volume.


Lory at Entering the Enchanted Castle inaugurated the Reading Robertson Davies week a couple or so years back, to coincide with the anniversary of his birth. Robertson Davies, 28th August 1913 — 2nd December 1995

30 thoughts on “Unhallowed eve

  1. Oh, another wonderful Davies! I must read another of his novels, and this trilogy seems to offer a perfect mixture of character study, mystery, and social commentary spiced with gentle (or not) humor. Thanks for the recommendation, Chris!

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    1. I’m almost tempted to launch straight into the third instalment, Ola, but I really want to eke out the enjoyment—though I possibly mayn’t wait till August 2022 for the pleasure of reconnecting with these frail egos, their neuroses, and their unexpected victories! A good series to read I think if you want to be distracted for a while from depressing world news.

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    1. This was the first trilogy he wrote, Mallika, one in which he took delight in gentle mickeytaking of the various professions and communities he had been involved with up till then. The Deptford Trilogy, written two decades later, is a much grittier read but also very satisfying to read; I suppose it’ll depend on what mood you’d prefer which of the two trilogies you pick up—I’ve found both so far equally good but in different ways.

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    1. It’s alright, Gert, I do a silent correct whenever it’s obvious, and I knew what you meant! On the other hand, commenters I don’t respect (because of their unpleasant views, their language or their tone) I don’t silently correct, leaving their shameful, hate-filled and, especially, their ungrammatical spew on show to all the world. Before they’re deleted or blocked. So, breathe again! 🙂

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  2. This is precisely why the “small town” can be such a fascinating setting for some mystery and intrigue. You can’t escape the gossip of a small town–you either tell it or ARE it. And the characters of a small town do tend to stand out a bit more, I think, because they can’t blend in with anyone. And any power move may seem petty to an outsider, but the standards of power in a small town can be quite different…albeit with consequences of the same, terrible impact…

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    1. This is precisely why and how what you describe works so well here, I think, Jean. The dynamics of power are especially complicated when different institutions (church, the legal profession, the press, higher education, as here) are involved and groups as well as individuals are vying to be top dog.

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  3. You’ve reminded me that I still need to read the second book in the Deptford Trilogy. I had it ready to start a while ago, then got distracted by other books. I’ll look forward to exploring the other trilogies eventually too!

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    1. The Manticore almost feels like Davies has embarked on a different trilogy at the start, Helen, so beware of a bit of initial disorientation! But it soon begins to relate to Fifth Business when the connections get clearer. I do hope you’ll get into it soon!

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  4. I found another deeply meaningful Heavysege verse. This is so true.

    “Life is a path that we must tread
    Up and down and round the bend.
    It’s like a book we have not read
    Full of promise just like a friend.”

    It reminds me a little of some of the juvenalia of C.Elwydd Abel Prentiss which also was often imbued with that resonant tone of moral philosophy.

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    1. Heavysege’s moralising is a very close relative to Forrest Gump’s, is it not? Forrest’s chocolate metaphor for life makes me squirm as much as Heavysege’s commonplace life-as-a-path metamorphing into a book and then a friend. Now you’ve got me intrigued with your reference to Elwydd Abel Prentiss and his juvenilia, as if I hadn’t enough else to concern myself with! 🙂

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  5. I love his books (and his essays!), I was going to “do” him next year but I’ve picked Larry McMurtry instead as he’s easier to organise (I did one of the trilogies fairly recently so do I leave that out, put some years in between, etc., etc???)

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    1. If you’re referring to the Reading Robertson Davies tag I think the idea is that you read whatever you like, whenever you like, or whether you read him at all! I’m just grateful to have an excuse (or rather a focus) to read his work, and pleased I’ve still got the Cornish Trilogy to come, plus the standalones and the essays! That should keep me going for a bit…

      Larry McMurtry is an unfamiliar name to me—should I be concerned? 🙂

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      1. Oh, no, I was going to do RD for my year or more challenge once I’d finished Anne Tyler as I like to have something ongoing in the background. Larry M is known for Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show, he did popular novels but extremely well, almost reportage in style and I adore his work.

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        1. At least I’ve heard of those titles, and watched two of them as screen adaptations! I see he died only this year — I can see he must have been a significant figure with a body of work like that.

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  6. I see I’ve gotten you well and truly hooked and I couldn’t be happier! Enjoy your next trip to Daviesland. It starts in Salterton but goes off in quite a different direction (escape from small town Canada) so no need to hurry, if you want to pace yourself.

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    1. I hope in the next instalment we get to see the part of Wales that RD’s father came from (and where RD spent his honeymoon, I believe) — I’ve already spotted some Welsh when having a quick thumb-through. I suspect I shall get to A Mixture of Frailties well before next August! 🙂

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      1. I don’t remember much about Wales in A Mixture of Frailties, alhough the character Giles Revelstoke is based on the composer Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), who was raised in Wales when his mother remarried. Actually I think I do recall a scene where they visited his family home, but it’s not out of Davies’s own Welsh heritage. For that, you’ll want to read Murther and Walking Spirits, which he based largely on his family history. I’m sure you’ll get to it in time!

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        1. Yay, so much still to explore and enjoy! I’m so grateful you introduced me to his works, Lory, you’ve no idea how much I’m getting out of even the lighter stuff like this trilogy.

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  7. JJ Lothin

    Well, yet another interesting-sounding writer you’ve introduced me to that I’d never heard of! I’ve downloaded a Kindle sample to give him a whirl …

    Liked by 1 person

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