A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books, 2011.
Monica had heard all her life that Opportunity knocks but once. But when Opportunity knocks, the sound can bring your heart into your mouth.Chapter Seven
Young singer Monica Gall is at the core of this novel but, as with all the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (this is the sixth), there is a lot more to his narrative than – in this case – the musical education of an ingénue. The wider aspects of Davies’s mise-en-scène is equally important to him, as it must therefore be for the reader.
Thus the framing device involves a perverse Last Will read in Salterton, Ontario where the previous two instalments of the trilogy take place; as well as a cast of diverse characters we encounter many of Davies’s recurring literary motifs – literature of course, and drama, but also music, pedagogy, Europe, illusion, guilt, humour; and, rambling though the plot may feel at times, there is a sureness of touch and clarity of vision that comes from an author who knows why he wants to say.
And why does he want to say? The novel’s title comes from a passage written by George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century: in it Lord Halifax counsels a softening of personal arrogance and condemnation of others by remembrance of one’s own faults, one’s personal frailties: “they pull our Rage by the sleeve and whisper Gentleness to us in our censures.” And this is Davies’s theme too, the hauptstimme of the final part of his Salterton trilogy: temper judgement with compassion.
Following the end of Leaven of Malice (1954), in which Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Veronica Vambrace seemingly overcome family displeasure at their union, A Mixture of Frailties reveals that all is not over: Solly’s mother has her revenge with a will denying her son his substantial inheritance until a son is produced; until then a trust is to be set up to provide a generous arts bursary for a young Canadian to develop their talents in Europe. Mrs Bridgetower’s arrogant nature in life thus persists with the Dead Hand of her Will, setting up a change of focus in the person of a vapid Monica Gall and a change of scene to Europe, principally in London, North Wales, Paris and Venice.
To say this novel is essentially a bildungsroman is to vastly simplify Davies’s accomplishment, but it’s true that we witness the growing pains of Monica Gall as she is tutored by a number of specialists, mainly in music but also in matters of manners and style; you’d have to be hardhearted not to feel for this small-town innocent plucked from one environment and thrown willy-nilly into the maelström of European capitals and country houses. All of Davies’s own interests and talents are on show here: we have his theatrical nous to the fore with performances in the Albert Hall, Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, the Wigmore Hall, Venice’s La Fenice and elsewhere in Trallwn and Salterton described in detail; we are made aware of diction and voice production, musical genres and literary classics, national traits and prejudices; we are also reminded of his own Welsh roots with references to “Trallwm” (a thinly disguised Welshpool, Y Trallwng in Wesh) and Neuadd Goch, the “Red Hall” modelled on Fronfraith Hall, the one-time family home near Montgomery in Powys that Davies knew well.
There are a couple of other themes that he plays with, apart from that longing for Wales and for home known in Welsh as hiraeth. They are I suppose quintessentially what makes us human – an appreciation of love and death, and the symbols that we form to stand for such ineffable things.
“There are, the world over, only two important political parties — the people who are for life, and the people who are against it. Most people are born one or the other, though there are a few here and there who change their coats. You know about Eros and Thanatos?” — Sir Benedict Domdaniel.Chapter Four
Davies knew that Freud added to his conception of the pleasure principle, Eros, that of Thanatos or Death, which to him symbolised aggression and a tendency towards self-destructiveness. While Monica – whose name resonates with ‘harmony’ despite its unrelated etymology – represents aspects of Eros, one of her teachers, Giles Revelstoke, forms the counterpart of Thanatos. Out of these opposing roles comes much of the later action, but of course it is the lack of love in the late Mrs Bridgetower that signals the presence of Death which both stalks and bookends the novel.
The other theme I detect is symbolism, and it’s the one with which I shall close this overview. One of Davies’s many skills is to create memorable and credible characters – A Mixture of Frailties is replete with them – but I can’t help but notice the fun he has with the naming of individuals. Milder than Dickens’s or Peake’s outrageously descriptive names, his nevertheless are mostly carefully chosen to add distinctiveness to his players while giving a clue to their nature. Not quite nominative-deterministic but certainly characteristic, they help breathe life into individuals we feel we may recognise if we had bumped into them in the street.
Ripon solemnly removed his hat. “This is a sacred moment,” said he [to Monica]. “Sacred to me, anyhow, as a student of literature. You have just made the great discovery that behind every symbol there is a reality.”Chapter Six
With such wisdom comes Davies’s wit, and mastery of words, dialogue and inner monologue in different voices. Being a musician myself, I see the author’s novels as symphonic in scope and operatic in style; if you like such musical forms you may well enjoy his fiction.
Canadian author Robertson Davies (d 1985) was born 28th August 1913. Lory of Enter the Enchanted Castle initiated a Reading Robertson Davies Week focused around this date to celebrate his work and so I’m aiming to read one of his works every August for the foreseeable future
As the Canadian-born son of a Welshman from Welshpool, Davies was deeply aware of his roots, even living some years at Fronfraith Hall, Montgomeryshire in his late twenties. Some historical details of the house’s ownership find their way into thes pages of the novel