The author’s fancy

Cover designs for three of Robertson Davies’s trilogies published by Penguin Books

The Salterton Trilogy
by Robertson Davies.
Penguin Books 2011 (1986).

People who do not know Salterton repeat a number of half-truths about it. They call it dreamy and old-world; they say that it is at anchor in the stream of time. […] And, sooner or later, they speak of it as “quaint”.


Set largely in a small town in Ontario around the 1950s, Robertson Davies’s Salterton Trilogy included his earliest novels, but far from being in any way gauche they seem to spring fully-formed and masterly from his imagination.

Along with his experience of the theatre, academic life, newspapers and literature he brought to his fiction a sharp insight into human nature and of life, whether provincial or metropolitan, and garnished his narratives with both caustic wit and compassion.

Robertson Davies, 1913–1985

“Readers who think that they can identify the creations of the author’s fancy among their own acquaintance are paying the author an extravagant compliment, which he acknowledges with gratitude.”

Epigraph to ‘Tempest-Tost’

Tempest-Tost (1951) is based around an amateur open-air performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in summer, and was itself originally conceived as a stage comedy before being novelised. Leaven of Malice (1954) features many of the same characters but its action is precipitated by a fake marriage announcement in a Salterton paper at Halloween. Key events in A Mixture of Frailties (1958) is focused on the adventures of a young Salterton singer in Europe following the death of a Salterton matriarch around Christmas, and on the terms of the deceased woman’s spiteful will.

The first two novels are naturally quite theatrical, especially with regard to dialogue and interactions and potential stage business, while the last instalment, much the longest of the trio, is less stagey but equally anchored to performance – in this case punctuted by recitals, choral concerts and operatic presentations.

There is so much to enjoy in this small-town triptych, and much to distinguish it from the more wide-ranging Deptford Trilogy. Thank goodness I’ve still got the Cornish Trilogy to read, plus a couple of novels which had yet to reach trilogy status before Davies died – I would miss my annual fill of fiction from this Canadian man of letters.

Having recently read the final part of this trilogy I thought it was worth an overview of the sequence before I move on to the next one-volume trilogy.

24 thoughts on “The author’s fancy

    1. I agree, the Deptford novels were a fine introduction to his writing, full of allusions and illusions, psychological depths and psychic sparks. The Salterton books, his first trilogy, are no way as dark, more comedies of manners and errors but still displaying pyrotechnic effects; very likely an entertaining beach read! I’m not sure what to expect from the Cornish Trilogy though, other than religion is involved.

      Yes, that is one fine beard. I once, a few decades ago, was able to start plaiting mine but now I keep it short enough to still cover my unimpressive chin


    1. Good to know that the Cornish Trilogy clearly is of a standard to impress and encourage you to seek out the others, Lisa, so thank you. 🙂 The Salterton books are marvellous too, a smart commentary on small town foibles, while the Deptford trio are more intense and wide-ranging, which appealed to me at the time.


  1. I love this trilogy and have read it twice. I was going to have year of re-reading RD then really wanted to do Larry McMurtry this year and had read one of the Saltertons quite recently; it’s something I still plan to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Which two trilogies, Karen? Though I started with Deptfords the Saltertons are I think an easier way in, depending on one’s mood. Take the plunge, I really believe his fiction is right up your street – playful and whimsical, intelligent and at times abrasive – he really is in total command of his story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m looking forward to reading these, but first I need to finish the Deptford Trilogy! I enjoyed Fifth Business but it’s been more than two years since I read it and I’m hoping I can get into the second book without needing to re-read the first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Davies cunningly made Manticore feel unrelated to Fifth Business until the reader starts to make the connections, so I don’t think you’ll need to reread the first.


  3. You always make this author sound so appealing – so much so that I added Fifth Business to my new Classics Club list based on your review! Now all I have to do is get around to reading it… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An author definitely worth investigation, Emma! And the symmetry in the Penguin edition covers sort of match the satisfying composition that Davies did so well – what may appear a rambling narrative suddenly gains form and logical balance.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read most of Davies’ books in the 1990s, including all of the trilogies, but he is an author I’d like to re-read. I just need to stop buying pesky new books and getting sidetracked from revisiting them (and the rest of my TBR).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you’re doubtless finding out, this Sisyphean struggle gets harder the older you get as the to-be-reread pile increases and vies with the shiny new books and the magically expanding TBR. Worth the struggle though, isn’t it! I’m hanging on to our Davies trilogies in the vain hopes I’ll be up for revisiting them in my eighties or nineties…

      Liked by 1 person

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