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”.‘Tempest-Tost’
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.
“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.