Discoveries: Early Letters 1938-1975
On his publishers: They are so insufferably pretentious in theory and such botchers in practice.
On his role as Master: God, how I loathe the young. Do you suppose we were such grasping, crooked, self-important cabbageheads as these?
On projected BBC radio talks: They want me to give Marchbanks’ impressions of Britain. They seem to have some notion that I am a newcomer to these shores, chewing tobacco and swinging my lariat as I gape at the sights. I shall strive to oblige.
Robertson Davies was 25 and a student at Oxford when these letters begin. By the end of the book, in 1975, he has become the magisterial author of the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders.
The letters show us his career in all its variety. He was – among other things – an actor at the Old Vic in London, a newspaperman in Peterborough, Ontario, and a playwright who writes despairingly that “I am getting to hate and despise actors more every day.” A surprising theme is his constant disappointment with his achievements. Although happily married with three daughters, the editor of a respected newspaper, a major national book reviewer, and the author of several well-received plays and half a dozen books, he feels that he has failed. Even when in 1961 he switches careers to become the founding Master of Massey College and to teach Drama at the University of Toronto his doubts persist. It is only in the later years that he begins to sense that his life has not been wasted.
The book’s greatest charm, however, lies in his letters to the great (letters to H.L. Mencken, Alfred Knopf, Hugh Maclennan, Tyrone Guthrie, Margaret Laurence, among others) and to the not-so-great – like the arrogant applicant for a job at his newspaper who received blistering advice on professionalism. All are written with great style appropriate to the occasion. For above all Robertson Davies was a professional. His astonishingly revealing letters show a promising young man turning into a great literary figure.