A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

If nothing had happened by the end of the coming week, she would get a job. Probably it would have to be dish-washing, or something of that sort; so much an outcast did she now feel that she could not conceive of getting the sort of clerical work she had done at home. In time — perhaps in two or three years — she would be able to scrape up enough money to go home, if the disgrace were not too great. Monica Gall, who was taken in by that crooked Bridgetower crowd — who had the nerve to think she could sing!

By this time her cold was much worse, and she had an ugly sore on her upper lip.

But on the Tuesday of the fourth week, Mrs Merry hooted refinedly up the stair-well that she was wanted on the telephone. It was Mr Boykin.

“Well, Miss Gall, how is it going?” said he. “Hope you didn’t think we’d forgotten all about you? Ha ha. Takes a little time to get an answer from Canada. But we now have the go-ahead on the extra furniture for you, and Mr Andrews suggests that I go with you to one of the second-hand shops in King’s Road and see what we can do. Would this afternoon be convenient? Sure you’ve nothing else on? Very well; perhaps you’ll make a sort of tentative list of what you’ll be wanting. Oh, and Sir Benedict is now back from Manchester, and he says we may as well have the piano sent around at once, as you’ll be wanting one. And he can see you next Friday at three-thirty, if you’ve nothing else to do at that time. His house is in Dean’s Yard, Westminster. I’d be very punctual, if I were you; he’s put off someone else in order to fit you in. ‘Til this afternoon then.”


“Why do you want to be a singer?” said Sir Benedict.

Monica blushed, and held a handkerchief to the coldsore on her lip. “I’m sorry to waste your time like this,” said she; “it’s just that I’ve such an awful cold I can hardly make a sound. I’m awfully sorry.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that. Of course you’re terribly roopy; I just wanted to remind myself of what you sound like. But what I meant was, what’s behind all this? Here you are, and these people in Canada are prepared to spend a great deal of money on your teaching. Is there something special about you? Why do you want to sing?”

“I want to be an artist.”


“Well — because it’s a fine thing to be.”


“Because — because it makes you a fine person, and you can help people.”


“You bring great music to them. You sort of — enrich their lives, and make them better.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“It’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”

“I really don’t know. Is it?”

“Well that’s what art is for, isn’t it? To make people better? I mean, you give people art, and it raises them up, and they see things differently, and it — it sort of –”

“I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but perhaps you are trying to say that it refines them.”

“Well; yes, really.”

“Has it refined and enriched you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re not sure?”

“I’m not very good at it, yet.”

“But you think you’ll be good at it if you have instruction?”

“Yes. I mean — well, yes.”


“I hope I have some talent.”

“Don’t you know?”

“It’s not a thing you can very well say about yourself.”


“Well — it sounds like blowing your own horn.”

“And why shouldn’t you blow your own horn?”

“You’re not supposed to.”

“You mean that you have travelled three thousand miles, at the expense of these people in your home town, to study singing under my guidance, and yet you think it indelicate to tell me, of all people, that you have talent.”

“It’s really for you to decide that, isn’t it?”

“Partly. But you ought to know yourself.”

“Well then, I think I have talent. And I want to sing more than anything else in the world.”

“That’s better. But I wonder if you’ll think that when you’re fifty. It’s a dog’s life, you know, even if you do well at it. But there; you see you’ve got me talking silly now. Every old hand tells every novice that a life in music is a dog’s life. It’s not really true. If you’re a musician that’s all there is to it; there’s no real life for you apart from it. Now listen: I haven’t been bullying you like this just for fun: I’ve been trying to find out what you’re up to. All I know at present is that you have a pretty fair little voice — good enough among several hundred others just as good. What training will do still remains to be seen. But unless you have some honest appraisal of yourself you haven’t much chance. And all that appears now is that you think you have some talent, and are bashful about saying so: you want to sing, with some vague notion of benefiting mankind in general, and raising people a little above the mire of total depravity in which God has placed them. What do you want out of it for yourself?”

“I hadn’t thought much about that.”

“Little liar! Now, answer me honestly: haven’t you had day-dreams in which you see yourself as a great singer, sought after and courted, popular and rich — probably with handsome men breaking their necks to get into your bed?”

Monica blushed deeply, and was silent. None of her day-dreams had ever included bed.

“You see! I was right. In your heart of hearts you think of singing as a form of power: and you’ve got more common sense in your heart of hearts than you have on that smarmy little tongue of yours. You’re right; singing is a form of power — power of different kinds. Singing as a form of sexual allurement — there’s nothing wrong with that. Very natural, indeed: every real man responds to the woman with the golden, squalling, cat-like note, and every real woman longs to hurl herself at the cock-a-doodling tenor or the bellowing bass. Part of Nature’s Great Plan. But sex-shouting’s a trap, too. At fifty, your golden squall becomes a bad joke. What then? Teaching? If you’re not born to it — and few of the sex-shouters are — it’s a dog’s life; pupils are fatheads, most of ’em. Are you trying for — well, when you’re trained — a possible twenty-five years of that kind of glory? Because it is glory, you know — real glory.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Not refined enough? Well, there’s another kind of singing. The technique is the same, but the end is different. It depends on what you have in your head and your imagination; it means being a kind of bard, who reveals the life that lies in a great music and poetry. You use your voice to give delight. That’s what music used to be for, you know — to capture the beauty and delight that people found in life. But then the Romantics came along and turned it all upside down; they made music a way of churning up emotions in people that they hadn’t felt before. Music ceased to be a distilment of life and became, for a lot of people, a substitute for life — a substitute for a sea-voyage, or the ecstasies of sainthood, or being raped by a cannibal king, or even for an hour with a psychoanalyst or a good movement of the bowels. And a whole class of people arose who thought themselves music-lovers, but who were really sensation-lovers. Not that I’m a hundred per cent against the Romantics — just against the people who think that Romanticism is all there is of music. Well, there are the two kinds of singing. The sexual singer is, in pretty nearly all respects, the greater of the two, just as a mountain torrent is necessarily a greater force than the most beautiful of fountains: when she sings, she’s a potent enchantress, and the music is merely the broomstick on which she flies. With the bardic singer, the music comes first, and self quite a long way second. Now: which sort of singing appeals to you?”

“Oh, the second, of course. The — bardic kind.”

“If you really mean that, I think the less of you for it. Far better to set out aiming as high as you can, and killing yourself to be one of the big, adored, sexy squallers. It argues more real vitality and gumption in you. Still, I don’t trust you to know what you want. You’re too full of a desire to please — not to please me, but to please your family, or your schoolteachers, or those people — the What’s Its Name Trust — who are paying the shot for you. Those people never want you to have great ambitions or strong, consuming passions. They want you to be refined — which means predictable, stable, controlled, always choos­ing the smallest cake on the plate, never breaking wind audibly, being a good loser — in a word, dead. I admit that the world couldn’t function properly without its legions of nice, refined, passionless living dead, but there is no room for them in the arts. So we’ll see what you are after you’ve had a few months of work. At the moment you’re just a nice girl with pots of money to spend on training. So let’s get to work.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson