A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

By the following Sunday, when all the papers which might be expected to say anything about The Discoverie had made their appear­ance, there was a creditable total of seven notices. They ranged from two brief, cautious comments on the quality of performance through four others, which were complimentary in a pleasant but unimport­ant fashion about the work itself, assuring the public that Giles was “promising” and “original” and that his score was “musicianly”. But the longest, and most impressive, in the most influential of the Sunday journals, was the one by Stanhope Aspinwall.

It would have delighted most composers. It treated The Discoverie of Witchcraft seriously, complimented Giles on the fine sense of form which it revealed, praised the splendid melodic gift which Domdaniel had mentioned, and also called attention to the inferiority of the purely instrumental passages, though it said that they were interest­ingly laid out for the small group of instruments used. But it was the two final paragraphs which made Giles angry. They read:

“In spite of the high quality of the work as a whole, and the brilliance of many pages, the hearer who hopes for great things from Mr Revelstoke may be disturbed by a quality in The Discoverie of Witchcraft which can only be called ‘literary’. The choice of theme is strongly romantic, and none the worse for that — but it is a literary form of romance. The portions of the text which are not by Ben Jonson are drawn from two seventeenth-century books on witchcraft which have no particular grace of style but which have, from time to time, roused the enthusiasm of amateurs of literary curiosa. Even the skill of the musical treatment of this matter cannot persuade us to take the theme — witchcraft — seriously. In another composer this would cause no concern; we should be sure that he would grow out of it. But Mr Revelstoke is known — indeed, principally known, at present — to the musical world as a musical journalist. Though musical gifts and literary skill have often gone hand in hand there comes a time when one or the other must take the lead. Mr Revelstoke will forgive me if I point out that, as Schumann, Berlioz and Debussy in their time had to give up their avocation as writers to embrace their fate as composers, that time has also come to him. In brief, he must give up what he does well and devote himself to what he does best.

“What he does best is to match fine poetry with eloquent, graceful and seemingly inevitable melody. The cantata form of the composition under review is commandingly used, and it is this sense of drama, even more than the lyric passages, which make Discoverie an important new work; there is a foreshadowing here of that rare creature, a real composer of opera. But Mr Revelstoke must find his way toward opera not through his present literary enthusiasms, but by clearing the literary rubbish from the springs of his musical inspiration.”

“But it’s a rave, old man,” said Bun Eccles when he had read it. “You said he’d given you a rocket, but it’s a rave! He says you’re marvel­lous, and all you’ve got to do to be twice as marvellous is to get down to work. Cor stone the bleedin’ rooks, you don’t know what a bad notice is! Why, I’ve seen chaps — painters — really chewed up in the papers; told to go and find some honest, obscure work, and trouble the world no more — that kind of thing. I don’t understand what’s eating you.”

“I will not be school-mastered, and lectured, and ticked off by Mr Bloody Aspinwall,” said Revelstoke. “I will not be told to stop writing criticism of critics by a critic. I will not be known-best-about by a man who knows nothing of me except what he reads in Lantern.”

“He just wants to shut you up,” said Persis. “You’ve probably exposed him so often as an incompetent that he’s taken this way of revenging himself. You’re dead right, Giles; you’d be a fool to pay any attention.”

This was the opinion of Tuke and Tooley, as well. They did not want Giles to lose his enthusiasm for Lantern. They knew that if he withdrew from the magazine it could not survive another issue, for not only did he supply the workroom and most of the enthusiasm, but he also supplied Monica, whose secretarial work had made the production of the magazine much easier.

“Of course you have it all your own way,” said Tuke; “you have only to reply to this in Lantern, and that will be the end of Mr Aspinwall. It will be one of the few times when a creative artist has been able to answer a critic quickly and finally.”

Monica could understand nothing of this. She thought Aspinwall’s notice wonderful. And when she found opportunity, she looked through the back numbers of Lantern, and found no attack upon that critic whatever from Giles’ hand. What she did find, in an early copy, was a suggestion in one of Giles’ articles that he admired Aspinwall’s judgement alone among the London critics of the day. It made no sense to her. Giles’ ravings against Aspinwall seemed sheer perversity.

But she did not say so. A week, during which their intimacy had grown every day, had taught her that contradiction was not the way to reach Revelstoke’s heart, or his head. He could not bear to be crossed in anything. He could only be reasoned with about matters which were of no importance to him. And so she kept silent about what she thought until she had either ceased to think it, or had banished her disagreement to the depths of her mind, as disloyalty. She did not join very readily in the general condemnation of Aspinwall; she did not, as the witty Persis did, refer to him always by an obscenity which somewhat resembled his name; she did not speak as though he were an enemy of everything that the Lantern group stood for. She had resolved that she would not try to make Giles anything other than what he was. And her compliance was showing results.

“Quite plainly there is a new maîtresse en litre,” said Tuke to Tooley one day as they climbed the stairs. And Bridget Tooley, who had already changed her attitude toward Persis, marvelled once again at how long it took even Phanuel Tuke to see what a woman saw at once.


The word “mistress”, insofar as she had thought of it at all, had always held a dark splendour for Monica. Because of her beauty, even Persis had not spoiled this notion that women who lived with men out of wedlock breathed a special, exciting and romantic air. But now she was a mistress herself, and although it had its excitements and rare, deep satisfactions it was by no means what she had, dimly, foreseen. It was very agreeable to be deferred to by Tuke and Tooley, and to see the baleful glint in Persis’ fine eyes, but there was a lot of hard work about it.

Giles liked comfort, though he had no intention of supplying it for himself, and once the flat was running in a reasonably orderly manner, he wanted it to continue that way. And Lantern, now that she had a bigger say in its production, took more of her time. Giles made a pretext to ask Domdaniel to cancel her German and Italian lessons, so that this time would be provided. And he began to work her mer­cilessly at her singing lessons. The success of Discoverie had raised his ambition as a composer to a new pitch. He hunted out and revised his songs — which were far more numerous than Odingsels’ estimate of fifty — and it was her task to copy the new versions neatly; under his tuition she became a quick, deft and pleasantly ornamental copyist. But he also began to write new songs, and as she was at hand, he arranged the tessitura of these new works to suit her voice, making them inconveniently high for the majority of singers. His choice of lyrics tended toward poets not widely popular and usually dead; his settings of modern verse were few. His sensitivity to poetry, and to the rhythms of English, was reflected in all his songs, but in the new works it expressed itself in complications of time, and in prolonga­tions of phrase, which made them very hard to study, though wonderfully easy to hear. It was Monica’s delight, and also her despair, to slave at these songs through countless revisions, while the composer visited upon her all the irritation and dissatisfaction which he felt with himself. Giles never praised her. When a song had reached its final form, and she had sung it precisely as he wanted it, he would sometimes say, “Got it now, I think.” But it was of himself that he was speaking.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson