Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

In the early years of their marriage Leola sometimes resented this sort of talk and made spirited replies; she did not see why she should become stuck-up, and talk as she had never talked before, and behave in ways that were unnatural to her. When this happened Boy would give her what he called “the silent treatment”; he said nothing, but Leola’s inner ear was so tuned to the silence that she was aware of the answers to all her impertinences and blasphemies: it was not stuck-up to behave in a way that accorded with your position in the world, and the speech of Deptford was not the speech of the world to which they now belonged; as for unnatural behaviour, natural behavior was the sort of thing they hired a nurse to root out of young David — eating with both hands and peeing on the floor; let us have no silly talk about being natural. Of course Boy was right, and of course Leola gave in and tried to be the woman he wanted.

It was so easy for him! He never forgot anything that was of use to him, and his own manners and speech became more polished all the time. Not that he lost a hint of his virility or youthfulness, but they sat on him as if he were one of those marvellous English actors — Clive Brook, for instance — who was manly and gentlemanly at once, in a way Canadians as a whole could never manage.

This situation did not come about suddenly; it was a growth of six years of their marriage, during which Boy had changed a great deal and Leola hardly at all. Even being a mother did nothing for her; she seemed to relax when she had performed her biological trick instead of taking a firmer hold on life.

I never intervened when Leola was having a rough time; rows between them seemed to be single affairs, and it was only when I looked backward that I could see that they were sharp outbreaks in a continuous campaign. To be honest, I must say also that I did not want to shoulder the burdens of a peacemaker; Boy never let it be forgotten that he had, as he supposed, taken Leola from me; he was very jocose about it, and sometimes allowed himself a tiny, roguish hint that it might have been better for us all if things had gone the other way. The fact was that I no longer had any feeling for Leola save pity. If I spoke up for her I might find myself her champion, and a man who champions any woman against her husband had better be sure he means business.

I did not mean business, or anything at all. I went to the Stauntons’ often, because they asked me and because Boy’s brilliant operations fascinated me. I enjoyed my role as Friend of the Family, though I was unlike the smart, rich, determinediy youthful people who were their “set.” It was some time before I tumbled to the fact that Boy needed me as someone in whose presence he could think aloud, and that a lot of his thinking was about the inadequacy of the wife he had chosen to share his high destiny.

Personally I never thought Leola did badly; she offset some of the too glossy perfection of Boy. But his idea of a wife for himself would have had the beauty and demeanour of Lady Diana Manners coupled with the wit of Margot Asquith. He let me know that he had been led into his marriage by love, and love alone; though he did not say so it was clear he owed Cupid a grudge. Only twice did I get into any sort of wrangle with them about their own affairs. The first was early in their marriage, about 1926 I think, when Boy discovered Dr. Emile Coue; the doctor had been very much in the public eye since 1920, but Canada caught up with him just about the time his vogue was expiring.

You remember Dr. Coue and his great success with autosuggestion? It had the simplicity and answer-to-everything quality that Boy, for all his shrewdness, could never resist. If you fell asleep murmuring, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better,” wondrous things came of it. The plugged colon ceased to trouble, the fretful womb to ache; indigestion yielded to inner peace; twitches and trembles disappeared; skin irritations vanished overnight; stutterers became fluent; the failing memory improved; stinking breath became as the zephyr of May; and dandruff but a hateful memory. Best of all it provided “moral energy”, and Boy Staunton was a great believer in energy of all kinds.

He wanted Leola to acquire moral energy, after which social grace, wit, and an air of easy breeding would surely follow. She obediently repeated the formula as often as she could, every night for six weeks, but nothing much seemed to be happening.

“You’re just not trying, Leo,” he said one night when I was dining with them. “You’ve simply got to try harder.”

“Perhaps she’s trying too hard,” I said.

“Don’t be absurd, Dunny. There’s no such thing as trying too hard, whatever you’re doing.”

“Yes there is. Have you never heard of the Law of Reversed Effort? The harder you try, the more likely you are to miss the mark.”

“I never heard such nonsense. Who says that?”

“A lot of wise people have said it, and the latest is your Dr. Coue. Don’t clench your teeth and push for success, he says, or everything will work against you. Psychological fact.”

“Bunk! He doesn’t say it in my book.”

“But, Boy, you never study anything properly. That miserable little pamphlet you have just gives you a farcical smattering of Coueism. You should read Baudouin’s Suggestion and Auto-Suggestion and get things right.”

“How many pages?”

“I don’t count pages. It’s a good-sized book.”

“I haven’t got time for big books. I have to have the nub of things. If effort is all wrong, why does Coue work for me? I put lots of effort into it.”

“I don’t suppose it does work for you. You don’t need it. Every day in every way you do get better and better, in whatever sense you understand the word ‘better’, because that’s the kind of person you are. You’ve got ingrained success.”

“Well, bring your book over and explain it to Leo. Make her read it, and you help her to understand it.”

Which I did, but it was of no use. Poor Leola did not get better and better because she had no idea of what betterness was. She couldn’t conceive what Boy wanted her to be. I don’t think I have ever met such a stupid, nice woman. So Dr. Coue failed for her, as he did for many others, for which I lay no blame on him. His system was really a form of secularized, self-seeking prayer, without the human dignity that even the most modest prayer evokes. And like all attempts to command success for the chronically unsuccessful, it petered out.

The second time I came between Boy and Leola was much more serious. It happened late in 1927, after the famous Royal Tour. Boy gave me a number of reels of film and asked me to develop them for him. This was reasonable enough, because in my saint-hunting expeditions I used a camera often and had gained some skill; at the school, as I could not supervise sports, I was in charge of the Camera Club and taught boys how to use the dark room. I was always ready to do a favour for Boy, to whose advice I owed my solvency, and when he said that he did not want to confide these films to a commercial developer, I assumed they were pictures of the Tour and probably some of them were of the Prince.

So it was, except for two reels that were amateurish but pretentious “art studies” of Leola, lying on cushions, peeping through veils, sitting at her make-up table, kneeling in front of an open fire, wagging her finger at a Teddy Bear, choosing a chocolate from a large ribboned box — every sentimental posture approved by the taste of the day for “cutie” photographs, and in every one of them she was stark naked. If she had been an experienced model and Boy a clever photographer, they would have been the kind of thing that appeared in the more daring magazines. But their combined inexperience had produced embarrassing snapshots of the sort hundreds of couples take but have the sense to keep to themselves.

I do not know why this made me so angry. Was I so inconsiderable, so much the palace eunuch, that I did not matter? Or was this a way of letting me know what I had missed when Boy won Leola? Or was it a signal that if I wanted to take Leola off his hands, Boy would make no objection? He had let me know that Leola had conventional ideas and that his own adventurous appetite was growing tired of her meat-and-potatoes approach to sex. Whatever it was, I was very angry and considered destroying the film. But — I must be honest — I examined the pictures with care, and I suppose with some measure of gloating, and this made me angrier still.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson