Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

As a student of history myself, I have always found it revealing to see who gets to be a saint in any period; some ages like wonder-workers, and some prefer gifted organizers whose attention to business produces apparent miracles. In the last few years good old saints whom even Protestants love have been losing ground to lesser figures whose fortune it was to be black or yellow or red-skinned — a kind of saintly representation by population. My Bollandist friends are the first to admit that there is more politics to the making of a saint than the innocently devout might think likely.

It was quite beyond my income to own a set of the Acta, but I consulted it frequently — sometimes two or three times a week — at the University Library. However, I did, by luck, get a chance to buy a run of the Analecta, and though it cost me a fortune by Depression reckoning, I could not let it go, and its bulk and foreign-looking binding have surprised many visitors to my study in the school.

Boys grow bug-eyed when they find that I actually read in French, German, and Latin, but it is good for them to find that these languages have an existence outside the classroom; some of my colleagues look at my books with amusement, and a few solemn asses have spread the rumour that I am “going over to Rome”; old Eagles (long before your time) thought it his duty to warn me against the Scarlet Woman and demanded rhetorically how I could possibly “swallow the Pope.” Since then millions have swallowed Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin and Mao, and we have swallowed some democratic leaders who had to be gagged down without relish. Swallowing the Pope seems a trine in comparison. But to return to 1932, there I was, a subscriber and greedy reader of the Analecta, and busy learning Greek (not the Greek of Homer but the queer Greek of medieval monkish recorders) so as to miss nothing.

It was then that the bold idea struck me of sending my notes on Uncumber to the editor of Acta, the great Hippolyte Delehaye; at worst he would ignore them or return them with formal thanks. I had the Protestant idea that Catholics always spat in your eye if they could, and of course Jesuits — crafty and trained to duplicity as they were — might pinch my stuff and arrange to have me blown up with a bomb, to conceal their guilt. Anyhow I would try.

It was little more than a month before this came in the mail:

Cher Monsieur Ramsay,

Your notes on the Wilgefortis-Kummernis figure have been read with interest by some of us here, and although the information is not wholly new, the interpretation and synthesis is of such a quality that we seek your consent to its publication in the next Analecta. Will you be so good as to write to me at your earliest convenience, as time presses. If you ever visit Bruxelles, will you give us the pleasure of making your acquaintance? It is always a great satisfaction to meet a serious hagiographer, and particularly one who, like yourself, engages in the work not professionally but as a labour of love.

Avec mes souhaits sinceres,

Hippolyte Delehaye S.J.

Societe des Bollandistes

24 Boulevard Saint-Michel


Few things in my life have given me so much delight as this letter; I have it still. I had schooled myself since the war-days never to speak of my enthusiasms; when other people did not share them, which was usual, I was hurt and my pleasure diminished; why was I always excited about things other people did not care about? But I could not hold in. I boasted a little in the Common Room that I had received an acceptance from Analecta; my colleagues looked uncomprehendingly, like cows at a passing train, and went on talking about Brebner’s extraordinary hole-in-one the day before.

I spoke of it to Boy when next I saw him; all he could get through his head was that I had written my contribution in French. To be fair, I did not tell him the story of Uncumber and her miraculous beard; he was no audience for such psychological-mythological gossip, which appealed only to the simple or the truly sophisticated. Boy was neither, but he had an eye for quality, and it was after this I began to be asked to dinner more often with the Stauntons’ smart friends and not as a lone guest. Sometimes I heard Boy speaking of me to the bankers and brokers as “very able chap — speaks several languages fluently and writes for a lot of European publications — a bit of an eccentric, of course, but an old friend.”

I think his friends thought I wrote about “current affairs”, and quite often they asked me how I thought the Depression was going to pan out. On these occasions I looked wise and said I thought it was moving towards its conclusion but we might not have seen the worst of it — an answer that contained just the mixture of hope and gloom financial people find reassuring. I thought they were a terrible pack of fatheads, but I was also aware that they must be good at something because they were so rich. I would not have had their cast of mind in order to get their money, however, much as I liked money.

They were a strange lot, these moneyed, influential friends of Boy’s, but they were obviously interesting to each other. They talked a lot of what they called “polities”, though there was not much plan or policy in it, and they were worried about the average man, or as they usually called him “the ordinary fellow”. This ordinary fellow had two great faults: he could not think straight and he wanted to reap where he had not sown. I never saw much evidence of straight thinking among these ca-pittle-ists, but I came to the conclusion that they were reaping where they had sown, and that what they had sown was not, as they believed, hard work and great personal sacrifice but talent — a rather rare talent, a talent that nobody, even its possessors, likes to recognize as a talent and therefore not available to everybody who cares to sweat for it — the talent for manipulating money.

How happy they might have been if they had recognized and gloried in their talent, confronting the world as gifted egotists, comparable to painters, musicians, or sculptors! But that was not their style. They insisted on degrading their talent to the level of mere acquired knowledge and industry. They wanted to be thought of as wise in the ways of the world and astute in politics; they wanted to demonstrate in themselves what the ordinary fellow might be if he would learn to think straight and be content to reap only where he had sown. They and their wives (women who looked like parrots or bulldogs, most of them) were so humourless and, except when they were drunk, so cross that I thought the ordinary fellow was lucky not to be like them.

It seemed to me they knew less about the ordinary fellow than I did, for I had fought in the war as an ordinary fellow myself, and most of these men had been officers. I had seen the ordinary fellow’s heroism and also his villainy, his tenderness and also his unthinking cruelty, but I had never seen in him much capacity to devise or carry out a coherent, thoughtful, long-range plan; he was just as much the victim of his emotions as were these rich wiseacres. Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? Not among Boy Staunton’s ca-pittle-ists, nor among the penniless scheme-spinners in the school Common Room. nor yet at the Socialist-Communist meetings in the city, which were sometimes broken up by the police. I seemed to be the only person I knew without a plan that would put the world on its feet and wipe the tear from every eye. No wonder I felt like a stranger in my own land.

No wonder I sought some place where I could be at home, and until my first visit to the College de Saint-Michel, in Brussels, I was so innocent as to think it might be among the Bollandists. I passed several weeks there very happily, for they at once made me free of the hall for foreign students, and as I grew to know some of the Jesuits who directed the place I was taken even more into their good graces and had the run of their magnificent library. More than one hundred and fifty thousand books about saints! It seemed a paradise.

Yet often, usually at about three o’clock in the afternoon when the air grew heavy, and scholars at nearby desks were dozing over their notes, I would think: Dunstan Ramsay, what on earth are you doing here, and where do you think this is leading? You are now thirty-four, without wife or child, and no better plan than your own whim; you teach boys who, very properly, regard you as a signpost on the road they are to follow, and like a signpost they pass you by without a thought; your one human responsibility is a madwoman about whom you cherish a maggoty-headed delusion; and here you are, puzzling over records of lives as strange as fairy tales, written by people with no sense of history, and yet you cannot rid yourself of the notion that you are well occupied. Why don’t you go to Harvard and get yourself a Ph.D., and try for a job in a university, and be intellectually respectable? Wake up, man! You are dreaming your life away!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson