Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack

by Robertson Davies


Early one june evening, now twenty-two years ago, after a dinner spiced with Marchbanks tabletalk, my hosts and I talked for awhile on the verandah of Marchbanks Towers before I went on my way to see my wife and new son in the Peterborough Civic Hospital. The following Saturday evening I did what many Peterborough people did in those days — opened the Peterborough Examiner at the editorial page to read “The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks.” The Tuesday entry ran:

Was chatting today with a man who had just had a baby; that is to say, his wife actually had the baby, but as anyone knows who has experienced it, the work of the superintending of such a process is often as exhausting as that of the mother. He was weak and run down, and subject to dizzy spells, as the people who have just had babies always are in the advertisements, so I urged him to get himself a good nerve tonic, and did what I could to revive him with strawberries. . . As men will, when they get together, we discussed the curious fact, that whenever it becomes known that you are going to have a baby, everybody hastens to tell you their favourite Horrible Tale about the Baby with Two Heads, or the Baby that Vanished, or the Baby that Got Mixed Up in the Hospital and never knew whether it was a boy or a girl. Everybody likes to scare the wits out of an expectant father. I am going to write a book some day, called Radiant Fatherhood, which will make the whole thing seem beautiful and natural, and an experience to be cherished for a lifetime (which is, indeed, as long as one can cherish anything).

Samuel Marchbanks’ first book was published in 1947; it wasn’t Radiant Fatherhood, it was The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. His second was The Tabletalk of Samuel Marchbanks in 1949. This Almanack is Marchbanks’ third book; it also is the eighteenth book by Robertson Davies. And that faces us with a problem that has troubled some thoughtful readers: what is the relation of Samuel Marchbanks to Robertson Davies? It is a symbiotic relation, a complex one. Robertson Davies is Samuel Marchbanks, but Samuel Marchbanks is not Robertson Davies. If that seems less than clear, perhaps it can be clarified by tracing here the careers of both Davies and Marchbanks.

Robertson Davies scented printer’s ink very soon after he was born in the village of Thamesville, in South-Western Ontario, in 1913, under the sign of Virgo. His father, Rupert Davies, had come from Wales at fifteen and had learned the printing trade in Brantford. His first paper, which he owned, wrote, and printed himself, was the Thamesville Herald. When Mr. Davies took over the Renfrew Mercury in 1919, that small town near the Ottawa River became to Robertson Davies what Hannibal was to Samuel Clemens. In Renfrew he received his schooling, as much out of, as in, an Ontario little red schoolhouse. He continued high school in Kingston when his father bought the Kingston British Whig (later Whig-Standard), and finished his pre-University years at Upper Canada College, where he was editor of the college paper. From Queen’s University in Kingston he went on to three years of reading English at Balliol and to a vigorous involvement in the Oxford University Dramatic Society. In 1939 he published his first book, a scholarly study, Shakespeare’s Boy Actors. In the same year he joined the Old Vic Company in London as an actor of minor parts and as instructor in the History of the Drama in the Old Vic Theatre School. At the Old Vic he met the Australian stage manager, Brenda Mathews. They were married after the Company suspended production in the early months of the War. He was rejected for military service, and they moved to Canada in 1940.

After a year and a half of apprenticeship under one of Canada’s finest journalists, B. K. Sandwell, on the Toronto Saturday Night, Davies became editor of the Peterborough Examiner.

Peterborough in 1942 was a small Ontario city of some 25,000, centre of a large farming area on the southern edge of the almost unbroken woods and lake country of the Laurentian Shield. Although life in Peterborough was somewhat disheveled by the War, it was not unlike life in Kingston, without Kingston’s University, Penitentiary, Royal Military College, Insane Asylum, and Older Families. Peterborough factories were busy with War work; most of the younger people were away in the Services, and the men in the Army Basic Training Camp in the south end of town came and went too quickly to become part of town life. Gasoline was rationed. The nearest city with theatres, music, and bookstores was that Ontario Athens of the North, Toronto, eighty miles south-west by CPR.

In Ontario communities like Peterborough, the Editor of the local newspaper was accorded a high place, along with doctors, the Judge, clergymen, older established lawyers, Members of Parliament, and the heads of large industries (mostly Americans). Davies had to win this accord, for he was young, an outsider, and had a beard. He won it, by making what had been a good local paper a better local paper and a more cosmopolitan one. His editorials were unusually well-informed, liberal, vigorous, and independent in view, and were incisively written. During the twenty years of his editorship, the Examiner became one of the most widely quoted newspapers in Canada; it was handsomely redesigned and printed; its circulation doubled from under 13,000 to over 26,000.

The Examiner was understaffed in those War years, and Davies wrote not only the daily editorials and a twice-weekly book review column of high literary quality, but also reported cultural events about town. The name “Samuel Marchbanks” (derived from the Christian name and the surname of two of his grandfathers) was first the byline of the book review column. But starting on Saturday, November 13, 1943, a new weekly column appeared on the editorial page, entitled “The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks.” In it, Marchbanks emerged as a full-blooded character. Like Mrs. Elinor Roosevelt’s popular “My Day,” the “Diary” was a full-length weekly column, divided into seven parts, each headed by the name of a day of the week. It caught on; it was reprinted in several other papers, and it ran from 1943 to 1953, totalling finally some 3,500 entries.

Davies developed the “Diary” partly to entertain his Examiner readers, and partly to blow off steam. Daily newspaper work required him to hold in his strong dramatic instinct and exuberant imagination; moreover after Oxford, London, the Old Vic, and the Saturday Night editorial room, some of the pieties of a provincial Ontario town were galling.

He might have amused his readers by playing the professional “funny man,” or the crackerbarrel philosopher, but that would not have eased his own internal pressures. Besides, he did not underrate the intelligence of his Examiner audience. What he created was a persona, Samuel Marchbanks. Marchbanks’ feelings and opinions are those of Robertson Davies — selected, transmuted, and dramatized as a verbal performance.

The qualification is important, for a wide range of Davies’ own experience never appeared in the column. The Tuesday paragraph quoted at the beginning of this “Introduction” shows how the minutiae of actual experience was transformed. Some Peterborough people thought they recognized themselves in characters harpooned by Marchbanks; they were wrong, for Davies did not satirize or celebrate individuals.

Marchbanks is unique in personality; nevertheless he is fundamentally a Peterborough Everyman. We can recognize Marchbanks in our neighbours (if we are fortunate in our neighbours), and they can recognize him in us (if they also are fortunate). In his fantasies we recognize what goes on so often much closer to home. Technically, Marchbanks is brother to the “Y” of Stephen Leacock’s “My Financial Career,” and cousin to Samuel Clemens’ persona, Mark Twain. Marchbanks’ sharp eye, quirky individuality, and sonorous, witty speech also reflect Davies’ delight in the matter and manner of many other writers: Pepys, Aubrey, Anthony à Wood, Robert Burton; in the King James Version; in Shakespeare and Jonson; in George Bernard Shaw, Logan Pearsall Smith, and H. L. Mencken.

In 1947, Davies selected 365 entries from the “Diary” columns, ordered them to present a year’s round, and had them published as The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. This Marchbanks is even more clearly the centre of his domestic world of Marchbanks Towers. The book form of the “Diary” was popular, and in 1949 Davies made another selection from the accumulating columns, and published it as The Tabletalk of Samuel Marchbanks. The Marchbanks who speaks here is less the Man about the House, more the Urbane man talking over the dinner table, his own, and, more often, that of others. He talks brilliantly, as we often dream we ought to have talked after some social encounter where we remained slow-witted and tongue-tied.

Eighteen years unwound between Marchbanks’ Tabletalk and his third book, this Almanack. Davies stopped writing the “Diary” column in 1953 because he was immersed in writing the plays, fiction, and literary criticism (along with editorial work and theatricals) which have led to his reputation as one of Canada’s most talented writers. His first plays, the one-acters in Eros at Breakfast and Other Plays, and the full-length Fortune My Foe, were published in 1949, followed by At My Heart’s Core and five others. The early plays have been produced frequently; several won awards in the Dominion Drama Festival, and Eros was played in Edinburgh during that Festival. Davies also was active in the establishment of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and wrote three books, with Sir Tyrone Guthrie, on the first three seasons. Another major part of his work includes three novels of Salterton life, Tempest Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. Leaven of Malice was produced in dramatic form as Love and Malice by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1960. During these years he also carried on regular book review columns in the Saturday Night and “A Writer’s Diary” in the Toronto Star and other papers. Alfred Knopf asked him to assemble a volume of his criticism; it appeared in 1960 as A Voice from the Attic. Dramatic, literary, and academic awards were bestowed on him. In 1960 he also took up his long-suspended academic career when Trinity College appointed him Visiting Professor of English. He left the Examiner in 1963 to help plan Massey College, a residential graduate college in the University of Toronto. He now is Master of Massey College, and professor of English drama in the graduate school of the University.

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