Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Charity is infinitely better conducted nowadays than it was a century ago. It is thorough, economical, informed — everything but charitable. It does incalculable good to the receivers; it does nothing whatever to the givers — the answerers of form letters who never see the objects of their benevolence. For there is no merit in giving money, if one has it: the merit is in the charitable impulse and the cleansing of the spirit which compassion brings.

Modern charity is wonderful for the receivers, but it is useless to the givers. And I remind you that they also have souls to save. Charity is something greater than organized pillaging of the haves on behalf of the have-nots.

Yours with qualified approval,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Raymond Cataplasm, M.D., F.H.C.P.

Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

At breakfast yesterday I watched a small boy sprinkle salt on his grapefruit. When I asked him about it, he said it made the fruit taste sweeter. A lady at the table said, “Mark my words, that child will die of hardening of the arteries.” “Oh come, madam, surely that is an old wives’ tale,” said I. “Who are you calling an old wife,” said she, and her wattles wobbled. “You,” I rejoined, flicking a gob of marmalade at her and scampering from the room.

Tell me, Doctor, can salt harden the arteries? I have heard this threatened in connection with other household substances. For years I have followed each meal with a strong chaser of baking-soda and water, as an aid to digestion, and various people have told me that this will harden my arteries. Nevertheless my arteries are still capable of balloon-like expansion.

It seems to me that if anything were going to harden the arteries it would be excessive iron in the blood, which would coat the arteries with rust, like old hot-water pipes.

Your perennial patient and amateur adviser,

S. Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Honoured Sir:

Unexpected tidings, Mr. Marchbanks, sir. Your case against Richard Dandiprat will not come before the Autumn Assizes as we had planned. This is the result of a legal complication of a type incomprehensible to the lay mind, but I will try to explain it.

The papers in the case went, as usual, to Mr. Mouseman, Senior, for his consideration before they were taken to the court house. Knowing that the case would be tried before Mr. Justice Cripple — an old law-school companion of Mr. Mouseman’s — he made a pencilled notation on the document giving notice of the case, which said: “Don’t let this come up any day when Old Cripple has lost heavily at bridge the night before. You know that he really needs a murder or a rape case on such days as a relief for his spleen.” This was intended as a private direction to the sheriff, but some foolish clerk transcribed it on a document which reached Mr. Justice Cripple himself. He said several things which convinced our firm that it would be better to ask for a delay, and bring the case up again in the Spring, when we are confident that Mr. Justice Cripple will be in another part of the Province.

Oh, the law, the law! What a fascinating study it is, Mr. Marchbanks. You laymen cannot comprehend the subtle psychological elements which may sway the judgement of the courts! But patience — patience must be the watchword of the successful litigant.

Yours with infinite patience,

Mordecai Mouseman

(for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


To Mervyn Noseigh, M.A.

Dear Mr. Noseigh:

I am overjoyed by the news that you have really decided to do a Ph.D. thesis on my work, and am especially tickled by your title — Skunk’s Misery to Toronto: a study of spiritual degeneration in the work of Samuel Marchbanks. The questions you ask fill me with delightful new importance. Number 7 (a) for example: “What were the first books you remember reading and what influence do you consider that they have had on your later style and symbological system?”

The first books I remember reading were called Mother Hubbard’s House Party, and Chuck and Cooney Caught in the Corn; the first of these was about a Christmas party assembled by Mother Hubbard (a kind of Magna Mater or Demeter-figure, as I now realize) at which Jack and Jill, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Georgy Porgy, Little Jack Horner and Little BoPeep acted out, in a high mimesis, various pseudo-Arcadian romances, culminating in a mass bedding at the end of the day. Although the writer had badly botched this conclusion, I assume that the Primal Scene was enacted by all these characters in turn, in every conceivable combination, under the obscene prompting of Mother Hubbard, who had assumed a Hecate-identity with the coming of darkness. I now realize that the book was a pseudonymous work by Frank Harris.

As for Chuck and Cooney, they appeared to be a wood-chuck and a raccoon who were surprised by a farmer in his corncrib, and escaped by a narrow margin, but I am aware that it was a thinly-disguised fable of race-hatred, because Cooney was the stupid one and got into all the serious trouble.

All my subsequent work has drawn heavily on these sources, accounting for the ugly undertone on which you comment so frankly. Please tell me more. There is nothing that flatters an author so much as having his work explained to him by a graduate student who brings a modern, critically-trained intellect to bear upon it. I can hardly wait for the next instalment.

Eagerly yours,

Samuel Marchbanks.

From My Notebooks

STRANGE DELUSION / Waiting to see my doctor today I fell into conversation with a woman, obviously from the country, who sat near me. She appeared to be deeply aggrieved at life in general, though her manner was pleasant enough, and I judged that she was suffering from some inconvenient but not serious malady. “You city people don’t know how well off you are,” she said, broodingly. “Every kind of convenience — electric toilets and such.” I marvelled at the quaintness of this idea, but did not feel capable of explaining the limitations of hydro-electric power to her. But since then I have gazed at the plumbing at Marchbanks Towers with new eyes.

FOG-DENSITY / Picked up a magazine this afternoon and read an article by a man who had appointed himself an expert upon what he called the “fog-density” of authors — meaning the difficulty which they presented to the average reader. He did not reveal all his secrets, but one way in which he measures this quality is to count the number of three-syllable words in every 100 words of a writer’s prose. If they are frequent, fog-density is high. I suppose I present a considerable fog-density to some of my readers, but I don’t care; who wants to be understood by everybody? I like long and unusual words, and anybody who does not share my taste is not compelled to read me. Policemen and politicians are under some obligation to make themselves comprehensible to the intellectually stunted, but not I. Let my prose be tenebrous and rebarbative; let my pennyworth of thought be muffled in gorgeous apparel; lovers of Basic English will look to me in vain.

LET US BE PATIENT / The failure of yet another Canadian play on Broadway was attributed to many things, but I think it was owing to the simple fact that nobody is interested in Canadians except, very occasionally, other Canadians. Nations enjoy spells of popularity in the theatre and elsewhere; they become fashionable for no reason that I can discover. For centuries, for instance, nobody was interested in Scotsmen; they were regarded simply as hairy fellows who spoke faulty English. But during the nineteenth century plays about Scots, books about them, jokes about them and indeed everything about them sprang into a new popularity. We are beginning to tire of them now, but Irishmen, Armenians, and Scandinavians have become objects of popular interest. As yet the world does not think that Canadians are interesting; we stand where the Scotch stood before the Big Bagpipe Boom of the Victorian Era, and the period of 1900-1920, when Sir James Barrie persuaded the world that, appearances to the contrary, all Scots were delightful fellows with the souls of little children. Canada’s day will come, no doubt, but we may have to wait a few centuries for it.

SABBATH MUSINGS / Sat by my window, and as the church bells rang and people hastened past my door with their prayerbooks and hymnals in their hands, I pondered upon the secrets of the human heart. Do people go to church in Chalk River, I wondered, and in Los Alamos? And if they do so, do they try to square it with the Almighty that they are engaged in making the most devilish engines of destruction that the world has ever known? We are assured, of course, that atomic power will do great things for the world at peace, but we never hear anything specific except what it will do for the world at war. Do the wives of atomic scientists worry about hats and social prestige? Did the wife of Dr. Faustus fret about what to do with the leftovers of yesterday’s dinner while the Doctor was in his study chatting with the Devil? The answer to all these questions, I have no doubt, is Yes.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson