The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks
Revised Edition (1966)
by Robertson Davies
This book made its appearance in 1947, and since then some of its contents have lost pertinency. Therefore I have revised it, and a substantial portion of what appears in this book is new matter — though it arises from the ancient and inveterate grievances, enthusiasms and acerbities of the diarist. My Diary is not a work of fiction, but of history — a record of the daily life of a Canadian during one of the early years of the Atomic Age. All the people mentioned in it are real; all the incidents described are actual happenings. Since 1947 I have met many people — chiefly women — who have disputed this assertion. “My life isn’t a bit like that,” they cry, shaking their curls. I never dispute this statement, which I believe to be true. But my life is like that, and this is my book.
– I –
Sunday & New Year’s Day: Laus Deo was the pious ejaculation with which the diarists of old began their year’s entries, and I can do no less. Woke early this morning, and thanks to my discretion last night, my tongue was as red and shiny as a piece of Christmas ribbon, and my breath was like a zephyr from a May meadow. . . Wasted no time on New Year resolutions, for I outgrew such folly long ago. Any betterment in my character will be the outcome of prolonged meditation, and slow metabolic and metaphysical reform — a psychosomatic process, in other words. My only resolve is to keep this Diary faithfully for a year, without cant and — so far as in me lies (which may not be very far) — without exaggeration. There have been too few Canadian diarists: however unfittingly, I have determined to fill the gap.
Monday: A holiday, because yesterday was Sunday. Sat by my fireplace most of the day, with the drawers of my various bureaux and desks gathered about me, and went through their contents, throwing away old letters and odds and ends, in one of my periodic strainings toward order and efficiency. Though the wrench is painful I can throw away old letters which were not interesting even when hot from the postman’s hand, but there are some things which I can never bring myself to part with. I have old erasers, for instance, which have turned to stone and merely dirty and tear any paper upon which they are set to work, but they have associations for me which makes it impossible to throw them away. There are paper clips which have grown rusty with age, but I will not discard them for the excellent reason that I got them free and may some day get some use out of them. There are pipe-cleaners which are not very dirty, and although I have not smoked a pipe for some years, who can say when I shall begin again? There are the keys of a flat in which I once lived, and which I preserve out of sheer sentimentality. There are old Christmas cards which are too pretty to put on the fire. There are three cigarette holders which have become plugged with immovable substances, but which may some day become unplugged (if I ever get a free hand with a compressed-air machine) and will then be as good as new. There is a box which is empty, but which bears the name of a very famous jeweller; I am keeping it in order that I may lend a factitious air of grandeur to a modest wedding-gift, some day. Therefore I cannot really reduce my drawers to order; I can only throw away some of the accumulation of years of tousled living. But even a little tidying gives me a righteous glow, and the rubbish made the fire burn brightly all day.
Tuesday: Was talking to a man today who was bemoaning the dullness of his life; he wanted adventure, and it never came his way. His job gives him no outlet for the daring and resource which he is sure he possesses. I am never much impressed by such complaints; it seems to me that most of us get all the adventure that we are capable of digesting. Personally, I have never had to fight a dozen pirates single-handed, and I have never jumped from a moving express-train onto the back of a horse, and I have never been discovered in the harem of the Grand Turk. I am glad of all these things. They are too rich for my digestion, and I do not long for them. I have all the close shaves and narrow squeaks in my life that my constitution will stand, and my daily struggles with bureaucrats, tax-gatherers and uplifters are more exhausting than any encounters with mere buccaneers on the Spanish Main.
Wednesday: Faced the fact with dull submission that the holiday season is now over and that a long, hard winter is before me. A man told me that he had always despised me because I confessed that I had trouble with my furnace; he never had any with his. But last week his “iron fireman” broke down, and he had to stoke his own machine for a day or two, and he had a new appreciation of my sufferings. . . I am glad to hear it. What can a sybarite, a plutocrat with an automatic stoker know of the wretched tribulations of the proletariat? While I sweat and slave in my cellar, bursting my truss every time I heave a shovelful of coal, he lolls at ease in his arm-chair, listening to the soothing hum of his mechanical stoker. . . I am glad that he has been humbled and brought low. Now he will have sympathy with the deserving poor.
Thursday: Lumbago oppresses me; I begin to fear that I shall have it till spring. A man who suffers from it told me today that he always wears a garment called Dr. Zeno’s Miracle Lumbago Bodice, and gets great solace from it. The Bodice is an affair indistinguishable from a woman’s girdle, without garters on it. I laughed inwardly, for the thing is nothing more than a corset, though no man today will admit to wearing a corset. But the masculine sex was not always so lacking in frankness. A century ago every military tailor also made and sold corsets, so that the officers might present a trim appearance in their skin-tight breeches. I have even heard military historians say that the reason Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo was that the English officers had stronger corsets than the French, and thus were able to sit longer in the saddle. If this is so, the battle of Waterloo was not won on the playing fields of Eton, but in the rubber plantations of Malaya, the whalebone mines of the Arctic, and the canvas deposits of Liverpool. If Napoleon had had a first-rate corset, what might the fate of Europe have been? A solemn reflection.
Friday: Mentioned Dr. Zeno’s Miracle Lumbago Bodice to a man today in what I thought was an undertone, but I was overheard by his frivolous wife, who insisted upon telling me about the newest development in female corsetry. It appears that this is a brassiere with rubber chambers in it which may be inflated to whatever size the wearer thinks appropriate and credible, in the light of everything else. This is obviously a development of the idea long used by clowns in skating carnivals, who appear with large balloons concealed in their upper reaches, which they pierce with pins at the appropriate moments. What, I wonder, will the new inflatable brassiere look like if naughty fellows with pins test them at parties? Worse, what will happen if the naughty fellows meet richly endowed ladies who are not wearing such aids to beauty? Imagination boggles at the prospect! When at last we got rid of this light-minded woman the atmosphere for intimate talk about Lumbago Bodices had been destroyed. That is something women can never understand; men have curious fields of delicacy in their conversation which should not be invaded by the coarse gibes of the other sex.
Saturday and Old Christmas: Twelfth Night, and the official end of the Christmas celebrations, so I took down all the decorations and cards, and dutifully stuffed myself with mince pies and cheesecakes. There is a belief that one will have a happy month for every mince pie one eats today, and every year I gag myself trying to round out an entire year of bliss. I usually stick at June and have never passed August. Someday I must bake a particularly small batch of mince pies for this special purpose, so that I shall not need to short-circuit my epigastrium in pursuit of a fine old custom. . . Those who do not eat 12 pies are supposed to be plagued by the Lubber Fiend — a goblin somewhat vaguely identified by folk-lore specialists. I know several people who might accurately be described as Lubber Fiends.