Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Inside Scoop on Robertson Davies

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In an earlier incarnation, I was an M.A. student at the University of Toronto. All my professors were bright and interesting men who helped me better understand literature, but one stood out. Well, how could he not stand out ... he was Robertson Davies.

Here we were, about a dozen young men and women in our early twenties, allowed to spend more than an hour a week in a small, cave-like room/office in Massey College with one of the greatest men of letters this country has ever produced (and will ever produce). But he wasn't exactly the sort of man those not privileged to be his students might think. Had outsiders with a knowledge of his towering public persona dropped by at particular moments during our classes, they might have thought an imposter was sitting in for him. Oh, he was Robertson Davies most of the time - he looked like a wise Santa Claus in elegant black and white, always necktied, with that shimmering snowy hair, that broad forehead full of wisdom, those sparkling eyes that twinkled with wit, and the flowing Victorian coats that caused everyone to assume he never left home without a cape. And in conversation, he exhibited an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and drew upon a bottomless well of sound advice. He was dramatic and entertaining.

But ... he also liked a gruesome story or five. We discovered early on that if we could offer up a true account of an axe murder or a violent mass killing, especially if the details were hitherto unknown to him, he would listen with rapt attention and then launch into his theories about such things, and delight in telling his own gruesome tales, filled with his own bloody detail - it seemed, he knew of quite a few. We were forever trying to come up with subjects like these, just in case, in one of his rapturously intriguing flights of raconteurship, he would talk the entire way through a seminar. But he never did - he always knew what we were doing - he gave us our graphic stories, then turned things back to "Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries." Although, that too was always entertaining.

Then there was Professor Davies the two-fisted dinner host. Once or twice we broke bread with him. I expected such a "high table" (as he called them) to fit that description. But he liked to eat; man, did he like to eat. He got in there with both hands and had his share, quickly gobbled food sometimes landing in his famous white beard.

And as a teacher, he was anything but the traditionalist one might expect. We were not required to write a single essay, nor did he ever test us, or subject us to an exam of any sort. We simply had to talk. Being shy was no excuse. We were expected to hold forth during every seminar and debate, and argue, and do so with not just our colleagues, but with him, with a raised voice if need be. We had to know of what we spoke. I recall a particular young lady, who had to push herself to speak up, who was once laughed at for a slight error. She turned red in the face, but Davies kept eye contact with her and said, as clear as a bell in that actor's voice of his, "Pay no attention to these boors!" She immediately found her voice and sallied forth with much greater confidence in front of her silent audience.

Davies taught me many things about Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, about literary criticism, and drama, and literature in general, but his greatest gift was a subtler one. He taught me to be myself. He was an inimitable gentleman and thinker. He had his own style. Just by being himself and offering the unique perspectives he gave, he encouraged everyone who watched and listened and came within his circle to be himself or herself too. I did well in his class. When I graduated later that year, he was the guest speaker at Convocation Hall. As I stepped up to get my degree, I glanced over at him. He winked at me. It felt like the beginning of my writing career.

2 comments

I enjoyed so much reading your portrait of Davies The Teacher. My son just finished reading Fifth Business for his Grade 12 English class at Harbord Collegiate, a book that I remember reading, and loving, in Clara Thomas's Canadian Fiction course at York. I'll pass on your delightful account to my son.

Thanks for your comment. He was an amazing man. I'm glad to hear that your son and his fellow students are reading Davies. Here's another interesting memory of studying with the master ... I once asked him during casual conversation, in that bold way university students have, what he was "working on." He described a few things about the plot. I realized afterward that he was describing "What's Bred in the Bone."

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Shane Peacock

Shane Peacock is a biographer, journalist, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He has received many honours for his writing, including the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Eye of the Crow, the first of his Boy Sherlock Holmes series.

Go to Shane Peacock’s Author Page