When Liz reviewed Tempest-Tost I thought how excellent it sounded – and so was delighted when Liz kindly passed onto me her second copy, since when it has sat unread on my shelves. The #1951club therefore was the perfect opportunity to finally read it.
Robertson Davies, I have to admit was a completely new name to me, a Canadian writer I have since learned is hugely popular – and I also don’t think I had realised (or at least I had forgotten) that Tempest-Tost is the first book in a trilogy. Robertson Davies; was the author of three trilogies – the Salterton trilogy, the Deptford trilogy and the Cornish trilogy, there was also a fourth unfinished trilogy and Davies also wrote several plays as well as works of criticism and essays. His fondness for the theatre is certainly evident in this his first published novel.
Tempest-Tost tells the story of an amateur dramatic group, as they prepare to stage an outdoor production of The Tempest. The setting is the fictional Salterton, Ontario – which we’re told is a city – though it feels more like a town to me.
The Salterton Little Theatre group are a bunch of varied, eccentric characters, Mrs Nellie Forrester is used to running the show – and often gets her way. However, she has invited her old friend Valentine Rich who has had success as a theatre director in New York – and is home on family business – to direct The Tempest. Now Mrs Forrester finds she must yield some of her power, to a professional. Griselda Webster will play Ariel – she is the eldest daughter of one of Salterton’s wealthiest men, and they live in a nice large house called St Agnes’s with enviable gardens. Mr Webster has agreed to lend his garden to the little theatre group to perform what Mrs F calls their pastoral. Griselda and her sister Freddy have been brought up by their widowed father who sometimes feels the want of another pair of hands.
“Children, don’t speak so coarsely,’ said Mr. Webster, who had a vague notion that some supervision should be exercised over his daughters’ speech, and that a line should be drawn, but never knew quite when to draw it. He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library.”
Griselda’s younger sister; Freddy and her partner in crime Tom; the Websters’ old gardener, are not at all pleased that the theatre group will be using their gardens. Freddy has enlisted Tom’s help in hiding the results of her wine making hobby – the bottles are squirreled away in ‘the shed’ – which is more of a large old fashioned conservatory where Tom keeps his tools. They really don’t want the theatre group messing around in there.
Other members of the group include: Solly – a young man recently returned home from Cambridge – who lives in the attic of his difficult mother’s house. Hector Mackilwrath a forty-year-old maths teacher who lives in the YMCA, eats at the snack shack and has never had any success with women – barely having talked to a woman outside of his professional life. Bonnie-Susan ‘The Torso’ who is talked about by everyone in non-too flattering terms – though we discover she has a good heart. Pearl – the slightly drab daughter of another suffocating parent, and Roger shallow and womanising.
“She was not he recognized, like any girl upon whom he had tried his skill before. She was wealthy, which meant that he must be very careful, for one does not lightly seduce rich girls; they have too many powerful relatives, and are too much accustomed to getting the better of things. He seriously questioned whether he could proceed to the usual conclusion of his plan with Griselda. Indeed, he marvelled dimly that gold, which could make an attractive girl so much more attractive should also protect her thoroughly. And as well as money, Griselda had the manners and the conversation of a well-bred girl who had read a great many books of the easier sort, and these qualities Roger mistook for worldly wisdom and unusual intelligence. For the first time in his life Roger had met a girl with whom he felt that a ‘nice’ – well, fairly nice – relationship was worth cultivating, Griselda was capable of giving him something which he valued even more than physical satisfaction; she could give him class.”
The stage is set for quarrels and hurt feelings, ambition and pride. Three men vie for the attentions of the beautiful Griselda – in a plot worthy of Shakespeare himself – Hector, Solly and Roger. While Pearl fancies herself in love with Roger; who barely knows that she exists – despite playing opposite her in The Tempest.
Over the course of the weeks of rehearsal and planning we get to know these characters. Solly and his ill, domineering mother, Pearl and her ridiculous father, Freddy who thinks her sister is just a bit dim, Roger who has calculated that Griselda could give him the class he lacks, and Valentine Rich who is trying to do a professional job with an amateur group. For me the most memorable of these is Hector, who is quite brilliantly drawn. Hector’s story is the saddest one, the son of an elderly clergyman – his mother plagued his childhood with cod-liver oil and unnecessary medications. He felt called to teaching in the way other men are called to the priesthood – and has devoted himself to it ever since. His strange upbringing made Hector into a too serious young man, unused to society and normal relationships with his peers – he has some peculiarly old fashioned ideas about women. When Griselda smiles at Hector one day – he decides, that it isn’t too late for him, that he isn’t, after all, too old to love her – a girl of just eighteen – and sets out to win her. Deciding he is no longer happy to just be the group’s treasurer Hector decides he wants to act in the play – much to Mrs F’s horror.
Tempest-Tost is a really good novel – the characterisation is just superb. The townspeople with their petty jealousies and attempts to outdo each other are faithfully drawn with some wry humour. So very glad I finally got around to reading it – thanks Liz, no doubt I shall have to look out for books 2 and 3.