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This week is Robertson Davies reading week hosted by Lori at The Emerald City. Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s most distinguished writers. Leaven of Malice is the second book in his Salterton trilogy; I read the first book Tempest Tost two years ago, and really wished I hadn’t left it so long between books.

The story centres around the local newspaper, the Salterton Evening Bellman, the family of Professor Vambrace, young Solly Bridgetower and his mother, members of the congregation of St. Nicholas’ Cathedral and the Dean of that cathedral.

On the 31st of October a notice appears in the Bellman announcing the engagement of Pearl Vambrace and Solly Bridgetower, a marriage which is due to take place at the cathedral on November 31st. Not only does the Dean of the cathedral know nothing about it but neither do Pearl Vambrace, her family or Solly Bridgetower. What might at first appear to be a rather bizarre, but ultimately harmless practical joke – spirals out of control.

Gloster Ridley is the editor of the newspaper where the notice appears and is immediately under pressure. A quiet man whose daily routine never varies much and who is helped at home by Mrs Edith Little, whose habit of going through the newspaper everyday correcting errors has earned her the name Constant Reader in Ridley’s mind. Ridley is already anxious about trying to ease out the ageing Mr Shillito from the newspaper, at first, he doesn’t fully understand the seriousness of the engagement notice.

Everyone it seems has an opinion about the engagement notice and it is discussed by Edith her sister and brother in law and their lodger Mr Higgin. Edith is possessed of a rather spoilt little boy who she tries to woo Gloster Ridley with by showing him what a wonderful mother she is. Other inhabitants of Salterton are drawn into the rather comic drama, including the Dean of the cathedral who is perturbed one night to discover his organist Mr Cobbler and a bunch of students singing and dancing in the cathedral at a time when the place should have been shut up. Following this, Mr Cobbler is named as a possible culprit to putting the notice in the paper. The Dean is a man who has his critics, so there are those who would love to see his organist disgraced.

“But in every church there are people who, for reasons which seem sufficient to them, do not approve of their pastor and seek to harry him and bully him into some condition pleasing to themselves. The democracy which the Reformation brought into the Christian Church rages in their bosoms like a fire; they would deny that they regard their clergyman as their spiritual hired hand, whom they boss and oversee for his own good, but that is certainly the impression they give to observers.” 

Since Solly and Pearl were thrown together two years earlier when they were acting in The Tempest, Pearl’s father Professor Vambrace has developed a ferocious antipathy for Solly’s late father, a fellow professor whose single vote denied Professor Vambrace the position of Dean of Arts. He sees the coupling of his daughter’s name with that of the son of his late enemy as a terrible insult – and surely proof that someone is out to get him. Despite the fact that Pearl is twenty-two and doesn’t want any fuss, the Professor’s fury is out of all proportion and he decides to sue the paper for libel.  

Poor Pearl is horribly embarrassed – she believes as people begin to congratulate her, that a denial of any such relationship will make her appear ridiculous, she worries no one will ever want to marry her. Solly Bridgetower, still hopelessly besotted with Griselda Webster – who has now gone abroad – finds himself too much of a gentleman to issue an outright denial. Thus, the two miserable young people are thrust together again, finding themselves attending the same dreadful party where everyone thinks they are engaged. When Solly drops Pearl off they run straight into her father who is returning from acting rather strangely outside Gloster Ridley’s house, an incident unfortunately witnessed by neighbours and talked about for days afterwards.

“‘Get out of it!’ roared the Professor. ‘Get out of it or I’ll pick you out of it like a maggot out of a nut!’ And with these words he brought his stick down on the roof of the Morris with such force that he dented it badly and smashed his treasured blackthorn to splinters.

‘Daddy’ said Pearl, ‘please try to understand and be a little bit quiet. Everybody will hear you.’

‘What do I care who hears me? I understand that you sneaked out of my house tonight like a kitchen maid, to meet this whelp, to whom you have got yourself clandestinely engaged.’”

Soon, what should have been an incident few people weren’t even aware had happened, is, it seems known about by just about everyone. Pearl and Solly find themselves meeting up more often to discuss the situation, as Pearl is reduced to being like a child again in the face of her father’s ridiculous anger. Professor Vambrace, meanwhile is consulting lawyers, and other people are gossiping about Pearl’s difficult relationship with her absurd father.

Robertson Davies writes brilliantly about the peculiar foibles of these townspeople, the newspaper business and gossip. There is humour and humanity in Davies’ storytelling, coupled with a poignant understanding for people and the little things that matter to them.

I have now downloaded the third book in this trilogy to my kindle, and I shall endeavour to read it rather sooner than later. I have had Robertson Davies’ famous Deptford Trilogy recommended to me too, so there’s another three books to seek out at some point.

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tempest-tost

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.

1951-clubTempest-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.

Its seems I wasn’t alone in reading this for the 1951club – I have just spotted Naomi’s review of Tempest-Tost and I believe BuriedinPrint has been reading it too.

Robertson davies

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