Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Celebrating 100 years of Robertson Davies

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Roberston Davies

Robertson Davies was a masterful two-finger typist.

Poised in front of a manual typewriter, with his forefingers outstretched, Davies would punch the keys. It was a sight his daughter Jennifer Surridge was privy to as she watched him churn out trilogy after trilogy.

Davies died in 1995 and despite a lifetime of typing, he never learned how to flush the breadth of both hands over the keys. He was all thumbs when it came to the mechanics of the machine.

“He couldn’t change the ribbons,” said Surridge. “He could never change the ribbons on any typewriter.”

August 28 marked the start of Davies’ centenary year. Many communities across Ontario will be honouring his life and literary achievements.

As Surridge remembers it, Davies started his day by jotting an entry into his diary. He always wrote about what had happened the day before. From there, he worked on projects he committed to, various articles and book reviews. Once he was finished he’d clear the space on his desk and make time for his own writing.

Davies never shared the drafts of his novels with Surridge. His wife, Brenda, was his first reader and when she gave criticism she was mindful of her words.

“She heard everything,” said Surridge. “He would read it to her because he wanted to know how it sounded. It was very important to him that a piece of writing should read well.”

Davies, who was born in Thamesville, lived in Peterborough from 1942 to 1963. During that time he was a publisher and editor of the Peterborough Examiner. Under his leadership the paper had 18,000 to 20,000 subscribers, a fair circulation for an area that had, at best, 50,000 people. By the 1950s, the Examiner claimed to be the most quoted small town newspaper in Canada.

Being a fairly large man, Davies stood out in Peterborough. He walked everywhere and wore a beard.

“In Peterborough, when we were growing up, he was odd and therefore to have a father who is considered odd is difficult for a kid,” said Surridge. “I tried to see the world differently.”

Elwood Jones, a historian at the Trent Valley Archives, said, “To ordinary people on the street, he [Davies] just seemed a world apart to them. I think it’s because of the size and the demeanor.”

As Jones pointed out, Davies and his wife were well regarded in the arts community. They were deeply involved in local theatre. But there is another reason Davies was considered odd.

“There was a kind of category of people who were in Peterborough and who had always been in Peterborough,” said Jones. “This was something that set them apart. And being a real Peterborough man was something that was not easy for just anybody to become.”

In those Peterborough years Davies released The Salterton Trilogy and wrote more than a dozen plays. Leaven the Malice, the second in the trilogy, was awarded the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1955.

At that time Surridge wasn’t in tune with the name Davies had started to make for himself in Canada’s literary community. 

“You don’t think that about your parent,” she said. “I only realized when I started working for him and now that I’m in charge of his estate do I see how other people regard him.”

Surridge started to work for Davies three years before he died. She became his research assistant and gained experience working with agents and publishers. After his death, she took over his literary estate with her mother, Brenda. For 18 years, they looked after the estate together. On January 9, 2013, Brenda passed away. She was 95 years old. Today, Surridge handles Davies’ literary affairs on her own.

Davies’ public persona differed greatly from the man who would come home from a day’s work at the Examiner, have dinner with his wife and children, and then head into the study to work. He was amusing, told jokes and stories. Since he was such an avid reader, he often shared tidbits of information he found interesting.

“He was less stern than he came across in public,” said Surridge. “But he was also very shy. That was part of the reason for his rather stern look.”

In 2015, Surridge will be publishing the first installment of Davies’ diaries. This collection spans from 1959 to 1971. Davies requested the diaries not be published until 20 years after his death. He was quite frank when he wrote in his diary and he didn’t want to hurt anyone by having the collection published prematurely.

“There are probably a few things that we will cut, but as little as I can because you don’t get the feeling of the person if you cut too much of what they wrote,” she said.

Before and after Peterborough, Davies influenced arts and culture in a number of places across Ontario. He hurled into motion the Dominion Drama Festival and assisted in the launch of the Stratford Festival where he served on the board of governors for a number of years. In 1963, he became the founding Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. A seat he held until 1981.

When author Merilyn Simonds moved to Kingston, she found letters in her attic that later became her novel The Convict Lover (Macfarlane Walter & Ross). In that attic, she found more than just letters. She came across an old high school yearbook from the 1920s. It was from the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute and inside was a photograph of the KCVI literary society. And there was Davies, the society’s founder and president.

“At the age of 17 he looked exactly the same as he did on the back of his book covers when I first started to read him and he must have been in his 50s or 60s then,” said Simonds. “But he was the same. A very tall, statuesque, serious looking fellow. Not the big beard yet.”

As Simonds continued to flip through the yearbook, she came across some of Davies’ poetry. Prior to discovering the yearbook, Simonds didn’t tether Davies to Kingston’s literary history. She mostly associated him with Peterborough, but the discovery of the yearbook changed that.

Davies lived and wrote poetry in Kingston as a young man. He also attended Queen’s University. It was the city where he started his first serious writing. To honour Davies, the Kingston WritersFest is launching the Robertson Davies Lecture, a signature event that will be a part of the festival year after year.

The Kingston WritersFest is bringing in Alberto Manguel, an Argentine-born writer who was a reader to Jorge Luis Borges, to give the first lecture. Manguel is the author of The Dictionary of Imagination Places (Harcourt), A History of Reading (Penguin) and The Library at Night (Yale University Press). 

“Both Robertson Davies and Alberto, for me, symbolize what this literary festival is about,” said Simonds. “It’s about people who love books and believe, as Robertson Davies said, everything matters.”

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

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