By Robertson Davies.
New York: Penguin Books, 1990 (first published in 1970).
First volume of the Deptford Trilogy
250 pages
ISBN # 0-14-014755-1

Comments of Bob Corbett
September 2004

Since I have several reviews of Davies' work I have set up a page to collect my comments and other links to Davies' work

Dunstan Ramsey has retired from teaching history at an exclusive Canadian school after 45 years. There has been a testimonial dinner, and a “tribute” to him published in a magazine under the control of the present headmaster. Dunstan takes great umbrage at the so-called tribute, seeing it as trivializing his life and missing the essence of it. With a bit of anger in tone, he sets out to set the record straight writing what amounts to an defense of his life.

This reply of Ramsey to his retirement testimonial is, itself, this marvelous novel, FIFTH BUSINESS, and the rub is that to justify his life Ramsey must explain the value of his life in terms of “fifth business,” a way of life that is, by its very definition, not normally centered on itself.

It is actually late in the novel when the character, Lisle – herself fifth business, though this doesn’t come up in the novel – explains to Dunstan who he really is; rather WHAT his is, namely fifth business.

"Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. "You don't know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.
"So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out."

The key figures – the soprano and tenor figures in Lisle’s image, are Boy Staughton and Paul Dempster – the first a figure of power, wealth and control, the latter a dark figure, magician, man seemingly with little heart.

A second set of key figures to whom Dunstan plays his fifth business are Paul’s mother, Mary Dempster, (the hermitess in her cell) and Boy’s first wife, Leola, whom Dunstan once seemed to have loved.

His own life fundamentally takes its meaning from his obsession with these other four people. He has little life of his own, but not none. His is, on his own, a well-know figure in the history of saints. More about that anon!

Dunstan Ramey’s sense of his own guilt and responsibility for all that happens around him goes back centrally to a snow ball. Perhaps even farther back into the Calvinism of his family and the small Canadian village, Deptford, where he was raised. When Dunstan and Boy Staunton were 10, Boy was chasing Dunstan to hit him with a snow ball, but Dunstan dodged it and it hit Mary Dempster causing an early delivery of her baby, and the early delivery and/or the snow ball left her mentally disturbed needing care. The entire main plot is the playing out of this event and its consequences.

Along the way the deranged Mary is seen by Dunstan to have been the cause of three miracles and this leads him to become an expert on Catholic saints despite his Protestant background. It also leaves him forever entwined in the affairs of Boy Staunton, Leola, Boy’s first wife, Mary Dempster herself and her son Paul, who was born that fateful night of the snowball.

The story is magnificently told and winds down to a rather abrupt O Henry-style ending. I’ll leave the main plot out of these remarks since that would spoil the novel for those who haven’t yet read it. I do, however, want to celebrate the stunning complexity of plot which Davies weaves, but raise a voice of mild protest at the quick and startling ending. I was taken aback more than surprised.

This is the fourth Davies novel I’ve read and as my comments on these other works suggest, it isn’t his plots which give me the greatest joy, but his fascinating and unusual interests and insights along the way. This novel is the first volume of a trilogy and I’m sure I’ll return to the other two volumes before long.

There is a major subplot concerning Dunstan’s path toward becoming a major authority on Catholic saints. It begins with Mary Dempster’s three miracles.

Mary was left mentally slow, perhaps more seriously damaged by the snowball/early birth incident. Her husband keeps her tied up in her home, though ten year old Dunstan sneaks in to visit her.

Dunstan is left to baby-sit his sick younger brother, Willie, while his parents go to the annual town fair. Willie takes a dramatic turn for the worse and apparently dies. Dunny panics and races to Mary’s house, cutting her loose from her harness and the two run to Willie’s bed. Mary revives Willie, but Dunstan alone is convinced that Willie was indeed dead and that Mary has miraculous powers.

Two more “miracles” occur, the most telling in 1917 when Dunstan is in World War I and seriously wounded in the mud of Flanders. He eventually falls into a six month long coma and loses a leg. Just before he passes out he drags himself into a church and collapses at the foot of a Madonna statue. The statue is no doubt Mary Dempster. Later, years later, a third miracle is credited to Mary Dempster by Dunstan.

He become obsessed by the Madonna of the Flanders miracle. Since he is by now mid-20s, a history teacher with summer’s free, and modestly well-off with a war pension and money from stock market tips given to him by Boy Staunton, he can afford to travel all summer.

He starts to hunt the Madonna of that remote Flanders church and slowly becomes a major force in the scholarship of saints, particularly one bearded-virgin who has manifestations in most European cultures.

His work comes to the attention of a semi-secret Jesuit organization which has been doing research for centuries on esoteric saints. They even publish some of Dunstan’s work. Eventually he publishes 10 books on saints including a famous European travel guide: Saints For Tourists.

Robertson Davies weaves this wild and intriguing story of Dunstan’s saints-research with such ease and everydayness that one can easily forget the bizarreness of this whole story.

My favorite line of this sub-plot is Dunstan’s own assessment of his work, recognizing his strange place as a lapsed Calvinistic Protestant with no love of Rome. He says: “I avoided the Catholic gush and the Protestant smirk.”

A second marvelous sub-plot is the life of Paul Dempster. Paul was born of that early birth precipitated by the snowball incident of 1908. He was raised in an impossible home – Mary the insane and harnessed mother, and Amasa, his father, a fanatical fundamentalist Christian preacher strapped with a mad wife and little money.

When Paul is only four years old Dunny is running the village library part-time and studying magic, mainly coin and card tricks. In payment for four-year old Paul’s attention to his bumbling and clumsy tricks, Dunny reads him “gushy” stories of the saints, regarding them as no more than especially fascinating fairly tales.

Dunstan may be clumsy, but tiny Paul has gifted hands and just takes to the tricks with an innate talent. However when Amasa discovers that Dunny has been reading his son tales of the saints and teaching him the wickedness of cheating (the card and coin tricks), he bars any further contact between the two. By age 10 Paul runs away to the circus and is never heard of again in the village.

However, years later, while hunting a bearded virgin saint legend in a small Austria village in the Tyrol, Dunny runs into a magician and recognizes him as Paul, but with a French name. Paul allows he was once Paul Dempster, but denies he is REALLY Paul, he has a new existence. He also wants nothing to do with his mother whom Dunstan is now caring for. After some time together in the Tyrol Paul and Dunny part.

In Mexico, another many years later when Dunstan is studying the miraculous virgin of Guadeloupe he runs into Paul again. Now he is Magnus Eisengrim, an extremely complex, smooth and learned magician on his way to becoming the world’s most famous magician/hypnotists/mind-reader. Dunstan is already a famous author of 10 books on saints. Lisle, a strange, extremely ugly and brilliant consort of Magnus, brains behind his career, convinces Dunny to write a fictional and “appropriate” biography for Magnus, who has no past until Dunny creates it. This biography incorporates all the esoteric lore he has encountered in his years of studying saints. The “biography” of Magnus Eisengrin is not only a best-seller world-wide, but a major factor in the Magnus’ rise to fame as the world’s greatest magician.

This is all a stunning sub-plot, woven in and out of the novel. Davies can pull off such a gripping and unusual character with great ease.

Lastly there are in this novel, as in the others I have read of Robertson Davies, many passages which are just marvelously written. They stand on their own, further evidence of this man’s exceptional literary skills.

I select just three to conclude these comments – it would easily be twenty-three.

The first is his description of “the gravel pit,” a place of darkness and fear in the small village of Deptford in 1915, and secondly Dunstan’s introduction to his long and spell-binding account of his short and disastrous service in World War I. The final one is a short paragraph on the sort of teachers boys should have.

The gravel pit
This gravel pit was of unusual importance to our village because it completely blocked any normal extension of streets or houses on our western side; thus it was a source of indignation to our village council. However, it belonged to the railway company, which valued it as a source of the gravel they needed for keeping their roadbed in order, and which they excavated and hauled considerable distances up and down the track. How big it was I do not accurately know, but it was big, and prejudice made it seem bigger. It was not worked consistently and so was often undisturbed for a year or more at a time, in it there were pools, caused by seepage from the river, which it bordered, and a lot of scrub growth, sumac, sallow, Manitoba maple, and such unprofitable things, as well as goldenrod and kindred trashy weeds.
Mothers hated it because sometimes little children strayed into it and were hurt, and big children sneaked into it and met the likes of Mabel Heighington. But most of all it was disliked because it was a refuge for the tramps who rode the rods of the railway. Some of these were husky young fellows; others were old men, or men who seemed old, in ragged greatcoats belted with a piece of rope or a strap, wearing hats of terrible dilapidation, and giving off a stench of feet, sweat, faeces, and urine that would have staggered a goat. They were mighty drinkers of flavouring extracts and liniments that had a heavy alcohol base. All of them were likely to appear at a back door and ask for food. In their eyes was the dazed, stunned look of people who live too much in the open air without eating properly. They were generally given food and generally feared as lawless men.
On World War I – the first few paragraphs:
I SHALL SAY little about the war, because though I was in it from early 1915 until late 1917 I never found out much about it until later.
Commanders and historians are the people to discuss wars; I was in the infantry, and most of the time I did not know where I was or what I was doing, except that I was obeying orders and trying not to be killed in any of the variety of horrible ways open to me. Since then I have read enough to know a little of the actions in which I took a part, but what the historians say throws no great light on what I remember. Because I do not want to posture in this account of myself as anything other than what I was at the time of my narrative, I shall write here only of what I knew when it happened.
When I left Deptford for the training camp I had never been away from home alone before. I found myself among men more experienced in the world than I, and I tried not to attract attention by any kind of singular behaviour. Some of them knew I was desperately homesick and were kindly; others jeered at me and the other very young fellows. They were anxious to make men of us, by which they meant making us like themselves. Some of them were men indeed -- grave, slow young farmers and artisans with apparently boundless resources of strength and courage; others were just riffraff of the kind you get in any chance collection of men. None of them had much education; none had any clear idea what the war was about, though many felt that England had been menaced and had to be defended; perhaps the most astonishing thing was that none of us had much notion of geography and thought that going to fight in France might involve almost any kind of climate, from the Pole to the Equator. Of course some of us had had some geography in school and had studied maps, but a school map is a terribly uncommunicative thing.
On teachers for the boys in his prep school
I liked the company of most of my colleagues, who were about equally divided among good men who were good teachers, awful men who were awful teachers, and the grotesques and misfits who drift into teaching and are so often the most educative influences a boy meets in school. If a boy can't have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don't just give him a bad, dull teacher.
Bob Corbett

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