A MIXTURE OF FRAILTIES

By Robertson Davies
New York: Penguin Books, 1958
ISBN # 0-14-005432-4 (paper)
379 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2008

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

Louisa Bridgetower has died and left a million dollar trust and a very strange will. If her only son and his wife produce a male child, and if the trust, of which her son is one of the three trustees, can find a woman under 22 who wants to advance in the arts and send her abroad for training, then and only then will the trust revert to the ownership of her son. Thus begins the fun.

And fun it is, but pathos as well. We follow the trials and tribulations of the trust trying to live up to its strange obligations in late 1950s Canada. We follow the life of Monica Gall, the local young woman selected to study voice in London, and we meet a madcap group of characters.

While there is a great deal of humor in the novel, especially in word choice and comic situations, there is also drama, sadness and ample human frailties, as the title suggests.

I much enjoyed the crazy collection of names; all listed below are characters who really and truly figure into the story in some significant way, a gigantic cast of them. And this list doesnít even include those like the main character, Monica Gall, who has a bit more normal sounding name. But, along the way we meet:

Mathew Snelgrove, Humphrey Cobbler. Puss Pottinger, Persis Kinwellmarshe, Lady Phoebe Elphinstone, Benjamin Eccles, Giles Revelstoke, Odo Odingsels, Phanuel Tuke, Sir Benedict Domdamiel, Murtagh Molly, Catriona Eigg among others!

Toward the end of the novel Davies uses a sort of deus-ex-machina out of the blue to end the life of a major character. That was disappointing to me since in later works there were more clever plot moves than that. However, he did get some humor out of the situation since five of the characters try to take blame for the death of the character who died.

Iíve read quite a number of Davies novels and this one is both much earlier than any I have read before and, for me, decidedly inferior. What I have grown to expect from Davies is a strong intellectual challenge, profound ideas and the results of significant scholarship. This work is much lighter; a rather quick and fun read.

It isnít a complete wash out in terms of intellectual challenge. The lead character, Monica Gall is studying voice, mainly opera and classical, in London, and Davies doesnít disappoint in his broad knowledge of and challenges concerning that area of the arts. Nonetheless, this just isnít what Davies was within another 10-15 years.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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