#1 – Leaven of Malice, by Robertson Davies

I wrote in my discussion of Tempest-Tost that I was interested in tracing the development of Davies’ system of identity construction through all eleven of his novels, and that Tempest-Tost offered insight into the first of what I believe to be the three major elements of that system: the kind of self-knowledge achieved by his élite, the aristocracy of the spirit (I was perhaps not entirely clear that, while it takes a number of factors for Davies to elevate a character to that aristocracy, it is his or her self-knowledge that is of chief importance). In that first volume, Davies presents us mostly with characters who have already managed the trick of fully constructing their identities, and so we are largely only capable of seeing the end result, not the process or the tools. For Davies identity is like a jewel; it must be cut before it can be said to properly exist, and once cut it does not change. Only a few facets of that jewel can be seen by any one person at any one time, and what can appear to be changes in the personality, in the identity, is merely the rotating of that jewel to reveal more and more facets. In my discussion of Tempest-Tost I wrote about talent, an attitude I called “professionalism” (though it could have other names), and self-knowledge. These are largely the tools Davies uses to cut the jewel. I won’t get to the process by which new facets are made until my discussion of A Mixture of Frailties; what concerns us in Leaven of Malice is the chief method of revealing more facets to the reader. And with that I hope I have finished torturing the metaphor of the jewel.

One of the advantages of writing trilogies is that characters can carry over from one novel to the other with much of the heavy lifting already done in terms of introductions and the establishment of certain basic traits. What remains is to be done is simply further development (any writers looking over my shoulder may now give a chuckle at my use of the word “simply”). Davies makes full use of this opportunity, shifting focus in Leaven of Malice to some of the best-drawn secondary characters from Tempest-Tost. More than a decade after my first run through Davies’ ouevre I’m still disappointed that Valentine Rich, one of Davies’ most real and interesting female characters, never makes an appearance beyond that first novel, though I have no problem understanding why. Gloster Ridley, who makes his only appearance in Leaven of Malice, is another such character, but literary novelists are rarely accommodating to fans of serialized fiction. (Not that I would suggest they should be.) At any rate, characterization isn’t what I really want to discuss right now. Davies’ technique has improved since Tempest-Tost, but in Leaven of Malice he introduces an element more important to the concept I’m attempting to trace in his work.

According to Wikipedia, the primary definition of a conceit is “an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison.” Anyone who’s taken a class on 17th Century literature will remember the concept from John Donne’s excellent poem, The Flea, which is the standard scrap of teaching verse. Indeed, Wikipedia also cites it. What I’ve identified in Davies’ work is a definition that’s perhaps less explicitly known, but is likely more common in contemporary literature. Also from Wikipedia: “For later literature and film, the term is sometimes used to refer to a device that stretches reality to take advantage of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.”” I would argue that this is an extremely common device in melodrama (and is at the core of situation comedy). I think anyone even casually familiar with Davies’ interests will know that he was an absolute fiend for Victorian melodrama, and was clever enough to see its value both as fun, ‘trashy’ literature and as a source of genuine inspiration. The central conceit of Leaven of Malice could have been ripped straight from such a melodrama, or even an episode of How I Met Your Mother. An elocution teacher (!) who also happens to be a con artist arrives in Salterton and visits a variety of influential local persons, like Professor Vambrace and Gloster Ridley, editor of The Bellman, Salterton’s daily paper, intent selling his wares. The instructor in question is Bevill Higgin, an irritating, obnoxious little man, the sort of ingratiating, relentless self-promoter that one despises rather than admires. He is, of course, dismissed by nearly everyone he pushes himself on, except the decrepit, incompetent Bellman reporter Swithin Shillito, and Mrs. Edith Little, Ridley’s dull-witted, prudish, easily-manipulated housekeeper (and her family). Higgin wants nothing more than attention, and when he can’t get it from the important people in town, he decides to cause trouble. He plants a false wedding announcement for Pearl Vambrace and Solomon Bridgetower in The Bellman (on November 31st of all days). Seeing that we’re talking about Salterton, a slightly cartoonish, satirical version of a small Ontario city (though not so cartoonish as to be completely unbelievable), this isn’t just a curiosity to be laughed at and then ignored. Instead it brings down the mother of all shit storms on half the city.

I would say something like “this is where things start to get absurd”, but really, an Irish con-man giving elocution lessons who uses a fake wedding announcement as payback for being ignored is pretty absurd all on its own. The point is, once you accept it, everything else in the novel works, and it works well. Professor Vambrace’s descent into obsession and paranoia is bizarre on its own, but Davies uses the fake wedding announcement (and, to be fair, a spectacularly fun satire of sociology and sociologists) to create an atmosphere and tone where it makes perfect sense, even when he breaks down to the point of striking his daughter, and things go from amusing to deadly serious. Davies’ conceits aren’t always so straightforward (though they are sometimes more bizarre), but he seems to still be operating largely with a theatrical mindset.

There’s a lot going on in Leaven of Malice, far more than in Tempest-Tost, but not all of it is related to what I wanted to talk about here. The book is a tangle of mostly satirical plot lines that are eventually brought together by the resolution of the wedding announcement incident into a big, frothy, classically comic ending. The wedding announcement strand isn’t necessarily the most interesting or important thing going on in the novel, but it is the chief instrument through which Pearl Vambrace achieves self-awareness, and self-actualization. Of course it’s also the means Davies uses to throw her and Solly Bridgetower together and get his comic ending, but those two things are closely related, and it all dovetails rather nicely.

Readers of Tempest-Tost will remember that Pearl Vambrace was an insecure young woman, not thought of very highly by most of Salternton, and thoroughly overwhelmed by her domineering father, the Professor. She did have a brief, shining moment as the (alright, a) belle of the June Ball, but by the time Leaven of Malice opens, she’s a proverbial shrinking violet, hiding in the listening room at the university library where she works. When the wedding announcement hits, she’s bombarded by unwanted attention from her co-workers, accusations from her father, and demands from Solly to “talk.” She wants desperately to escape the entire mess, her father’s selfishness and Solly’s demands in particular. She feels alternately like she’s being ignored, pushed around, or insulted. To cope, she winds up doing things—significantly, things like thinking for herself—that she never would have tried before.

First, conscientious girl though she is, Pearl sometimes abandons her place as an assistant librarian and instead hides out in the Music Room of Waverly University Library, where she plays records the Music Appreciation professor refers to as “Horrible Examples” and imagines herself a pianist, a singer, a ballerina of unparalleled grace. Christian Sinding and Frederic Clay aren’t exactly the sort of composers I’d imagine a rebellious young girl listening to in 1954; I’d be more inclined to picture her listening to Big Joe Turner (who’s much-covered 1939 blues track “Cherry Red” is as proto-rock-and-roll a song as one could ask for) or Ike Turner’s pseudonymous band Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who were already cutting tracks for Sun Records back in 1951, or Les Paul and Mary Ford who sold six million records in 1951 alone, or even Frank Sinatra or the Crew Cuts for God’s sake. But then nobody ever would have accused Robertson Davies of being on the cutting edge of music. Details of popular music aside, this little bit of slacking off might seem like no big deal, or even an expression of her generalized anxiety. To a degree it is, but folks who read Tempest-Tost will it’s more than that. In that novel Pearl Vambrace was so terrified of her father—of any authority figure, really—that she wouldn’t have dared to risk the wrath of someone with as much power over her future as her employer.

An even bolder move is her attending the party of the husband and wife social workers Norm Yarrow and Dutchy Spreewald. These two are… well, let’s just say that Davies doesn’t seem to have had much respect for the field of social work. “Contempt” might be a more accurate word; about the only good quality he allows them is an earnest desire to help others, but even that is comically twisted into a kind of blind, self-serving, missionary attitude, a cheerful stupidity. The party is a disastrous mess of small-scale social engineering, with a group of young adults being shuffled and herded around playing ridiculous games when it’s clear what they’re most interested in is chatting amiably with drink in hand. It’s a remarkable scene for its razor-sharp satire (Leaven of Malice did win the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, after all), but that’s not what interests us here: what makes it important to us is Pearl Vambrace. The old Pearl Vambrace never would have attended at all, and she would have made a colossal cock-up of even getting herself dressed. Her need to escape the embarrassment of her father’s rage and selfishness is greater than her fear, and she can’t possibly imagine Solly Bridgetower finding her at the party. She puts on her fanciest frock, and off she goes. What Davies does to her at the party is a ploy older than Chaucer but has been in use as recently as last week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother; he throws the disagreeable youngsters together in an awkward parody of affection, and lets the reader see a very real sexual tension building between them.

The most significant moment in Pearl’s development is also the one most directly caused by Bevill Higgin’s mischief (alright, and Professor Vambrace’s pride, and some of Humphrey Cobbler’s mischief, but it’s all set in motion by Higgin). Vambrace gets it into his head that Gloster Ridley is part of some conspiracy to destroy his reputation by linking his daughter with the son of his old rival. This nonsense is mostly a function of his pride, of his being a biggish sort of fish in a smallish sort of pond, of being, essentially, incapable of seeing much beyond the tip of his nose. He takes a cue from trashy detective novels and dresses himself in the gaudy costume he imagines a sleuth might wear, though his notions seem to be a generation or two out of date (it’s interesting that Davies inflicts this flaw on Vambrace, the one character he is most consistently critical of in the two novels in which he appears, given that it’s a weakness Davies himself always seemed on the edge of succumbing to), and once suitably attired, he proceeds to stalk Gloster Ridley. Well, he tries to, at any rate. All he really succeeds in doing is making a conspicuous ass of himself by skulking around in the bushes and knocking over the landlady’s trash cans. He follows Ridley to the home of a friend, where he is easily spotted by the late-arriving Humphrey Cobbler, who later can’t resist the temptation to humiliate the professor by shattering his illusions of stealth. The Professor is shocked into a moment of clarity, the closest thing he ever has to true self-knowledge, as Davies writes, “Not only was it bitter to be mocked; it was worse still to feel that he was worthy of mockery.” Bitterness turns to rage, however, when he arrives at home just in time to see Solly dropping Pearl off after the party. A row ensues as the Professor completely fails to see reason, and drags Pearl from the car. And then he hits her. It’s not a great blow, and she isn’t really hurt, but even in 1954 that was not at all the point. Pearl cries until dawn and the Professor loses himself in drink, and nothing will ever again be the same for either of them. Because of his pride, because of his provincial sense of shame, and because deep down the Professor is genuinely a moral man, Pearl will never be under his thumb again. She has all the power in their relationship, and she realizes this as much as he does. Pearl is free to be her own woman, and she grabs hold of that freedom with both hands.

The novel ends with Bevill Higgin revealed as the source of all this mischief, and Pearl’s involvement entirely a matter of mistaken identity, but the consequence of his malice (ooooh, there’s your title), the ridiculous conceit of a false wedding announcement, is that Pearl and Solly refuse to withdraw it, and by the time A Mixture of Frailties opens, the two are married. These conceits become less absurd as Davies develops as a novelist, but he never lets go of them entirely, and they always play a pivotal role in characters developing their personal myths.

Leaven of Malice has been my second selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is A Mixture of Frailties, the final volume in The Salterton Trilogy.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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