Robertson Davies and I have a lot in common. We both spent many years in the Peterborough and Kawartha Lakes region of Central Ontario. We both grew wiry, unreasonable beards. He was an erudite, imaginative writer skilled in many genres. I know how to type.
He wrote Leaven of Malice. I read it.
Strange that despite these myriad connections, I still struggle to describe my affection for Davies and his writing. It may be that I need to spend a few years acting in the English theatre, attending Oxford, and working as a literary critic to fully comprehend and elucidate Davies. His narratives and descriptions which always amaze, as well as amuse, me, draw on all those experiences. I have scrutinized his life and remain an admirer, but I have a hard time pulling the fibres together to explain exactly why.
It may have been his urbane manner. I am not exactly sure what urbane means, but it strikes me as a word that was invented to describe writers and wicked wits like Robertson Davies. He had a style, a level of culture, and a sophistication that remains uncommon in our rustic little corner of the northern Earth, and it might be one of those things best savoured without the disruption of dissection and over analysis.
I manage to avoid worrying too much in reading most of his books, and the 1955 Leacock Medal winning Leaven of Malice (published in 1954) can be enjoyed without trying to explain why.
Yet I must admit to recognizing one specific reason why I particularly liked this book. It is the association with Peterborough and the profession of journalism.
Davies was, according to his publisher and other authorities, really thinking about Kingston, Ontario, when he painted the picture of the town of Salterton in this and its trilogical companion books (the earlier Tempest-Tost (1951) and finally A Mixture of Frailties (1958)). But he was living and working as the editor of the Peterborough Examiner at the time he wrote the second book, and this information is the mental touchstone I reference when reading this, the ninth recipient of the Leacock Medal for Humour.
As well as reflecting the Davies style, the Leaven of Malice is indeed a humorous story: one instigated by a practical joke, a false engagement announcement placed in the local paper, The Salterton Evening Bellman. The announcement, which opens the book and launches the drama, begins by stating that “Professor and Mrs. Walter Vambrace are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Pearl Veronica, to Solomon Bridgetower, Esq.” The Vambrace and Bridgetower families were not on friendly terms and thus the joke, the embarrassment, and the quest to find the false-announcement culprit.
The Vambrace-Bridgetower feud was a mannerly version of the Hatfields and McCoys having its roots in a career-defining slight from the local university. This set the stage for a satirical account of academic ambition. Add in the affairs of the local Anglican congregation, the airs of an aging journalist, and the general busy-bodiness of a small town and you have the ingredients for a sophisticated spoof and the kind of humour that likely elevated the stature of the Leacock Medal through its association.
Character depictions are among this great writer’s strengths, and there is quite a cast. In addition to Solly Bridgewater, his mother, the Vambraces, their lawyer Matthew Snelgrove, and the Dean of the Cathedral, the book includes a number of truly odd characters like the shoddy Bevill Higgin and charming Humprhey Cobbler.
I particularly liked the meticulous portrayal of Snelgrove who was described as not only a lawyer in reality but also a lawyer in a score of “stagey mannerisms” ... “ a lawyer who joined the tips of his fingers while listening to a client; a lawyer who closed his eyes and smacked his lips disconcertingly while others talked; a lawyer who tugged and polished his long nose with a very large handkerchief; a lawyer who coughed dryly before speaking; a lawyer who used his eyeglasses not so much as aids to vision as for peeping over, snatching from the nose, rubbing on the lapel, and wagging in his listener’s face.”
Instead of a distraction or delay, the repetition and specifics all seem like a logical path leading to Snelgrove’s interest in pushing for a legal assault on The Bellman and its “negligent” editor, Gloster Ridley.
While one could get lost in the forest of personalities and intrigue, it is pretty clear that Ridley is the protagonistic focal point of the story, and it is easy to believe that Davies was drawing his hero from his own experiences behind the editor’s desk at the Examiner even if the imaginary Salterton was echoing Kingston and not Peterborough.
The book opens and closes around Ridley. It begins with his typical day and his anticipation of an honorary degree as reward for his role in forming the journalism program at the local university.
It is mildly uplifting from the perspective of any fragile connection to Davies that his reworked self, Ridley, decides at the end of the book, after witnessing the parade of pretension and pomposity induced by the Leaven of Malice, that he does not want the honorary degree or validation from the community behind it after all.
I like to think that it suggests that Davies might have been just as happy to be away from such a place and harboured, as I have been told, at least a few positive thoughts for the non-Salterton Peterborough and his time in the Editor’s job in that place on the fringe of our Kawarthas.