Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies is a Canadian author best known for his four trilogies – the Salterton Trilogy, the Deptford Trilogy, the Cornish Trilogy and the unfinished Toronto Trilogy. As someone completely new to Davies’ work it was hard to know where to start, but as it didn’t seem necessary to read these trilogies in any particular order, I decided to begin with the one that sounded most appealing to me, the Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first book. I think it was a good choice! I actually started to read it last August for a reading week hosted by Lory, but got distracted during a house move and didn’t go back to it until just after New Year, when I was able to give it the attention it deserved.

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstable (later renamed Dunstan) Ramsay in the form of a long letter written to the headmaster of the school from which he is retiring, having taught there for many years. In the letter, he looks back on his life, beginning in 1908 when, as a boy growing up in the small Canadian town of Deptford, an incident occurs that will shape his future: Percy Boyd Staunton, his friend and rival, throws a snowball containing a stone; Dunstan – the intended target – jumps aside; and instead the snowball hits a pregnant woman, who goes into premature labour with the shock. This incident means nothing to Percy, but it will haunt Dunstan for the rest of his life.

Many of the things that happen to Dunstan from this point on – the sort of man he becomes, the interests he develops, the career path he follows and the relationships he forms – could be traced back to the day of the snowball. His life-long obsession with the study of saints, for example, comes about because of his feelings of guilt and responsibility towards the pregnant woman, Mrs Dempster, and her son, Paul, the baby born prematurely. He convinces himself that she is a saint who has performed miracles, including saving his life when he is wounded at Passchendaele during the First World War. Illusions, deceptions and the unexplained are important themes running throughout the book, not just in the form of miracles but also magic tricks, conjuring and fortune telling.

I think this is the sort of book that probably needs to be read more than once to be able to fully appreciate all the different layers and ideas it contains. I’m not sure I enjoyed the book enough to want to read it again (although I did like it very much), but I’m certainly interested in reading the other two parts of the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Finally, if you are wondering about the title of the novel, it describes the role Dunstable/Dunstan Ramsay plays throughout his life and throughout the story:

“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.”

16 thoughts on “Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

  1. Deb W says:

    Yes, i have read it, and the others in the trilogy. I would certainly recommend them, in part because of Dunstan’s connection with Paul, and the final book shows quite a change in our Fifth Business. I find myself undecided about recommending them – they are a large time investment, but also the language i thought was rather specific to the time that the author was writing in, a bit like reading Buchan. Beautiful use of language, of course, but mannered and rather forethought. Now that you’ve started, please finish. There are some interesting twists ahead !

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you would recommend the other books in the trilogy too. As I enjoyed this one I’m definitely planning to continue with them. I understand what you mean about the language, although I do like older styles of writing so that wasn’t a problem for me.

  2. hopewellslibraryoflife says:

    Good post! I’m glad it wasn’t only me who didn’t enjoy it enough to read it again. I read it in 1989 right after getting to my Peace Corps post. I was way too confused to make much of it, but I do agree that it ” probably needs to be read more than once to be able to fully appreciate all the different layers and ideas…” I did not go on to read any of his others (yet).

    • Helen says:

      No, it’s not just you! I liked this book but I have to really love a book to want to read it again. I’m planning to read the other two books in this trilogy soon, though.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve had this one for years – unread. I really should get around to it, I haven’t read anything by him before.

    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t really thought about reading Robertson Davies until quite recently, but I’m glad I tried this one. I hope you enjoy it too when you get around to it.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    I would certainly recommend the remainder of the trilogy, especially when it displays different perspectives on Dunstan (an authorial self-portrait, I have no doubt) and reveals a lot more about the other two in the trio of men whose lives are irreversably tangled by that thrown snowball.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you would recommend the second and third books too. I’ll look forward to reading them and finding out more about the other two men.

  5. Liz Dexter says:

    I have read all the trilogies and I love them but they do inhabit a certain world, I think, and you have to enjoy that world. I am thinking of doing Davies again next year.

    • Helen says:

      It’s good to know you love all the trilogies. So far I do like Robertson Davies’ world and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books. 🙂

  6. Lory says:

    As Chris mentions, the other two books give a different slant on the same story and may meet your need for going over it again. It’s rather amusing to see Davies’s style referred to as “mannered” as he often refers to a Mannerist painting that influenced him hugely. I don’t remember if it comes into this trilogy but you’ll surely notice it if it does.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    As others have said here, the other two volumes offer something a little different. It could be that the description of this trilogy made it sound like a better match for you than it actually is. This is one I’ve read countless times because it was assigned reading in school and, you’re quite right, there are lot of layers to unpack (see that snowball reference there? LOL). If/when you do try another – in or out of this series – I hope it’s more wholly satisfying for you!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, maybe one of the other trilogies would have been a better starting point for me, but it was hard to know where to begin. I still enjoyed this book enough to want to continue with the next volume, though!

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