The 1951 Club: Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies

I had no idea that Tempest-Tost would be so much fun to read. Maybe if I’d ever read anything by Robertson Davies, I would have known, but embarrassingly, this was my first time. The problem now is that I want to read them all!

Tempest-Tost is the first book in the Salterton Trilogy, and the first book Davies published. I picked it to read for The 1951 Club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

In Tempest-Tost, the Little Theater of Salterton, Ontario is putting on a performance of The Tempest. And it was exactly as I hoped it would be; a cast full of eccentric characters, revolving around the central story of a foolish, love-sick man and the girl he has his eye on – Hector and Griselda.

The cast…

There’s Freddy, Griselda’s younger sister who has a passion for wine-making, and who believes her older sister to be brainless. Freddy and the gardener, Tom, form sort of a team whose wish is to keep the members of the Little Theater out of The Shed (where Tom keeps all his valuable tools and where Freddy stores her wine).

Mr. Webster, single father of the two girls, who has a big beautiful garden that he reluctantly lets out to the Little Theater for their rehearsals and performance. He is unfairly criticized by the townspeople for owning such a grand home, and he criticizes himself for having no real idea of how to bring up his two daughters.

These advanced people pointed out that a man could only be in one room at a time, sit in one chair at a time, and sleep in one bed at a time; therefore a man whose desires soared beyond one room with a chair and a bed in it was morally obliged to justify himself.

He came of a generation to which any girl, before she is married, is a kind of unexploded bomb.

Mr. Webster worries over the fact that he has allowed his daughters use of his library “without restraint” and that “nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library”.

The book itself reads somewhat like a Shakespeare comedy; Hector, Solly, and Roger want Griselda, Pearl fancies herself in love with Roger – while Griselda does not seem fully aware of what’s going on around her – jealousies forming at every opportunity. The womanizing Roger sets his sights on Griselda because she’s the one who isn’t paying attention to him as he shows-off in front of the ladies. Solly is more sensible and knows when he has been defeated.

Nellie is in charge of the Little Theater and all of its productions. She’s portrayed as somewhat silly and emotional, making mountains out of molehills. She is also written about as though she is ancient – then at some point I learned that she is only 36!

Many of the women in the book are made out to be silly, but so are every one of the men. The only character in the book who is not made to look ridiculous at some point is Valentine Rich, the successful actress and director who has come home to deal with her grandfather’s estate, and has been asked to direct this year’s play while she is home. She projects calm and sensibility to the cast members when they get carried away (which they tend to do).

And let us not forget Humphrey Cobbler – a man full of life and “Ornamental Knowledge” (as opposed to “Useful Knowledge”), and with a tendency to stir up a bit of trouble.

Poor Hector

Hector’s character is the one that stood out to me as the most prominent, the most foolish, and the most pitiful. I felt almost painfully sorry for him. and throughout the book I thought of him as “Poor Hector”.

He liked to be where people were gay, but he did not permit an uncontrolled gaiety in himself.

Hector had an odd and isolating childhood, and grows up to be a serious and focused young man. He believed “he possessed the secret of life – planning and common sense“. But then he falls in love with Griselda (18 years old to his 40), and all reason leaves him. “… the old gods of planning and common sense had deserted him.”

He had never, in all his forty years, kissed any woman but his mother.

He has funny ideas about women – not even outdated, just plain strange: “he considered it impossible that a woman should be loved without loving in return” and “he was strongly conscious that Griselda was a woman, and was subject to the disabilities which he believed to be a special and unjust burden to her sex”.

And, due to his odd upbringing and funny ideas, he was prudish to the extreme, made uncomfortable by anything feminine; causing him to flush with embarrassment on many occasions. When he picked up The Tempest to familiarize himself with it before deciding on a character, he was immediately rattled by the “coarse” reference to the “Female Functions”.

… in spite of a conviction held over from school days that poets were people who hid their meaning, such as it was, in word puzzles it seemed clear enough that in this case Shakespeare meant to be Smutty. Obviously this was a play to be approached with the utmost caution.

When Hector sets his sights on Griselda as the woman for him (mainly because she smiled warmly at him one day), he doesn’t exactly fall in love as make a decision to love her. But to Hector it’s the same thing, and soon he is consumed with the thought of winning her, to the exclusion of all else in his life. This is when he decides to act in the play with her, rather than remain merely the treasurer. It’s also when other aspects of his life fall apart; he can’t sleep, his math students start wondering what is wrong with him, he no longer shows up on time at the Snak Shop for his meals, and he no longer has an appetite for them.

By the end he is completely off his rocker – following Griselda around with the idea of “protecting her honour”, watching outside her bedroom window at night (or what he thinks is her bedroom window, but is really her father’s), and finally attempting to commit suicide right when it’s his cue to go on stage during the performance. It sounds awful, but Davies brilliantly turns it all into a goof-ball comedy.

Some good lines and passages

For book lovers…

Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldy, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-take in pursuit of his drug. They might not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command. (Hmm, this sounds familiar.)

For math lovers, and for my Dad who is a mathematician nothing at all like Hector…

He was not the kind of schoolmaster who scribbles on exercise papers; with a red pencil as sharp as a needle he would put a little mark at the point where the problem had gone wrong, not in such a way as to assist the erring student, but merely in order to show him where he had fallen into mathematical sin.

In response to Val’s inquiry as to why the cast members want to “plague and worry” her about nothing…

They are sacrificing to our Canadian God… We all believe that if we fret and abuse ourselves sufficiently, Providence will take pity and smile upon anything we attempt.

Best line…

It’s a mistake to see people dressing. One should see them either dressed or naked; those are the only two decent states. All else is shame and disillusion.

Next best line…

There are times when every woman is disgusted by the bonelessness of men.

I think Davies’ talent lies in his ability to see people as they are, warts and all, and to be able to write about it in a way that allows us to laugh at ourselves. Despite how foolish they sometimes seem, there are many times in the story and in the characters that we can see parts of ourselves – even in a book published in 1951. Consider the scene where Pearl is getting herself ready to go out, but has very little experience putting on make-up. And the whole idea of the townspeople wanting to out-do each other in their hospitality. (Facebook envy?) Just change Mrs. Bridgetower’s declaration that “the telephone is the curse of the age” to “the internet” or “the cell phone” or “social media”.

I have now officially begun my search for a complete set of Robertson Davies books.

Do you have a favourite Davies book to recommend?

 

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60 thoughts on “The 1951 Club: Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies

  1. Sarah says:

    I went through a Robertson Davies kick in university and really loved reading him! I should re read some….

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I have no recommendation, since I have never even heard of Robertson Davies. 🙂 But the book sounds very funny to me. I wish you best of luck in your search for the entire set of books, so that I can find out more about him.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks! I know I could easily just get them all at the library or buy them new, but what would be the fun in that? I want to go hunting for used copies!

  3. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    I have not read any book by Davies. But this sounds delightful, especially to book lovers. It is interesting to read a novel in a time period when an unmarried girl is considered a burden.

    “Mr. Webster worries over the fact that he has allowed his daughters use of his library “without restraint” and that “nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library”. – This quote made me laugh so much. I must say I have heard similar lines from friends/acquaintances too: that I read too much and that is giving me ideas (which are wrong according to them)

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad it made you laugh! I know it’s outdated thinking, but I love laughing at it. I also don’t think Davies believes it, either.

  4. susanosborne55 says:

    I worked my way through all four of the Robertson Davies series back when I was a bookseller and enjoyed them hugely. They’re quite addictive once you get started. Hard to say which was my favourite but it’s probably The Cornish Trilogy

  5. Brian says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve read anything by this tremendous writer. But my favourite was his later more mature work The Cornish Trilogy: Bred in the Bone, The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus. You will love them.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s two votes for The Cornish Trilogy! I always thought the Deptford books were everyone’s favourites – but I’m happy to hear differently – more to love!

  6. Dawn McDuffie says:

    I envy you! You will have the treat of reading all of his books for the first time. I have read every book Robertson Davies ever wrote, including his wonderful collections of essays. I re-read them every now and then just for the pleasure of it. I think the book that follows this one, Absence of Malice, is my personal favorite. Pearl and Solly are such endearing characters. We want to cheer them on.

    • Naomi says:

      Okay, I might have to borrow it from the library rather than wait to discover it at a used book store – I can handle that!
      Thanks for commenting!

  7. JacquiWine says:

    I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I’d never heard of this book or its author until I noticed that another blogger had been reading it for the 1951 Club. It sounds like a lot of fun – what a great find!

  8. heavenali says:

    I have just finished writing my review of this lovely novel when I spotted your review. I have scheduled my review for tomorrow and linked to yours. I hadn’t heard of Robertson Davies before reading this – it’s such a good novel. I found Hector’ s story to be such a sad one.

  9. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Hooray, I am so glad you read this and are helping to generate interest in one of my favorite authors! You won’t regret reading all the novels (and his nonfiction is wonderful too). I love them all, but I generally say What’s Bred in the Bone is my favorite.

  10. FictionFan says:

    I’ve never come across him and now think I’ve been missing a treat! Some of those quotes made me laugh out loud. I shall scuttle straight over to Amazon with my fingers crossed that his books are available over here for once…

    • Naomi says:

      I feel sure they will be. And, yes, I laughed out loud many times, and that’s rare for me! I would love to read a review from you of one of his books. 🙂

  11. roughghosts says:

    This is a writer I have always been meaning to read. I was up at my late parents’ house today going through all of the books to pull those that would be appropriate to donate to a huge charity sale this spring. (I’d already brought several boxes back earlier and I think we brought six or more heavy crates back today.) Somewhere there are a number of Davies’ novels—including this I’m sure. I pulled out Bred in the Bone for myself, but now I’m thinking I’ll have to try to find the others before they are taken to the sale.

  12. AYearOfBooksBlog says:

    I read my first Robertson Davies book (Fifth Business) last year so can totally related. I will be adding this one too my TBR pile and also plan on reading The Manticore this year for my Bingo Square to read a book published in my birth year (1972). Great post as always!

  13. Grab the Lapels says:

    I think after a while the “protect her honor” schtick would drive me up a wall, but these characters do sound like funny puppets being moved about. I especially like the line about never owning more than what you can occupy at once.

  14. The Cue Card says:

    I admit I haven’t read any of Davies books, but I know he is an icon of Canadian Lit. I was always a bit intimidated by the look of his novels but maybe I shouldn’t be considering your review. Of all of his novels, I think I have heard of Fifth Business the most. Enjoy.

    • Naomi says:

      You sound just like me! I am here to tell you that his books are a joy – not intimidating at all. But I’m sure some of those covers were partly why I hadn’t read any of them up until now. They look like the kind of book teachers make you read in high school.

  15. Simon T says:

    I’d never heard of him or this, but a few people brought it up this week – and I am definitely tempted now. I love any books about any aspect of the theatre, so I am completely sold!

    • Naomi says:

      Then I think you would like this!
      I’m glad to have brought his books to the attention of more people, even if this is only the first one I’ve read myself.
      Thanks for hosting this event!

  16. readerlane says:

    Your review makes me want to start rereading one of my favorite authors. I have a soft spot for The Manticore and Bred in the Bone, but why not go on to Leaven of Malice which carries on with some of the same characters? I just finished reading his letters, which were a real treat if you like letters.

  17. lauratfrey says:

    I do have one to recommend: Fifth business. I had to read it in high school and I hated it, butI just reread it and… it’s so wise! And funny! And sad! And like you said, portrays people, warts and all. And then some 😊 Sounds like this may share some themes in common with The Lonely Hearts Hotel, eg performance, illusion…

    • Naomi says:

      I started reading Fifth Business a few days ago, then put it down to read Lonely Hearts (because it’s a library book and FB isn’t) – the story is very different from Tempest-Tost, but still the same clever narrative! It will be done by the 25h. 🙂

  18. Alex Daw says:

    Ooh…I have never heard of Robertson Davies but luckily we have this very book in our library and I have ordered it so I can listen to it on my way to work. Thanks for the suggestion.

  19. buriedinprint says:

    I used to love the Deptford trilogy best, but I recently found an old notebook of quotes and see that I had a tonne of favourite quotes from The Rebel Angels. This one was such fun; I had a hard time not starting the second one right away, but now a couple of weeks have passed and I still remember all the characters so I don’t think it’s too late to go back to Salterton yet quite! Are you still planning to read on, alternating between the two trilogies, or are you going to finish Deptford first? So many tough choices!

    • Naomi says:

      I wanted to read on right away, too, but wasn’t able to at the time. But, yes, the characters are still fresh in my mind, and even though I’ve now also read Fifth Business, it’s the Tempest-Tost characters I would like to continue with!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Would it help to know that the second volume of Deptford shifts focus? At least, I think it does, if I remember properly…

      • Naomi says:

        Yes, I think you’re right. Which makes me feel as though it’s not as urgent. But I could be wrong…

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