KfC’s 2013 Project: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business … Definition

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organised according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
— Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

Available at Indigo.ca

Available at Indigo.ca


That’s the epigraph to Robertson Davies Fifth Business (1970) and, unlike many epigraphs, it tells us a lot about what is to come. Most obviously, given the novel’s title, the central character will be one whose purpose is to bring the story along (rather than being a hero or villain). More subtly, this will be an “old style” story, the kind that is a staple for drama and opera companies — particularly those specializing in visiting out-of-the-way towns where they don’t want to pose too much challenge to the audience.

The novel is told in the first person by the Fifth Business himself, Dunstable Ramsay, and author Davies, in admirable touring company fashion, introduces all the major characters in an incident that takes less than two pages to recount. First we meet the hero (or perhaps villain?) of the story, Percy Boyd Staunton. He’s the son of a well-off doctor (whose wealth comes mainly from shrewd land purchases) and he and 10-year-old Dunny have been out testing Percy’s “fine new Christmas sled” — alas, Dunny’s old-fashioned, well-used one has out-performed Percy’s new acquisition:

The afternoon had been humiliating for him, and when Percy was humiliated he was vindictive. His parents were rich, his clothes were fine, and his mittens were of skin and came from a store in the city, whereas mine were knitted by my mother; it was manifestly wrong, therefore, that his splended sled should not go faster than mine, and when such injustice showed itself Percy became cranky. He slighted my sled, scoffed at my mittens, and at last came right out and said that his father was better than my father. Instead of hitting him, which might have started a fight that could have ended in a draw or even a defeat for me, I said, all right, then, I would go home and he could have the field to himself. This was crafty of me, for I knew it was getting on for suppertime, and one of our home rules was that nobody, under any circumstances, was to be late for a meal. So I was keeping the home rule, while at the same time leaving Percy to himself.

KfC's 2013 Project

KfC’s 2013 Project

Deptford is a small village and getting home will not take long. Having efficiently sketched his two main characters on page one, Davies sets the plot in motion on page two. As Dunny hurries home, the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his pregnant wife, Mary, are taking their nightly walk on the street ahead of him, a walk that has attracted some critical town attention since pregnant women, especially minister’s wives, are expected to keep themselves in confinement.

Percy had been throwing snowballs at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy’s sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly — not running, but not dawdling — in front of the Demptsers just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.

The incident puts Mrs. Dempster into labor — a son, Paul, is born weeks premature later that night. He will survive, as will Dunny’s guilt for his “role” in the incident. Mary Dempster and Paul will join Percy as the active characters in the drama/opera — Dunny will always be there, in the role of Fifth Business.

With the key cast in place and readers already alerted that there will be a lot of plot to the novel, author Davies steps back and supplies context. What we are reading is a document prepared by Dunstan Ramsay (he’s changed his first name for reasons we’ll discover later) upon his retirement at age 71 after forty-five years teaching at a Toronto private school. He was deeply offended by the “idiotic piece” on his retirement that appeared in the quarterly school magazine and is submitting this account of his life to the Headmaster to set the record straight.

Without giving anything away, here are some of the elements of that life that are relevant not just to Fifth Business but to the following volumes of the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders:

  • Dunny won a Victoria Cross for an action in France in the Great War; for months he was believed killed in the incident. Even in this heroic act, he was the Fifth Business, he tells us, merely reacting to circumstances. While recovering in England, he enters a relationship that supplies a depth to his life that simply was not possible to experience in rural Deptford.
  • The alternating friendship/enmity between Dunny and Boy Staunton (Percy too will change his name) will be lifelong. Since Boy goes on to become one of Canada’s richest men (his speciality is foodstuffs, especially sugary ones), a personal friend (he thinks) of the dashing Prince of Wales (he is devastated by the Abdication) and is touted as a candidate for Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor (the Queen’s representative), the relationship is a “rich” one in both material results and story.
  • Not only does Dunny’s guilt over the incident with Mrs. Dempster remain, it becomes an obsession. As his life unfolds, Ramsay becomes a world-recognized hagiologist (expert on the saints), an author of 10 books on mythic history which have sold more than three-quarters of a million copies. This interest is a flip-side of the coin of his obsession with Mrs. Dempster: he is convinced that he has personally witnessed three miracles for which she was responsible, which he feels makes her a candidate for sainthood herself.
  • He also picks up an interest in psychology and develops an expertise in both Freud and Jung, particularly the latter. While elements of that are more important in the later volumes of the trilogy, both play out here.
  • I’ve offered enough teases about what Boy gets up to (it is worth noting that he never loses the vindictiveness noted in the first excerpt here), but there is an added dimension to his role in the novel. It is fair to say that Robertson Davies had a personal reputation as a snob (he is as close as Canada can come to being the caricature of an Oxbridge don) but he was an academic one — Boy’s success in the world of of commerce and politics supplies the platform for some wonderful comic insights that only an academic snob could produce.

    And finally there is Paul Dempster. In his early teens, Dunny gets interested in the world of magic — Paul is both his audience and student. In fact, at the age of five, Paul can perform card and coin manipulation tricks better than Dunny can. Paul will also change his name (I told you Freud and Jung are present here) several times, eventually settling on Magnus Eisengrim, one of the world’s leading illusionists.

    All of that is only the infrastructure that supports a wealth of incidents and set pieces along the way. Suffice to say that Fifth Business is one of those very rare novels that not only has a continually unfurling series of well-executed plot(s), they are carried out by an equally outstanding cast of exceptionally well-drawn characters.

    I first read this novel shortly after its release and, like most readers then, was very impressed. I think this was my fourth read of the book and, like a fine wine, it has matured and acquired more depth with each reading (and perhaps that is more a measure of my own maturing and appreciation of the subtleties that passed me by on earlier readings). Dunstan Ramsay is one of those rare characters who stays in a reader’s mind forever. If you haven’t met him, find a copy now.

    There is no doubt that Fifth Business sells more copies than the two following Deptford trilogy volumes but it is worth providing a thumbnail sketch of each. In The Manticore, Davies explores his interest in psychology — Boy Staunton’s son, David, is in Switzerland undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis; Dunstan Ramsay is there recovering from a heart attack. World of Wonders is the life story of Magnus Eisengrim, who ran away to join a circus and became the world’s leading illusionist — Dunny is present in many parts of the story. While Fifth Business deserves its reputation as the best of the three that in no way is a critical comment on the other two; rather it is a testimony to how good this first volume is.

    That concludes Part 1 of KfC’s 2013 Project, revisiting 12 Canadian works of fiction that influenced me. Next up in early February is Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries (1993) which ranks as the English language’s most global-award-winning novel of the modern era — it won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in Canada and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the U.K.

    24 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies”

    1. Sharkell Says:

      I have to say that I am really struggling with this book. I think it sys more about me as a reader than the book. I’m up to page 120 and this is the second time that I have picked it up and I’m finding it hard to continue….

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I am a little surprised — I would have been inclined to describe it as an easy read. So I wonder if perhaps the book is more “Canadian” than I thought, with references that are easily understood here but perhaps confusing to those who don’t grow up with them.

    2. leroyhunter Says:

      I like the quotes Kevin, and the “infrastructure” you describe is interesting as well. I’ve looked at this before (in an edition that includes the full trilogy I think) but am moved to investigate Davies again.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        The edition that I read this time was a very handsome Folio Society version of the trilogy that was produced a few years back, which seems to have now sold out. It features 12 very beautiful full-page color drawings, done in semi-Renaissance, religious style, that are inspired by/illustrative of the text. All “explained” in charts on the endpapers that I could study for hours and still not understand. The treatment did convince me that there are aspects of meaning that I haven’t even begun to consider, even after four readings. That’s what I meant by the infrastructure reference — the story is easy enough to follow but in each set piece Davies is more interested in what he can incorporate that lies below the surface.

        • leroyhunter Says:

          I didn’t realise Folio had done an edition – available second hand for £50 which seems reasonable. Might try a single volume in a more cost-effective format before committing to the Folio.

          The more I read (the discussion here) and think about this, the more keen on it I am.

    3. anokatony Says:

      I read the entire Deptford Trilogy back in the early Eighties, and for quite a while Robertson Davies was my favorite author. I found his writing vivid and theatrical. Later I read his novels “The Rebel Angels” and “What’s Bred to the Bone” which were also fine, but now it has been many years since I read Davies.
      In some ways I think Davies was stubbornly old-fashioned, but once you get into the spirit of his novels, they are quite a trip.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        “Stubbornly old-fashioned” — an excellent description. He did have an affection for things English and that includes his approach to fiction. As you say, his writing is theatrical — but in the tradition that it has layers of reference and meaning that extend beyond the obvious. I confess I was surprised at how much “new” material I found in this revisit — I thought I knew the novel pretty well.

    4. Kate Says:

      I have been a big fan of Davies since I discovered his writing at age 15, and went into mourning when he died when I was in 1st year university. I first read Fifth Business when I was 16, and then re -read it 2 years later for an English class. The Deptford Trilogy is the only of his books that I haven’t re-read as an adult, but you may have inspired me to pick them up again!

    5. kimbofo Says:

      I’m about 50 pages from the end… it’s an intriguing read, but I’m not sure I like the way the women are depicted in this novel. I know it’s probably a reflection of the time in which it is set, but this book does come across as quite sexist, and I’m wondering if that’s why Sharkell (above) is struggling to get into it… ?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        You raise quite a valid point — one that hadn’t occurred to me, probably because I was preoccupied with trying to keep up to hagiography and Jungian twice-born references.

        I’ve always thought that Dunny served as a fictional version of the author — Davies was the first master of Massey College at U of T, which is an Oxford-like institution serving the grads from the schools that Dunny taught at (obviously modelled on Upper Canada College). While he was married (to an Australian stage manager whom he met during his brief time working at the Old Vic following his own Oxford term), Davies always seemed to relish acting the single male scholar role.

        I still wouldn’t call the novel “sexist” (that may be defensive on my part) since I think that term implies a deliberate bias — I’d accept “chauvanist” in the sense that I think the author’s portrayal of women is more tradition based (or even naive) than deliberate put down. I can certainly understand that portraying one female (Mary) as a putative saint, another (Leola) as husband-desparate and empty-headed and a third (Leisl) as a threatening manipulator hardly gives women readers a character with whom they can identify.

        • kimbofo Says:

          Oh yes, chauvinist is the word I should have used…

          And naming someone Dunny does make me laugh… it has a funny meaning in the Australian vernacular.

    6. susanonthesoapbox Says:

      Kevin, I’d hoped to finish this book before commenting but if I wait much longer the train will pass me by. I read this book while in university and was delighted by your invitation to try it again now that I’m in a more “mature” frame of mind. Like many of your readers I enjoyed working my way through Davies’ prose. It was a refreshing change from what I usually read—nonfiction political analyses, biographies and of course legal materials (how’s that for the height of boring). In any event I’m looking forward to finishing the book and moving on to the next novel in the KfC rediscovery tour. All the best.

    7. Mary Gilbert Says:

      Thanks for reminding me of Fifth Business which was recommended to me by another student in the 1970’s. I found it distinctly mysterious and beguiling and enjoyed it enough to recommend it to others myself. In the last year I read The Salterton Trilogy after finding it in a Hay on Wye bookshop. I enjoyed Tempest -Tost which focused on a squabbling am dram group but as the trilogy went on I found it more and more heavy going and by the third part I had my thumb and forefinger firmly on the last pages ( can’t do that with a Kindle!). I echo Kimbofo’s comment about his depiction of women. Most irritating was a central character, a male musician whose antics seemed to be based on Dylan Thomas and who was equally annoying. I think we were supposed to find him loveable especially the manner in which he picked up and discarded women. Parts of the trilogy were very funny though and there was one completely bizarre chapter where the action suddenly switched to rural Wales. Its gorgeous evocation of a backwater university town in the 50’s remain with me despite the longuers. In some ways I find him quite a frustrating writer – the arch humour and plotless meanderings go hand in hand with a rich and satisfying sense of atmosphere. Perhaps you could recommend another of his books ?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I think that I only read Tempest-Tost from the Salterton trilogy, so I can’t really comment. The Deptford trilogy is definitely his best but I also enjoyed the Cornish trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus). What sticks with me most in that one is his treatment of the university culture in the opening volume. I do agree with your characterization of “arch humour and plotless meanderings going hand in hand with a rich and satisfying sense of atmosphere.” It has been a while since I read it, but I suspect you will again be frustrated by his depiction of women — I’m afraid that just is not part of his portfolio.

    8. Shawna Says:

      I’m running a bit late on my reading schedule but I’ve just finished this book and I really enjoyed it! This is my first time reading anything by Davies and this one has intrigued me enough that I will now have to go and seek out some of the others, particularly the rest of the trilogy.

      I can certainly see why some readers found the portrayal of women problematic but I feel like these representations were contextually consistent with both the time period of the book and a story told from the perspective of a bachelor schoolteacher.

      Anyway, just my two cents, thanks for the recommendation Kevin! I’m already enjoying the 2013 reading project!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        If you liked this, I would urge you to continue with the trilogy — Davies moves a little further from reality with each volume and I found it makes for more challenging reading,

        And thanks for your thoughts on the author’s portrayal of women. I agree with your assessment, but I can see where it might be more of an issue for some readers.

    9. Max Cairnduff Says:

      Oddly enough I think I read The Manticore as a teenager. I recall finding it dry and a little inaccessible, but I also recall not discovering it was part of a trilogy until after I’d finished it. That it was the second likely explains why I found it a bit lacking in places, there would have been an assumption of knowledge from the previous volume that I didn’t have.

      God knows how I came across it.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I can’t imagine how you came across it either. Since I read the trilogy in order (as the books appeared), I can’t really comment — although my experience does suggest the three need to be read in order, There are elements of both character and story in Fifth Business that I would see as important, if not essential, to the later volumes.

    10. Tom Cunliffe Says:

      I read this quite a few years ago and had rather forgotten what it was about, the only impression remaining being “what a fantastic writer Davies was”. I had a phase of reading everything I could find of his and have actually recently bought a copy of the Running Man which I seemed to miss out on. A very useful review which has reminded me of the interest I found in the books twenty or so years ago

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I think Davies is best regarded as a story-teller whose impact is more immediate than lasting. Having said that, his precise use of the language is reason enough to go back to his work — his story lines and characters might be somewhat dated but his use of English is as good as it ever was (and much better than a lot of what we read today).

    11. Robert Says:

      kevin i was wondering if i could use this for an english essay im writing but for the citation i would need your last name or else u wont get full credit. Also my teacher will have my head on a silver platter

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