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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.