Robertson Davies excelled at creating deep, detailed stories about little communities and the strange things that happen in them.
And his Salterton trilogy is no exception. These three loosely-intwertwined books -- "Tempest Tost," "Leaven of Malice" and "A Miixture Of Frailties" -- take readers to the deceptively quaint Canadian city of Salterton, which is distinctive for having one university and two cathedrals. And while it's one of Davies' lighter works compared to his Deptford trilogy, this winding story still has a poignancy and cleverness that shows his skill with his odd characters.
"Tempest-Tost" opens with the organization of an amateur production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." A motley crew of actors join it, including an exuberent professor, his quiet daughter, a quiet mama's boy, a beautiful rich girl, a womanizing soldier, and an infatuated schoolteacher. Love, ambition, jealousy and infatuation rapidly tangle together, climaxing in an unusually dramatic opening night.
In contrast, "Leaven of Malice" is half satire and half mystery. The Salterton Bellman announces that Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace are engaged -- the only problem is that it isn't true. Professor Vambrace sees it as a personal affront, and sues the paper. Pearl and Solly are haunted by false rumors, reports, and claims about who faked the announcement. All they can do is try to find out themselves.
"Mixture of Frailties" opens with the death of Solly's domineering mother. Her will leaves money to Solly's family only if he produces a male heir with his wife Veronica (previously known as Pearl); until then, her money is to be used in a trust for a young female artistic hopeful, who will go to Europe for a few years to study whatever she is good at. And finding the right girl is only the start of Solly's problems.
The works of Robertson Davies tended to be introspective, complicated works that focus on a lot of oddball characters over long spans of time. But this is one of his lighter works -- sometimes it's outright comedic (there's a girl called "The Torso"), with "Tempest Tost" being the most charmingly funny of the three. It's also the least focused of the three, with "Leaven of Malice" and "A Miixture Of Frailties" being tighter, but a little more rarified in humor and a little more surreal in tone.
It also has the rich, leather-chair-and-port prose that Davies excelled at, which feels like the halfway point between American casualness and the classic British style ("Really, Solly, those Hansen relatives of yours are something special. Hollow legs, every one of them"). And as the story drifts between different characters and themes, Davies deftly tackles the sins and oddities of a small community -- feuds, unrequited love, pranks and death.
It also has a wide-ranging cast of characters, with Solly Bridgetower as the unacknowledged center of the trilogy. He's the kind of guy everyone knows -- fairly unimpressive, but a likable sort of guy when you get to know him. Pearl Vambrace and her irascible father also gain prominence in the loosely-linked stories, as a scandal and a reignited feud allow Pearl to break out of her old life and become her own person. And without a doubt, Humphrey Cobbler is Davies' best character -- a vivid, devil-may-care artistic genius who winks and nudges in every book.
"The Salterton Trilogy" is often eclipsed by Davies' better-known Deptford Trilogy, but that doesn't mean it's bad. By no means. It's a pleasant and warmly amusing trio of interconnected stories, and due to be enjoyed by anyone who has read Davies' work.
These are great comic novels that provide closely-observed picture of provincial life in Canada in the 1950s. While Davies's later Deptford Trilogy might be taken more seriously by the literary establishment, these early works show a write already very skilled.