1954’s Leaven of Malice is the second book in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy.
Salterton Little Theatre’s production of The Tempest safely past, Salterton returns to that timeless self-satisfied stagnation to which all proper Canadian communities aspire.
Chaos comes to Salterton in the guise of a simple wedding announcement in the city’s premier newspaper, The Bellman .
Professor and Mrs. Walter Vambrace are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Pearl Veronica, to Solomon Bridgetower, Esq., son of Mrs. Bridgetower and the late Professor Solomon Bridgetower of this city. Marriage to take place in St. Nicholas’ Cathedral at eleven o’clock a.m., November 31st.
Editor Gloster Ridley is confronted by an incandescent Professor Vambrace. The professor is certain the announcement is a hoax, a dig aimed at the Vambraces in general and the professor in particular. Vambrace is irate that Ridley allowed such a vile calumny to appear in his newspaper. Indeed, a lawsuit for vast sums of money is not out of the question.
The issues are as follows:
- November has at most thirty days.
- Solomon and Pearl are not engaged to be married. They barely know each other.
- Solomon’s late geologist father was selected over Vambrace for Dean of Arts purely because Salterton classifies geology as natural philosophy and thus part of the arts faculty. It is therefore utterly unthinkable, and deeply offensive, to think that Vambrace would allow Pearl to marry a Bridgetower.
Ridley is embarrassed that “November 31” got by his staff, but otherwise does not believe The Bellman is in the wrong. The notice appeared to be authentic. This is far short of the groveling apology needed to assuage Vambrace. The professor leaves the office as angry as he entered it.
The Bellman is widely read in Salterton. News of the engagement spreads swiftly, followed somewhat belatedly by the revelation that it was a hoax. Modernists seeking to embrace shallow American fads and traditionalists yearning for the comforting amber of dead British tradition alike lack diversion in Salterton, which being Canadian is by definition dull. The scandal is a welcome entertainment.
Solomon and Pearl have heretofore had little to do with each other. The hoax and circumstance force them together, further displeasing Professor Vambrace. The newspaper seems doomed to suffer an embarrassing lawsuit … unless somehow the culprit behind the affair can be dragged out into the light.
The culprit’s attempt to obfuscate his own identity is even more successful than he knows, since he targets Pearl by mistake, thus making it harder to determine motive. However, he makes one very minor error that comes back to haunt him: pleased with the success of his joke, he reveals to someone what he did. Lesson: don’t blab secrets if you want them to remain secret.
This novel is set in post-WWII Canada, when the country was transitioning from a neglected British colony to American affiliate. There’s a certain tension between the traditionalists who want to continue being ignored by London, those who crave American exploitation, and the nationalists who would fervently embrace Canadian culture, if only “Canadian culture” were not an oxymoron at this time1.
Davies examines this desire for international validation even as he provides its means:
Why do countries have to have literatures? Why does a country like Canada, so late upon the international scene, feel that it must rapidly acquire the trappings of older countries — music of its own, pictures of its own, books of its own — and why does it fuss and stew, and storm the heavens with its outcries when it does not have them?
Note that Canadian Contentguidelines were decades down the road at this point, as reflected in the fact that the field in which Solomon finds himself unhappily trapped is not “CanLit,” as it would be today, but “Amcan” literature, lumping fusty old Canadian authors (of whom you are doubtless unaware2) with Emerson, Poe, and Melville.
Davies pokes a lot of fun at Canadian nationalist pretensions. The sting is removed somewhat by the fact he finds time to poke fun at pretty much everyone, from pompous academics, scheming climbers, vapid fad-chasers, incompetents offended by competent people, mommy’s boys, foolish patriarchs, conservatives, liberals, and elderly employees unable to notice their impending involuntary retirement. For the most part, Davies rejects the malice that his antagonist embraces; the mockery is good-natured, not mean.
One might expect that the novel, being of a very specific moment in Canadian history, would betray its age but for the most part, time has treated the novel well. Perhaps it’s because Davies was never a True Believer but rather cast his evaluating gaze on matters conventional and unconventional. My only regret on rereading this is that so much time passed since the last time I read A Leaven of Malice.
Leaven of Malice is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Note that in some locations, it seems to be available only as part of an omnibus. Some sellers offer it only as an ebook (or they hide the physical edition too effectively).
1: I may overstate very slightly. Leaven of Malice does make it clear that the classic Canadian genre, white people having a terrible time on the Prairies, is not only present at this time, but well established as a default mode for great Canadian literature. Despite having lived in Canada for most of my life, I don’t understand the obsession with the Prairies. Most Canadians live in either Ontario or Quebec, while BC is the only province with a halfway decent climate. Harrumph.
2: I was as horrified as you may be to discover that Charles Heavysege, whose exquisitely tedious sounding Saul forms the centerpiece of Solly’s dismal academic career was not, as I had assumed since reading this book in the 1980s, a hilarious parody of proto-CanLit but a genuine 19thcentury Canadian (of sorts) author who was just as famous as the novel claimed. In fact, he’s credited as an early advocate of that central theme of so much CanLit,
Manitoba has bad weather, problematic families and worse economics nature is indifferent to human desire.
In my defense, quite a lot of CanLit and Canadian history reads like it was meant as hilarious parody while being entirely sober in intent.