1958’s A Mixture of Frailties is the third and final volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton trilogy.
In a twist the miscreant in A Leaven of Malice could not have foreseen, Pearl Vambrace and Solly Bridgetower fell in love. Now married, a life of wedded bliss surely waits Pearl and Solly Bridgetower. At least, it would, were it not for Solly’s mother, the late Mrs. Bridgetower1.
Having kept her matronly foot firmly on the back of Solly’s neck for most of his life, Mrs. Bridgetower sets out to punish Solly for disregarding her wishes regarding marriage. Mrs. Bridgetower could not prevent Pearl and Solly from marrying but she will do all in her power to make that marriage as miserable as possible. Key to her scheme: her last will and testament.
Solly is astonished to discover that Mrs. Bridgetower was a wealthy woman. Of her million-plus dollars, Solly will receive one hundred dollars. The rest will be placed in a trust. Should Solly and Pearl produce a male heir, Solly will get a life interest in the trust and his heir will inherit the Bridgetower fortune. Until such time as a male heir appears, the couple must live in and maintain Mrs. Bridgetower’s mansion, for which funds from the trust will likely not be coming. Instead, until the heir appears, the income is to spent educating some promising young woman from Salterton.
The Bridgetower Trust selects Monica Gall as its first beneficiary. Monica is a promising but untrained singer. A British education offers her opportunities she would never have in Salterton, not least of which is distance between her and her lamentable parents and the cult to which they belong. True, she will have to leave behind the young man who might or might not be her boyfriend, but this is a smaller cost than it might appear at first.
Canadians in general (the French variety excepted) and Saltertonians in general view themselves as valuable Imperial subjects. The British take a different view. When English people think of Canadians at all, which they rarely do, it is as a colonial curiosities, valuable only to the extent the colonials can learn to conform to civilized norms. A Canadian who brags of being of United Empire Loyalist2 stock, as does Monica, will only baffle or amuse the British. The key to social success is to learn to pass as proper English.
However, Monica’s lessons are not limited to learning how to be an unobtrusive Imperial subject. There is the matter of her musical education, which goes well, the matter of establishing a network of colourful artistic friends, which goes fairly well, and the matter of romance, which goes very badly indeed.
I own this book as an ebook, which rather conveniently let me verify something: Pearl brags of being of United Empire Loyalist stock but the phrase “Family Compact”3 never appears in the book. Being UEL might have some social cachet in certain circles, but even in conservative Salterton, being descended from the dull-witted conservatives whose principal achievement was provoking the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion4 is not something of which even a status-hungry Canadian student brags. Well, maybe the odd Tory does but we all know what Charles Dickens said about Canadian Tories5.
The whole matter of the United Empire Loyalists is a nice indicator of the period, in that many Canadians are still loyal enough to the dying Empire to take pride in being UEL stock, whereas the British with whom Monica deals are baffled by the suggestion inherent in the term “Loyalist” that there might be people who were not loyal to the Empire. Note that the book was published in a decade in which the Empire might best be described as “rapidly imploding.” The English in the novel may see their island as the pinnacle of civilization; the book makes it clear that in many respects, it falls short of ideal6.
A Mixture of Frailties is my least favourite of the Salterton trilogy because it hews most closely to Can Lit conventions, which is to say the volume lacks the humour of the previous volumes, and few of the characters have much fun. Monica’s education is bracketed by deaths, and while Mrs. Bridgetower’s demise proves beneficial to her, the final death provides a lesson she preferred not to receive. I don’t know if, had this been my first Davies, that I would have picked up another.
Which is not to say the novel isn’t nicely done, in particular the thoroughness in with Mrs. Bridgetower refuses to let death itself stop her from being spectacularly unpleasant to everyone who offended her. It’s just that the change of pace from comic to fairly grim coming-of-age was a bit disappointing.
1: Technically, Pearl is also a Mrs. Bridgetower, but that would be confusing, so she is just Pearl.
2: Search engines are your friend in this matter.
3: See footnote 2.
4: See footnote 3.
5: See footnote 4.
6: See “central heating, general lack of” and “London air, a healthy mixture of carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, and coal dust, with a very slight taint of oxygen.” I arrived in the UK a few years after the novel is set and the practicalities of living in London (particularly for those so foolish as to bring their lungs with them) were much the same.