Brenda Mathews gave up a promising career as stage manager of the Old Vic Theatre in London, where she worked with Laurence Olivier, Jessica Tandy, Alec Guinness and Vivien Leigh, in order to move to Canada as Robertson Davies’s bride.
Also sidetracked were dreams to run her own theatre company in Melbourne, Australia, her hometown.
This talented young woman fell for the dapper Canadian; and like him, she was a colonial subject, but from the flip side of his world.
The couple met in 1939, when he acted at the theatre and she scolded him for being late for rehearsal. As well as chasing him down at his dressing room door, her job included slipping a hot water bottle onto Ms. Leigh’s divan, attending Lord Olivier’s scripting needs and generally keeping things ticktock.
She was good at her job.
And she continued stage-managing Robertson Davies for the next six decades.
Brenda Davies convinced him to quit writing plays and write novels instead; she convinced him to become master of Massey College; and she convinced him to retire from that position 20 years later to focus solely on his writing.
“I got Rob to a steadier plane where he could use his imagination constructively,” she said in an interview with Val Ross for Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic.
It was she who came up with the title for his highly acclaimed novel Fifth Business. The phrase refers to a character whose role is necessary to the plot but not central to it.
Brenda Davies died on Jan. 10 in her Toronto home. She was 95.
Her parents, Muriel Larking and Paul Mathews, met in England at the start of the First World War. Muriel was a wealthy young woman from Melbourne when she fell in love with this conscientious objector and mathematics scholar. The couple married in 1914.
Mr. Mathews quickly convinced her to share his dream of apple-orcharding in the rough. Time to follow Count Tolstoy’s teachings, he said, and live off the land. They homesteaded on an abandoned sheep farm in Tasmania and spent evenings chasing Tasmanian devils from trash bins.
After a handful of years making-do, Muriel left her husband and returned with their young daughters, Maisie and Brenda, to Woorigoleen, the family’s Victorian mansion in Melbourne.
She also returned to a fleet of servants preparing meals, tending the children and drawing her daily bath. Brenda was two years old at the time.
Mr. Mathews was a thoroughly absent presence at Woorigoleen. His face was cut out of her mother’s photographs and he was evoked only as a threat to the girls: “Behave yourself or I’ll send you to live with your father.”
In 1956, at Robertson Davies’ urgings, Mrs. Davies briefly reunited with her father but it didn’t go well. It left her with a bitter residue.
“I felt sorry that I could not respond in kind to this strange man who had never acted as a father to me – not even getting in touch with us when we grew up,” she wrote in her memoir Beads in a String.
Another challenge for young Brenda, and further developing her management skills, was negotiating life with a shell-shocked, alcoholic stepfather whom she often dragged home from the pub.
Eventually, hungry for escape, she discovered her love for the theatre and acted in high school productions.
She may also have moved from academic interests and toward theatre owing to her dyslexia, a lifetime struggle. As a child, she often failed tests and was mocked by teachers and students as being “stupid.”
Many years later Mr. Davies, with his poor eyesight, jested in an interview with Vancouver Sun: “We pool our resources. Mrs. Davies can drive a car and I can spell.”
In 1936, when she was 19, Brenda moved to London to work at the Old Vic under the tutelage of artistic head Tyrone Guthrie. Then one day, this gangly but sophisticated young Canadian named Rob entered the scene, making her forget her dread of marriage.
In 1940, she and Mr. Davies were wed in London’s Chelsea Old Church, where many actors had been married and buried, and spent their honeymoon at his parents’ chilly home in Fronfraith, Wales. The older folks were in Canada at that time.
One of the first people Mrs. Davies met at Fronfraith was 18-year-old maid Daisy Haycock. She gave the young woman a slice of wedding cake and bid her place it under her bed and dream of her future husband.
A few days later Daisy suddenly took ill and died from a botched abortion.
“I thought at the time that I should have been told and might have been able to help Daisy,” Mrs. Davies wrote. “But I had no power against the fears and prejudices of the area and the time.”
In less than a week her marriage had been touched by sorrow.
This was also the early months of the Second World War. The couple decided to move to Canada, but all Mrs. Davies knew of the country was a large poster of a Mountie in uniform at Welshpool Station.
They sailed from Liverpool on the CPR Duchess of Bedford. The ship was blacked out for the entire journey to St. John’s.
“Fortunately for us, we were too much taken with each other to be alarmed,” she wrote.
After an intimidating visit with her in-laws in Kingston, Ont., and a year in Toronto, where her husband was literary editor of Saturday Night, they settled in Peterborough, Ont., and stayed for 20 years.
Mrs. Davies returned to the stage.
The couple wrote, directed and performed in more than 40 productions and Mrs. Davies took on additional roles as costume-maker, makeup artist and, of course, stage manager.
In 1953, Mrs. Davies was offered a job to manage the Stratford Festival. She turned it down, concerned that it would take her away from work with her husband.
“Mother’s got that Oz get-on-with-it, making-do, gung-ho know-how … Father had complete confidence in her,” said her daughter, Miranda Davies, in Portrait in Mosaic. “She’d execute a good three-point-turn in the car and Daddy would say: “Huzzah, huzzah, for the daring and intrepid Mommy!”
During their time in Peterborough, Mr. Davies held down a demanding position as editor and publisher at the Peterborough Examiner, as well as publishing 18 books, producing several plays and writing numerous book reviews and articles. His wife was always the first person to read his words.
“We lunch … and talk about our special happiness, in which we take so much pleasure,” he is quoted as saying in Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant.
But perhaps the true test of her mettle came when Mr. Davies accepted the position as founding master of Massey College, at the University of Toronto, in 1962.
Mrs. Davies presided over much of the college’s social life during those years, from dinners in the master’s lodging to any of the great events the college was known for. She even sewed the altar cloth and kneeling runners for the chapel.
And for a long time she did this work while excluded from the college because she was a woman.
It wasn’t until 1974 that women were admitted to Massey College. Previous to this, she required her husband’s escort and was asked to leave the building before the 11 p.m. curfew.
She invited women scholars and visitors, who were also excluded, to stay with them in the couple’s private quarters.
According to Mr. Davies’s biographer, Judith Skelton Grant, female students protested against their exclusion. Mrs. Davies once met protesters outside the gates, generously fed them gingerbread cake and sent them on their way. Similar to her role at home with three boisterous daughters, she kept the women from disturbing her husband. She managed the stage.
But on at least one occasion, Mr. Davies intercepted the protesters himself. He stood firm while facing down their placards, suggesting they hunt down a wealthy female graduate of the university to endow a similar college for women.
While he was at Massey College, Robertson Davies’s reputation continued to rise, in no small part thanks to his wife’s careful tending of him.
“The dr told my wife that I was not to be babied, but she wisely did not heed him,” he is quoted as writing in For Your Eyes Alone: The Letters of Robertson Davies.
Mr. Davies died of a stroke in 1995. Mrs. Davies was left to endure tremendous grief, carve out her independence, and manage his literary estate through forming the company Pendragon Ink with their middle daughter, Jennifer.
Commenting on tributes at his 1981 retirement party from Massey, Mr. Davies wrote: “But best of all, there were various generous tributes to Brenda, who has always stood by me in my academic goings-on, but who is sometimes overlooked.”
Brenda Davies leaves daughters Miranda Davies, Jennifer Surridge and Rosamond Bailey, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
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