Kodó Krisztina
Walking Spirits and the Canadian Image
(As Seen in Robertson Davies' Murther and Walking Spirits)

 

    Canada is a huge and vast land with an extremely varied landscape of mountainous ranges, endless forests and rivers. This is a land of many faces and moods as reflected by its diverse geographical and climatic conditions. The solemnity and rugged grandeur that nature has to offer had been fearsome to many of its early settlers, for whom the understanding and acceptance of nature became a dominating force in their lives. But it was also viewed as a land of many opportunities for the adventuresome and those forced to seek a new home.
    In the European mind Canada was certainly considered as a land of endless opportunities. Many people emigrated from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as from other western and eastern European countries. But the causes of emigration varied depending on social, political and historical circumstances of a particular era. Though economic depressions and hardships were most often the source of migration.
    The hope for a better and more prosperous future brought many disillusioned, but also many adventurous people to Canada. It is their individual and personal struggles that helped to form and create the image of Canada that is present in the European mind.
    In an interview from 1971 Robertson Davies says that the Canadians of today are the descendants of people

…who had come to this country in the middle of the
nineteenth century or earlier; they had homes in which
they used silver which their families had brought with
them, they had pictures of Great grandfather in his
Bengal uniform, they had connections with England,
cousins that they wrote to, and they still hadn’t grasped
the fact that an entirely new Canada had come into
being, and that their sort of person was really almost
dinosaur-like in its failure to fit into the modern scene.
… this is something in Canada which people on the
whole don’t recognize: we’ve got a fantastic sort
of fossilized past here. We always talk about ourselves
as a country with a great future, but we never talk
about ourselves as a country with a sort of living
past.

    The ‘Walking Spirits’ of the past still pervade the modern Canadian scene. But to what extent? This is well illustrated in Robertson Davies’ novel Murther and Walking Spirits (1992), which opens with the theme of marital infidelity, where the husband surprises his wife in bed with her irascible lover, who brutally murders the husband, Connor Gilmartin. And though the newly deceased and cuckolded husband is embittered about being deprived of his life before his time, with his death begins a transcendent journey of self-discovery. This relates the past history of Gilmartin’s ancestors in the framework of a film festival.
    The hardship that Gilmartin’s forebears must undergo within the novel is just one example from among many. The fact that the novel is full of autobiographical elements from Davies’ own ancestral past strengthens the author’s view, that “you are an extension of a family, and not the other way around.” (Conversations p. 53)
    On his father’s side of the family Davies was Welsh. His father, Rupert Davies had left Wales with his family at the age of fifteen. And his sentimental longing for his native homeland is as strong as Rhodri Gilmartin’s nostalgia for Wales within the novel.
    Davies’ mother, Florence McKay, was on the one part descendent from a Jacob Langs, who arrived in North America in 1750 and settled in Pennsylvania. Though Langs’ country of origin is unknown, Davies’ mother thought of it as Dutch, and Davies takes the same line. His son, also called Jacob Langs, emigrated to Canada as early as 1807, settling in Brant County, Ontario.
    Florence’s other maternal line descends from Captain John Gage and his wife Mary Jones, who lived in a village on the Hudson River opposite Albany, New York. The Captain died fighting on the British side in the American War of Independence. Around 1790 his widow, Mary Jones Gage, made a difficult journey with her two children and possibly two brothers, by canoe from New York to Stoney Creek , just east of the present-day city of Hamilton, Ontario. There she homesteaded on land granted to her as a United Empire Loyalist.
    These adventurous journeys, - of the Gages from the American Colonies and of the Davies’s from Wales -, that Davies’ ancestors undertook come alive through the figures of the Gages, Vermeulens, McOmishes and Gilmartins in the novel. They are the “Walking Spirits” of the past in a general sense of the present-day Canadians. And as “Spirits” of the past are bred into the bones of the main protagonist, Connor Gilmartin, but similarly into Davies’ bones as well. This is a feature of one’s character that cannot be neglected or even avoided.
    One of the basic questions that the novel raises is why a family is forced to emigrate at all and leave its native homeland. For the Gages it is a matter of the political climate changing due to the American War of Independence, and as loyalists must take refuge in Canada. For the Gilmartins it is economic hardship and the bankruptcy of their failing tailor’s shop, which ultimately force them to make this decision. With the hope that

…might the new land offer something of balm
for a hurt man?

And

…if Canada does little for us, it might be a
wonderful place of opportunity for the boys.
(Murther p. 167)

Canada, therefore, offers not only an opportunity, but also a future for those who have failed and for those wanting to begin anew.
    Percy and Rupert Davies leave Wales for Canada in 1895, like their fictional counterparts Rhodri and Lance Gilmartin. What did they know of their final destination, that is Canada? Absolutely nothing. And their responses reflect this:

…”Think about Canada.”
“What can I think? I don’t know anything
about Canada.”
“Well think of that poster at the station. You
know, the one with the huge man in smart
breeches looking out over a field of wheat.”
“I don’t remember it.”
“You must. You couldn’t forget it. Huge field.
Bigger than the whole of the Home Farm at the
Castle. Just one field. That’s Canada. It’ll be
ripping, you’ll see.” (Murther p.169)

The optimism that prevails throughout the journey is confronted with reality upon their arrival.

The desolation of leaving home and facing
the worst – the bottom – of a new country…
(Murther p.263)

Rhodri Gilmartin’s first job in the New World, like that of Rupert Davies’, is in the printing office of the Courier. His descent, however, begins at the very bottom:

“Get the lye bucket and scrub out the urinals.”
That was the way with a new apprentice. Give
him the rottenest job first, to humble him. As
if I needed humbling!
(Murther p.264)

And

That’s when I learned that God has two faces.
I’d exchanged the Wesleyan chapel for a chapel
of the Typographical Union. …That was my
Canada. That was the vast wheatfield and the
sturdy farmer in elegant breeches.
(Murther p. 264)

Rhodri manages to rise from the very ‘bottom’ to becoming a successful businessman and newspaperman, like Davies’ father, Rupert Davies. They become Canadians, but their eagerness to return to their place of birth, that is Wales, is a constant feature.
    Rhodri’s sentimental craving for Wales is a definite driving force throughout his life and his eventual success in his career allow him to buy Belem Manor in Trallwm, Wales, and restore it to its earlier elegance. His yearly stays in Wales, however, are indirectly opposed by his wife Malvina, who gradually ceases to accompany him. She, just as Florence, Davies’ mother, does not feel at home there, because her roots are in her Dutch pioneer heritage.
    “Our roots are deep in a dogged loyalty”, says Davies. Loyalty to one’s own roots. As Brochwell, Rhodri’s son, is born in Canada, he is inevitably influenced by his father’s stories about Wales, and his mother’s stories about her North American pioneer ancestors, due to which he is felt to be pulled in contrary directions. Like Robertson Davies. What was he? And where did he belong? These are questions that both Davies and Brochwell Gilmartin had to answer. And “accepting that he was a Canadian, and understanding what that meant, took [Davies] some considerable time.” (Man of Myth p.48)
    Brochwell’s parents unconsciously urge him to decide between the “Old World” and the “New World”. His solution is to become a professor of “English lang.-and-lit.” at a Canadian university. But is this enough? He certainly does not have that sentimental attachment to Wales that his father had.

…to be a professor of Eng-Lang-and-Lit because that
was what he knew, what he liked best, and what
afforded him refuge from aspects of life he did
not want to face. That was indeed the land of which
he was a countryman. Not for him the struggle, the
hero-journey of old Rhodri’s life, in which so many
external enemies had been met and defeated. His
struggles were within, and it was Rhodri and Malvina
who had chosen the battleground. The Old World or
the New? Was it utterly imperative that there should
be a final decision? Was Eng-Lang-and-Lit really a
solution?
(Murther p.343-4)

His struggles come from within and his soul must come to terms with who he is. This is the identity-crises of Canada dating back to the 1970s through the 1990s, with which the majority of Canadian literature had dealt with.
    The introverted soul is a notion that Davies often refers to in a number of his essays, articles and even his novels. According to an article by Davies from 1987, Canada is an introvert country and due to this she must look into itself and awaken from its slumber. With this in mind Canada should stop aping the extrovert U.S and come to terms with its own past.
    Canada has a past that is introvert by heritage. “There is an element of loss and betrayal in our history which even yet tends to make us an introverted people, with the particular kind of inner strength that introversion implies.” But introversion is also a way of approaching problems of every sort, because the introvert takes careful heed of what the world is offering and weighs it carefully. (Keeping Faith p.192) And to use a Jungian expression: “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.”
    Therefore, “Canadians must take heed of what they really are in terms of their past, and their northern land. Only then can they find, through their wholeness, the true path to their future.” (Keeping Faith ibid.)
    A future is one of the images that Canada projects towards the European mind. Though this is often overshadowed by the pervasive presence of its southern neighbour. And it is also inevitable that the image of Canada is often connected with that of the American image. But this, too, seems to be gradually changing and the Canadian image becoming more and more distinguishable from that of its neighbour.
    The “walking spirits” of the past, that have implanted their cultural, social and historical values, have certainly had an influence in the development of the Canadian image and its reflection on the European mind. The values transplanted into the New World were essentially moulded from the European cultural traditions. Davies’ protagonist, Connor Gilmartin, is taken into the past of his forebears, to view a procession of his own human history, which tells him more about

…the American strand and the Old country strand
which, in [him],were woven into what is now
indisputably a Canadian weftage.
(Murther p.351)

And perhaps it is this particular “Canadian weftage” that distinguishes it from other nations, and gives the Canadian its unique flavour.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davies, Robertson. Murther and Walking Spirits. Canada: Penguin Books, 1992.
Davies, Robertson. “A Canadian Author.” The Merry Heart. Canada: Penguin Books, 1996.
Davies, Robertson. “The Value of a Coherent Notion of Culture.” Happy Alchemy. Canada: Penguin Books, 1997.
Davies, Robertson. “Keeping Faith.” Saturday Night. January 1987: 187-192.
Skelton Grant, Judith. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Canada: Penguin Books, 1994.
Davis, J. Madison, ed. Conversations with Robertson Davies. Toronto: General Paperbacks, 1990.


 
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