Remembering Brenda Davies

On Tuesday, January 14th, I went to the funeral of Brenda Davies. It was held in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College Chapel, where in 1995 the funeral of her husband, Robertson Davies, also took place.

That earlier funeral was a major national event, and I held the role of Honorary Pallbearer. It was a bitterly cold December day, I recall, and we were required to stand outside by the hearse for what seemed a very long time, while sotto voce comments were made about freezing funerals causing further losses. I, foolishly, was wearing only a raincoat, and the bitter experience led me to buy a fine warm, formal overcoat, which has seen many funerals since. This piece of sartorial history came to my mind as I solemnly put on that coat to attend Brenda’s funeral.

We all owe her a great debt. Ever since the day in 1940 when she, a young Australian, married Rob, a young Canadian, in besieged London, they were a full partnership. Not only did they raise three daughters together, Brenda brought her organising talents as a stage manager to their many stages in life. So she ran their household in Toronto when Rob worked at Saturday Night, then organised their lives in Peterborough when he was the editor of the Examiner (and thus a major local figure), then adapted to the role of chatelaine at Massey College when her husband became its founding Master, and later ran their lives in retirement in mid-town Toronto and at their country place in Caledon.

Throughout all this, she was the organising principle in his life. She was the driver in the family, and in more ways than those merely involving automobiles. Her great contribution was to clear the decks for Robertson Davies to get on with the intellectual, creative work that has enriched us all.

There seemed to be a general awareness of this at the affectionate but formal funeral, which filled the large Chapel, with many in attendance wearing the Massey College gown as a special gesture of respect. In my pew (as we sang “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” to the grand old Welsh tune “Cwm Rhondda”), I was struck by memories of her kindness to me over the years, at Massey, at their mid-town apartment, and at the Caledon retreat, where I was a guest even after Rob’s death. Her kindness stretched to very near the present: when my book came out, she described my chapter on her husband saying “Douglas Gibson has written an excellent account of Robertson Davies as the clever, witty, wise man that he was.”

He was indeed. And we shall never know exactly how much he owed to his wife, the remarkable Brenda Davies.

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