Every December from 1963 for eighteen years, on Gaudy Night, while Master of Massey College, Robertson Davies told a ghost story. These he collected into a book called High Spirits (Penguin Books paperback 1982), explaining in the first chapter both their oral nature and light parody of ghost tales (weird blue light, ghostly visitors in need of something). He also wrote a novel called Murther and Walking Spirits (1991), which I haven’t read. Judith Skelton Grant, author of the biography Man of Myth, links this novel to tales told by his father about Welshpool in Wales, where the family lived above the family tailor shop.
Ghosts? Robertson Davies? What’s any of this got to do with Canadian Writers Abroad? Two things. I’ve been meaning to mention the years that Robertson Davies lived abroad. He was at Oxford from 1935-1938. From there he went into theatre, acting and studying to be a director at The Old Vic from 1938-1940. During his time in the UK, he visited Welshpool and Wales and picked up stories of his own. As well as a wife.
Second, we went to Wales, and spent a few hours in Welshpool, entering the market building, spotting a few characters on the streets, climbing the hill to a looming church and its graveyard. Images perfect for illustrating ghost stories. Not, however, suitable for High Spirits, which is most definitely set in the modern building of Massey College and introduces the most mild-mannered ghosts ever. Amusing stories include the ghost of a student wanting to pass his PhD oral, and resentful founders of the college who quarrel. Former kings and prime ministers too. And a most fearsome feminist, quite likely the scariest of all back in those days.
- Some New Yorker ghost stories.
- A Celebration of Robertson Davies by Jeff Halperin in Macleans.
- Robertson Davies interviewed by Elisabeth Sifton in The Paris Review.
- Previously on CWA, Robertson Davies and Fifth Business.
The tradition of telling a story on Gaudy Night was still going strong when I was the Barbara Moon Editorial Fellow at Massey (2013). In fact, then-master John Fraser released a collection of his entitled, “The Master’s Menagerie: Gaudy Night Bedtime Stories.” Many of them featured the critters who live in and around the college (not of the two-footed variety) and were inventive and quite hilarious — though not necessarily spooky. Hugh Segal is the new master and I’m not sure if he’s keeping up the tradition. Let’s hope so!
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