It was with shock last week that I learned of the death of Robertson Davies, probably my country’s greatest man of letters.
Shock? Some might argue he was eighty-two years old, and had it coming. But that is to ignore the Davies ethos. His wise, bearded face on the cover of his official biography, “Man of Myth,” reminds me of George Bernard Shaw. I always thought Davies would live to ninety-four, and die by falling out of a tree he was trimming, as did Shaw. (I’m ignoring Davies’ girth.)I was also touched personally because I exchanged a couple of letters with Davies, and experienced a side of him that showed he was not just an extraordinary novelist, but a man of unusual insight.
In the early 1980s I was a student of literature at the University of Toronto, and a collector of books on ventriloquism. When my rare book dealer procured a beautiful edition of a 19th century novel called “The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist,” I decided to investigate to find the edition’s exact date.
In the catalogue of the university library I found another novel by the Vox author, Henry Cockton, in the Massey College library. The Massey librarian later said to me: “Did you know that Cockton is one of the Master’s old favourites?”
He was speaking, I knew, of Robertson Davies, founding Master of Massey College. Davies mentioned Cockton in more than one book, but the fullest reference was in the 1960 book, “A Voice From the Attic.” (The “voice” was Davies; Canada being the U.S.’s “attic.”)
I bought the Davies book, and the edition of Valentine Vox, and eventually several other Cockton books. And I had in mind a project to bring his best-known book back into print, and also perhaps to make the author the subject of a thesis.
In 1984 I wrote Davies to ask if he would do an introduction for a new edition of Valentine Vox. Davies wrote back–starting his letter in a beautiful calligraphic hand-writing–that he thought a new edition would be a risky business. He did have another idea, however.
“I have a strong intuition,” he wrote, “that if somebody did some serious digging into Cockton’s personal history it would reveal a very strange man indeed. As I hinted in “A Voice from the Attic,” it seems to be a paranoid personality that is speaking through the novels, and there is a bitterness and an intensity of family disagreement in some of them which sounds too raw to be really good fiction. I think he was a bad writer, but perhaps an extremely interesting man and he might provide you with material for a first class book.”
While my projects never came about, I did go to England to see what I could find out about Cockton. Almost nothing was known about this man whose books were in print from the 1840s to the 1920s, and whose “Valentine Vox” was an influence on genre literature, and inspired generations of children to try ventriloquism.
I went to the town of Bury St. Edmunds where Cockton died of consumption in 1853, at the age of 46. I learned that Cockton was an itinerant salesman, and visited Bury St. Edmunds regularly. He stayed at an inn attached to the house where lived the inn’s owner, Eleanor Howes and her daughter Ann, the future Mrs Cockton.
“Valentine Vox” received excellent reviews, and by the time it came out in 1840, Henry had begun his next novel, “Stanley Thorn,” published in excerpts in Bentley’s Miscellany. But publishing a novel and being printed in one of the top magazines did not prevent Henry from being cheated by its editor. He made practically no money, fell into debt, and in 1842 his wife returned to her mother with their two young children. Cockton rented a room in London and churned out a book called “England and France,” a comparison of contemporary life in the two countries, that appeared in installments in The Illustrated London News. Then came another novel, “Sylvester Sound, the Somnabulist.”
The pay was barely enough to keep him going, so in the mid 1840s he was asked back to Bury St. Edmunds to take over the daily operation of the inn. There he found some old brewing equipment that hadn’t been used for a century or so, and he thought that with the coming of free trade the great debate of the day would come a removal of the malt tax, and a change in the laws that forbade the inn from selling beer. He persuaded his mother-in-law to buy vast amounts of barley grain to make beer the moment the laws were changed.
Free trade came, but no change in the malt tax. So the barley rotted in sacks behind the inn, and Henry had no choice but to turn to writing again to try and pay back his mother-in-law. But while he wrote plenty more, it just didn’t bring enough money.
His mother-in-law banished him from seeing his wife and children and gave the hotel management to a family of illiterates (who eventually signed Henry’s death certificate, with an X) and Cockton got sick and died.
Cockton’s daughter probably died in infancy*** and his son refused to talk about him but made known his sentiments when he tried, in 1884, to prevent a commemorative plaque from going up in the cemetery where Cockton was buried. The bestselling author was given a pauper’s funeral and buried in an unmarked grave, its exact location unknown even today.
Fortunately, the careers of Cockton and Davies could not be further apart. Davies enjoyed critical and financial success with his internationally bestselling books. Historically speaking, Davies knew practically none of this tale of Cockton’s tragic life. But, a devoted Jungian, Davies knew it through his highly developed intuition. His insights as a man will be missed, while his books will live on to give readers pleasure for years.
(***Nearly four years after writing this, I heard from a member of Cockton’s family, whose comment is posted below and says that his daughter did not die in infancy; so this information has been passed on apparently through incorrect word-of-mouth.)