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Friday February 8, 2013

Mate and manager of Robertson Davies

Married to the literary icon for 55 years, she gave up her own career to guide his

Special to The Globe and Mail

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.

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