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Fifth Business (Deptford Trilogy) by…

Fifth Business (Deptford Trilogy) (original 1970; edition 1977)

by Robertson Davies

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2,270592,818 (4.19)1 / 241
Title:Fifth Business (Deptford Trilogy)
Authors:Robertson Davies
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1977), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:canadian, fiction

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Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (1970)


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English (52)  Spanish (5)  Catalan (2)  All languages (59)
Showing 1-5 of 52 (next | show all)
"This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you."

"The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business!"

Ten-year-old Dunstable Ramsay smartly dodges the snowball, thrown by Percy Boyd (later, Boy) Staunton. Said snowball hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster, instead, leading perhaps to the premature birth of Paul. Told from Ramsay's point of view, Fifth Business is the story of his life and his various involvements with Boy Staunton and Paul Dempster. Staunton becomes a filthy rich industrialist and Paul runs off to join the circus while Ramsay plods along what must be considered a more mundane path: time in the trenches during WWI, education, and a career spent teaching boys in a fairly mediocre boarding school. To be both the Fifth Business and the protagonist is perhaps a bit of irony, or perhaps it is a profound statement on the universality of being the first-person narrator in our own (sometimes undramatic) dramas. In any case, this is a delightful novel with memorable characters. I will certainly be reading the second book in Robertson's Deptford Trilogy. ( )
  EBT1002 | Aug 12, 2015 |
I think I have read this book before as some of the parts seemed familiar especially one particular line but I really do not remember anything substantial about it. When I saw it was on the list of 100 Books the Make you Proud to be Canadian published by CBC Books this year I knew it was the time to read it.

Dunstan (born Dunstable) Ramsey grew up in Deptford, a small Ontario town. His father was the editor of the town newspaper and his mother raised Dunstan and his brother while also helping out neighbours in "matters relating to pregnancy and childbirth". She was called on in this capacity to attend to the Baptist parson's wife, Mrs. Dempster, when her baby came early. The circumstances leading to the premature birth involved Dunstan and his "lifelong friend and enemy" Percy Boyd Staunton. The two had quarrelled over the merits of their respective sleighs and as Dunstan went home Percy followed him throwing snowballs at him. Just as Dunstan got near his house Reverend and Mrs Dempster were seen out for a stroll. To avoid one last snowball from Percy Dunstan darted in front of the couple and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster. She went down hard and started crying. The baby came that night and Mrs. Ramsey was on hand with the doctor to help out. The baby, Paul, survived but Mrs. Dempster seemed not right in the head; simple as the Deptford people called her. Dunstan felt responsible for what had befallen her and, even when she was disgraced, he continued to visit her. He believed she had performed miracles, including raising his brother from the dead, which led him to study saints for the rest of his life.

The title of the book refers to the theatrical convention that every play and opera must have, besides the hero, heroine, confidante and villain, a role that brings about the conclusion which is called Fifth Business. Dunstan Ramsey is the Fifth Business in this story about fate catching up to a perpetrator even if it takes almost a lifetime. It took me a while to figure out who the fulfilled the role of the confidante and it really could be two people. Dunstan writes this book to the Headmaster of the school where he taught for 45 years because he objected to the inane piece about him that appeared in the school paper. So the Headmaster could be the confidante. On the other hand, there is another character that Dunstan tells all about his life even though he has a reputation as a keeper of secrets. This person doesn't appear until the last third of the book but when you get there you will be intrigued.

This is the first book of the Deptford trilogy; the other books in the trilogy are The Manticore and World of Wonders. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jul 2, 2015 |
* See note below
  perthreader | Apr 11, 2015 |
Intelligent and weird--in a good way--as are all Davies novels. Strange characters, casual erudition. Sad, but the grim humor keeps it from being overwhelmingly depressing. You can definitely see the connection to writers like Dickens and John Irving. ( )
  RGilbraith | Nov 1, 2014 |

"Fifth Business,” the first book in The Deptford Trilogy by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, is Dunstan Ramsay’s memoir written as a letter to a Headmaster of Colborne College, where Dunstan was teaching for 45 years. This letter-memoir was provoked by a farewell article which offended Dunstan deeply as it downplayed his accomplishments and presented him as "a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." The story told by this letter-memoir turned out to be far away from what at first sight might look quite ordinary.


1) Beautiful writing and thought-provoking content.
Not without a reason "Fifth Business'' is a classic: the writing is so simple yet so beautiful (truly a piece of art), and the main themes, such as religion and morality, illusion and reality, debilitating effects of guilt, and lifelong effects of childhood and family, offer timeless lessons. It is one of those books which demands to be thought about, if not read, over and over, and which gets better the more you do so. It is a great choice for a book club!

2) Wide vocabulary.
One of the reasons that made Robertson Davies' prose so beautiful is his ability to pick just the right words: descriptive, playful, and often not very common. Such a wide vocabulary not only makes his writing more lively but also serves as a great vocabulary exercise as most of these words are rarely used in everyday conversations.


1) Strong beginning and ending but a little bit slow in between.
I especially loved the first third of the book and gobbled it up in a day, but later the action slowed down, and my excitement wore off. The last chapter was captivating yet again, and the ending remarks made it all worth it, but somewhere in the middle I caught myself wishing that the book was shorter. However, it might be just me getting tired of extensive dictionary search because, since English is not my native language, I was looking up several words per page as I wanted to understand every single wordplay or colorful epithet.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5

Although I really liked the main themes and the writing style of this book, the story itself could have been a little bit more eventful. ( )
1 vote AgneJakubauskaite | Aug 4, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 52 (next | show all)
"A marvelously enigmatic novel, then, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force."

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robertson Daviesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Godwin, GailIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fifth Business ... Definition
Those roles which, being neither those of
Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain,
but were none the less essential to
bring about the Recognition or the denouement
were called the Fifth Business in drama
and opera companies organized according
to the old style; the player who acted these
parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
- Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads
First words
My lifelong involvement with Mrs Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.
" ... You despise almost everyone except Paul's mother. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. Do not look at me with that tragic face. You should thank me. At fifty years old you should be glad to know something of yourself. That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a moral monster. Well, it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity."
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Haiku summary
Wherein a small stone
acts as an antagonist
in a charming book

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141186151, Paperback)

The first novel in Davies's celebrated "Deptford Trilogy" introduces Ramsay, a man who returns from World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross who is destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:15 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross, and destined to be caught in a no-man's-land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious influence on those around him." -- Back cover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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Average: (4.19)
1 4
1.5 1
2 13
2.5 7
3 63
3.5 37
4 202
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