Eleven short stories and eight essays by Ethel Wilson were published in magazines between 1937 and 1964. Two of the stories, “Hurry, Hurry!” and “Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention,” were later anthologized, and two others, “I Just Love Dogs” and “The Window,” were selected for Best British Short Stories of 1938 and The Best American Short Stories 1959, respectively. These four stories, and other writings, were collected in Mrs. Golightly, and Other Stories (1961). In addition to the stories and essays, seven excerpts from novels also appeared separately as short stories in magazines. One of these, “Miss Tritt,” from The Equations of Love, was anthologized as a short story.
Ethel Wilson was among the Canadian authors of the 1930’s who broke away from the frontier tradition of provincial and didactic romances. She adapted to Canadian backgrounds the universal themes and methods of the realistic and psychological novel. She was one of the first Canadians to achieve a critical reputation abroad, not indeed as a major novelist, but certainly as an important minor one. Her novels are in the main current of the British and French realist tradition, especially that of the early twentieth century, showing affinities with the works of E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Marcel Proust. Nevertheless, she maintained strong individuality in both theme and form. She wrote that authors can be “endangered by the mould or formula becoming apparent, and then the story has no life.” Without being innovative, therefore, her novels have a great deal of variety of theme and approach, so that they are difficult to classify.
Perhaps because Wilson did not attempt to follow literary trends, and perhaps also because she began publishing relatively late in her life, when she was nearly fifty years old, her works did not have a dramatic impact on Canadian letters. She was publishing out of her generation, and her realism and understatement seemed somewhat old-fashioned to those authors of the 1930’s who were following naturalistic trends. Still, she was influential in raising the quality of the art in Canada and in quietly introducing the theme of women “finding themselves” in some sense, well before the theme became popular among feminists. Her heroines are not necessarily strong or aggressive but they mature, meet the vicissitudes of their lives with determination and ingenuity, and for the most part succeed in small but important ways. Wilson’s treatment of this theme and her impeccable craftsmanship contributed significantly to the maturing of the novel in Canada.
Bhelande, Anjali. Self Beyond Self: Ethel Wilson and Indian Philosophical Thought. Mumbaim, India: S.N.D.T. Women’s University, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996. Examines the Indic influences on Wilson and her philosophy.
McAlpine, Mary. The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson. Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing, 1989. The first biography.
McMullan, Lorraine, ed. The Ethel Wilson Symposium. Ottowa: University of Ottowa Press, 1982. Papers presented at a conference held April 24-26, 1981, at the University of Ottawa, Canada. McMullan’s introduction is especially useful.
McPherson, Hugo. “Fiction: 1940-1960.” In Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl Frederick Klinck. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. Wilson’s fiction is discussed in the context of a supposed “search for identity” thought to infuse Canadian literature’s development in the mid-twentieth century. McPherson notes a contrary individuality in Wilson’s writing that transcends her failure at times to reconcile her creative impulses as both “artist and sibyl.”
Mitchell, Beverley. “Ethel Wilson.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Fiction Series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Vol. 6. Toronto: ECW Press, 1985. Wilson’s life and complete works are thoroughly examined. An exhaustive bibliography follows Mitchell’s straightforward, readable analysis, making this study a must for Wilson readers.
Pacey, Desmond. Ethel Wilson. New York: Twayne, 1967. This thorough, readable overview of Wilson’s long and short fiction is not deeply analytical, but it does consider Wilson’s lightly ironic vision and her valuable contribution to Canadian literature despite her relatively short publishing history. Despite its age, the book still contains some useful insights. A selected bibliography and an index are included.
Woodcock, George. “Innocence and Solitude: The Fictions of Ethel Wilson.” In Modern Times. Vol. 3. in The Canadian Novel, edited by John Moss. Toronto: NC Press, 1982. Woodcock discusses Wilson’s originality and vision as they are expressed in her novels and novellas.
Woodcock, George. “On Ethel Wilson.” In The World of Canadian Writing: Critiques and Recollections. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas and McIntyre, 1980. Slightly revised since its 1974 publication, this reflective personal essay enumerates the strengths of Wilson’s personality and her unique works. This volume contains an index of the names of authors mentioned or treated in the book.