Ethel Davis Wilson Essay - Critical Essays

Wilson, Ethel Davis


Wilson, Ethel Davis 1890–

A Canadian novelist, Wilson centers her novels in British Columbia. She uses a shifting point of view to examine the "equations of love" between people, particularly those of the working class. She also examines the role of memory as it plays upon the tension between changing time and static space.

Helen W. Sonthoff

The distinctive element in Ethel Wilson's fiction is its tone. It seems as if the centre of each book were not a main character, or a theme, or a plot, but an attitude toward the life of the tale. The subject matter with which Ethel Wilson deals varies considerably in event, character, setting. So does the form. But the tone, though not the same in each work, has certain recognizable characteristics.

It is, for one thing, quiet. It is persistently undramatic, allowing no sustained plot interest, no profound involvement with any character. Moments of wonder or sharp delight are followed by ordinary distractions; moments of concern or intense sympathy are commented on with wry humour. The tone is often funny, urbane, curious, inclusive. And what it primarily does is to render any subject matter in such a way that the reader's journey through it is very like his journey through any natural landscape, any ordinary day of his living. Meaning, in these novels as in living, comes upon him and fades. He encounters these characters as he might people in his own life, watching their surface, their manner and acts, knowing them, drifting away, doubting, hearing again, sometimes losing sight of them entirely. Should he for a moment lose himself in a scene or a gesture or mood, he will be brought back to his role as observer; he will have restored to him a perspective that persuades him to regard this fiction with a kind of equanimity.

Gertrude Stein says, "A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it…." These short complicated books make a similar requirement…. The sense of living given is that the way is the truth; it is the journey that matters, not the arrival points. (pp. 33-4)

To create this tone, this meaning, Ethel Wilson does extraordinary things with point of view and with narrative line. Not so much in her first novel, Hetty Dorval. Yet even here there is a pushing at the edges of the controlling voice. There is, in fact, nothing in the book, no reflection, no view that the narrator, Frankie Burnaby, might not have thought or said. But she does seem to shift her point of view in time. Sometimes she speaks as if she were, in imagination, very close to the experience she is recalling; sometimes it is as if she were taking a much more distant view of a scene wider and richer than the one actually being presented to us…. [The] knowledge that there are untold, unknown things and that other things are only guessed at informs Hetty Dorval. (p. 34)

There are also, in Hetty Dorval, scenes or events whose value seems not to depend on their relevance to this particular tale…. [Such] passages seem to have an absolute value, a vivid life outside the main line of the story. Each one could have seemed, to the narrator, relevant; she could have justified them…. But there is in them some force barely contained by the narrative.

That force is relaxed in The Innocent Traveller, an episodic book about a life which "… inscribes no sweeping curves upon the moving curtain of time … no significant design. Just small bright dots of colour, sparkling dabs of life." Here scenes occur or recur as if by chance, as if this event or that landscape had simply snagged the attention or the memory. (pp. 34-5)

The reader's attention is drawn away from then into now, from there to here, from small chaos to large, increasingly often as the book goes on.

There is a similar shifting round of point of view from one generation to another, from one member of this large family to another. The reader stays with no one view long enough to become ultimately acquainted with it. The effect is kaleidoscopic. There are relationships and patterns, but they seem temporary, transitory, as if made by chance. (p. 35)

Two chapters of The Innocent Traveller were published separately. Others could be, having a kind of enclosed life. But the tone of wonder, of mingled admiration and despair, grows only gradually through the whole book, through one episode simply "coming in beside" another in a grouping as accidental, a sequence as casual as any natural order. (p. 36)

The tone Ethel Wilson has created in The Innocent Traveller seems natural for a family tale. The combination of apparently exact and detailed accounts with frankly fanciful reconstructions implies a point of view like that of some younger member or friend of the family. The quiet, companionable voice which shares amusement, raises questions, and occasionally makes a fragmentary judgment precludes any final judgment. No pattern, no ultimate meaning in the life of Topaz Edgeworth...

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W. H. New

[The Innocent Traveller] explores innocence, independence, and order, and in presenting the character of Topaz it interprets both twentieth-century life and the necessary relationship that must exist between people in any society whose stability is, like this one, precariously founded in time.

Mrs. Wilson has in various places and in various ways been likened to Willa Cather, Jane Austen, Proust, Defoe, Blake, Butler, Trollope, and Bennett: an awesome group…. Mrs. Wilson's success in creating live people leads to one of the comparisons; her concern with time, her social consciousness, her irony, and her control of words lead to others. But the observation of likenesses only serves to clarify the nature of individual parts of a novel, and all those listed here exist in The Innocent Traveller not separately, like borrowings, but unified into a work of art. (pp. 22-3)

Hetty Dorval, the first of Ethel Wilson's works, studies the nebulous influence which the experienced title character has on a young girl. It is not just an opposition between youth and age, or between innocence and sophistication. What it explores, with reference to the whole question of morality and amorality, is the extent to which Hetty, though using the worlds through which she moves, can be an individual by exempting herself from ordinarily accepted codes of behaviour. The two novellas which make up The Equations of Love are also concerned with codes, but they observe "morality" from other angles, attempting to explore the nature of love by depicting generosity, narcissism, casual affairs, sacrifice, and many other subtleties of human response, in working-class settings. Swamp Angel and Love and Salt Water focus again on individual women: Maggie Lloyd, in the first book, finds she must escape suburban routine if she is to be the individual she knows she has the potential to be; and Ellen Cuppy, in the second, values her independence so much she flees marriage and, for a brief while, fancies she has escaped from time. But time, as Love and Salt Water also tells us, "is an agent", and the years of our life that seem irrelevant "stir, and take their unexpected vengeance in a variety of ingenious ways"…. Time stirs even in The Innocent Traveller, where Topaz Edgeworth (with her own private morality and her protected world) moves gaily through life, but its "vengeance" here is felt in the world at large and only ironically, when at all, in relation to Topaz herself. (p. 23)

[Topaz's character] does not substantially change during her life; and Mrs. Wilson's novel gains its subtlety partly in language, partly in managing to create something significant out of an essentially plotless and insignificant life.

The Innocent Traveller is not a novel of plot and makes no pretence of being one. The very first chapters, depicting all the main characters of the book, immediately anticipate everyone's future, completely undercutting any "suspense."… What has happened [during the novel] except that a life was and then is not? Very little; just life itself. But can any life be insignificant? Or does insignificance only apply to the relationship between that life and the world around it?… [What] we see are "dots of life", the moments of vitality that seem to have created and to illustrate Topaz's personality. (p. 25)

Topaz's almost Blakean innocence—a harmony with the...

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Ethel Wilson's short story "Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention" concerns a theme popular in these days of women's liberation, the initiation of an ordinary housewife with three children into her society, her movement, within certain defined limits, from innocence to experience, and her achievement of an individual identity. Mrs. Golightly's aim, expressed at a moment of recognition when it seems unattainable, is to be "a woman of the world."… The deliberate simplicity of the theme, the concentration of wish, recognition, and fulfilment within one or two days, the play of contrast and repetition and the surface naivety of the style all contribute to the total effect of a tale which, however slight it may at...

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P. M. Hinchcliffe

There is nothing provincial about Ethel Wilson's writing. Her novels and stories display a sensibility that is sophisticated and urbane. They are patently the work of an artist who has no patience with any kind of cultural or moral narrowness. Even if her characters are not always aware of their place in a larger world, Mrs. Wilson herself is, and she makes sure that her readers are aware of it too. But she has always been a determinedly regional writer…. A few of her stories are set outside British Columbia, but her home ground is Vancouver and the river valleys and mountain lakes that make up what dwellers on the British Columbia coast call "the Interior", and which they regard as their hinterland. Her novels and...

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