Ethel Davis Wilson Helen W. Sonthoff - Essay

Helen W. Sonthoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)