Helen W. Sonthoff

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942

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.

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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 could emerge from an author view which encompasses the many points of view of the family.

Tuesday and Wednesday, a novella published three years after The Innocent Traveller, is entirely concerned with the number of meanings that do not add up to one, the number of impulses and motives which are not links in a chain of purpose. Will and intention play some part in the lives of these characters, but not so much as accident and coincidence. The arrangement of episodes is loose, so that one becomes aware only gradually of a pairing which holds all things in balance: the intention acted upon and the intention deflected; the coincidence that alters a mood and the coincidence that doesn't; the accident that ends a life and the accident that is scarcely noticed.

The tone of this book, both more detached and more comic than that of The Innocent Traveller, is also more controlling. Each event and each character is made to seem as ordinary as can be…. Even when the apparently irrelevant assumes relevance, affecting mood and action, the tone of the passage makes the shift seem perfectly ordinary. (pp. 36-7)

Mood and motive shift about, on these ordinary days…. Like the balance of episodes, the balance of characters (not at first noticeable) makes it seem the oddest chance that two very different people should find themselves in similar or echoing circumstances. The effect one character has on another seems also accidental. One encounter may be a direct hit; another, a glancing blow; a third, abortive, so that neither character is really aware of the other at all. A missed connection is made to seem as fortuitous as a meeting which alters the course of a life. (p. 38)

In its quiet way, [Tuesday and Wednesday] is technically brilliant. The author voice, established in the opening paragraph, is sometimes omniscient, to show both the irrational connections and the many missed connections. It is sometimes an observing and commenting "I" who addresses the reader as "you." This device, moving toward conversation, makes observations seem natural, and thereby opens the small particular experiences of a few people into the daily life of anyone. (pp. 38-9)

The conversational author voice also allows the point of view to flow smoothly into one or another of the characters, whose experiences and responses are given largely through characteristic speech patterns….

This novella is one of two published together, in a volume called The Equations of Love. The love Myrt and Mort have for each other is an extension of a self-love that is strong and inaccurate. What they and other characters in the story really love are the many images of themselves. In the second novella, Lilly's Story, Lilly's motivating love is also—in a way—self-love, but it turns very quickly from self-protection to the protection of her child. Her refrain, "A girl's gotta right to live," becomes "My kid's gotta right to have a chance."

The sharpest contrast between Lilly's Story and Tuesday and Wednesday, is that Lilly's is a story of single-minded purpose and ruthless perseverance. (p. 39)

Lilly's Story, like many of Ethel Wilson's tales, is about a triumph of the human spirit. (p. 40)

In Swamp Angel there is also a working out of a plan, but in a manner that is much more flexible. The narrative of this novel spreads out, flowing one way for a while, then bending round to follow another path, another character. The woman who carries out her plan, Maggie Lloyd, is as determined as Lilly, but where Lilly is slight, narrow, rigid with purpose, Maggie is ample, easy in her movements, intuitive. She too is reserved, not from fear but because she "did not require to talk, to divulge, to compare, to elicit."… Maggie, brought up from childhood by a man, with men, had never learned the peculiarly but not wholly feminine joys of communication…. (pp. 40-1)

The accidental or arbitrary encounter or event or vision in Swamp Angel is different from the accidental encounters of Tuesday and Wednesday. Maggie and Mrs. Severance have an awareness, a deliberateness that indicates some relationship between caprice and will, between the passive and the active. None of them is given as controlling his fate; each of them is in some way aware of it and consents to it. (p. 41)

The fantastic likelihood of coincidence does not function as strongly in Swamp Angel as in Tuesday and Wednesday. Swamp Angel is a more fluid work altogether, covering more ground. The movement of point of view and narrative line establishes an attitude or consciousness hard to define but pervasive enough so that no combination of motives and acts turns into an imposed pattern, a plot. Casual or symbolic connections do appear but are made to shift and finally dissolve.

In Love and Salt Water, the reader's attitude toward the life of the story is less clearly controlled. There is, on the one hand, some real power of plot in this novel. Whereas in Swamp Angel, Maggie's key decision has been made before the book opens so that her movements were those of relaxation and a natural return to her strongest self, in Love and Salt Water young Ellen Cuppy moves toward important decision. Her growth, over a period of fifteen years, gives a sense of motion toward some act, some knowledge or understanding. She is given a natural urgency and restless drive. On the other hand, there are the counter motions of such a passage as this:

She did not at that moment think that there was somewhere some parallel of light and darkness, of illumination and blotting-out, and perhaps our whole existence, one with another, is a trick of light. That may be somewhere near the truth, which is often hard to determine because of the presence of the lights and shadows of look, word, thought which touch, glide, pass or remain.

In Love and Salt Water, there are not only comments in the distinctive author's voice but also divisions in the narrative, and several points of view. However, Ellen Cuppy's hesitations and actions, blunders and discoveries pull so strongly toward plot and character development that the counter weights cannot balance them. As soon as the balance tips, as soon as one hears the questions "Why does she do this?" "What does that mean?" one realizes how strongly Ethel Wilson has held, in many books, a difficult view. To see life as accidental, "a trick of light", "a series of combination of events", and to present it so with humour implies some balancing source of strength, some framework. In Love and Salt Water, the framework doesn't seem to hold. But in other works, especially in Tuesday and Wednesday, the balance is so fine that one gets the kind of impression one gets from a mobile: it moves of itself, by accident, by design. (pp. 41-2)

Helen W. Sonthoff, "The Novels of Ethel Wilson," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1965, pp. 33-42.

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