Ethel Davis Wilson

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P. M. Hinchcliffe

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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 stories are filled with loving descriptions of Vancouver's streets and mountains and with favourite scenes from the Interior, like the marriage of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and the flight of migrating geese, repeated again and again.

These scenes never take over the stories in which they appear because Ethel Wilson's centre of interest is not topography. It is the moral and effective lives of her characters, most of them women, who are all solitary persons to some degree, and who never merge with or are overcome by the landscapes in which they are placed….

Just as her stories are set in the enclosed spatial region of British Columbia but with a constant awareness of the rest of the world outside it, so the time of her stories is a kind of enclosed area—the lives of two generations of British Columbians—in which she can move imaginatively backwards and forwards…. There is a difference between the two kinds of regionalism, of course. Space remains the same but time does not, and as time passes the perception of space, though not the space itself, changes.

One source of the astringent irony which is one of the delights of Ethel Wilson's fiction is her constant awareness of the tension between static space and changing time in her chosen regions. Her attitude to this tension can be described as elegiac, though never plaintive or nostalgic. This elegiac attitude gives a distinctive quality to her prose style, and because it is intimately connected with the exercise of memory, which is one of the major concerns of all her writing, it is an important structural element in her fiction as well. (p. 62)

Her position seems to be that here are people who have built a city and a province and given it a distinctive style of life. Most of these people are not aware that their way of life has been distinctive, and they do not care much about preserving their achievement. But it is an achievement and it ought to be preserved in spite of its creators' indifference. In her writing Ethel Wilson sees this act of preservation as one of her primary responsibilities, and I think that it is this sense of obligation that saves her style from coyness or self-indulgence in its repeated references to the scenic beauties of Vancouver and the British Columbia Interior. (pp. 62-3)

The culture that Ethel Wilson writes about is that of the colonists who peopled British Columbia during the sixty years between the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the end of the Second World War….

This culture has largely vanished during the past twenty-five years. Its old sense of a special British identity has been overtaken by the rush of post-war immigration, especially into Vancouver….

Although Ethel Wilson began to write before these changes became apparent, she has...

(This entire section contains 1786 words.)

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always seen the culture of British Columbia as one in which change was inevitable…. Also, the reader should not assume that Mrs. Wilson's elegiac affection for British Columbia and its people implies uncritical admiration of the colonist culture that she depicts. Many of her characters who accept the values of this culture without question are narrowed or even destroyed by this acceptance…. (p. 63)

Furthermore, Ethel Wilson is aware that in some respects the culture of which she writes is shallow, almost a mushroom growth—or to use her own metaphor, the subsoil on which she stands has no continuity with the strata beneath it…. [The] lack of any sense of a collective past is characteristic of many of the people that Ethel Wilson writes about, and she regards it, rather wryly, as something that she must accept in her own characters….

If the culture of British Columbia forgets its own past too easily, it is completely oblivious of the Indians' culture that the white colonists supplanted, and Ethel Wilson's fiction reflects this situation. The other culture with which her characters can interact is not Indian but Chinese, for the Chinese also came to British Columbia with the railroad, and they too form a kind of cultural overlay on the native terrain….

In a cultural situation like this, remembering the past becomes a deliberate action, not just an instinct or a reflex. Many authors are concerned with the operations of memory, but what distinguishes Ethel Wilson's writing is her insistence that we choose the memories that we carry with us and that we transmit to other people. The memories that we choose to remember (and those we choose to forget, as well) give our lives their characteristic shape, and collectively they give our culture its characteristic shape. For Ethel Wilson, choosing your memories properly is a moral responsibility. For herself as an author, recounting the past of British Columbia is part of her own duty to remember responsibly. (p. 64)

The book that maintains this elegiac quality most consistently is The Innocent Traveller, which as the Author's Note makes clear, is only partly fictional. Topaz Edgeworth is modelled in part upon Ethel Wilson's own great-aunt, and the Hastings family is in part her own family of English relatives settled in Vancouver. In a more sustained way than Ethel Wilson's other books The Innocent Traveller is concerned with death, or more precisely, with the impact that the deaths of the members of each generation and the passing of their way of life has on their survivors and descendants. In the course of her long life Topaz experiences intensely but without reflection deaths in her family and changes in the culture in which she lives. The reflection is left to us the readers, and in passage after passage the author's voice guides us in the performance of our task. We are also invited to reflect on the meaning of Topaz's life and death for our own lives as twentieth-century Canadians. (pp. 64-5)

The elegiac passages in Ethel Wilson's writing are almost always part of the narrator's comments, or if they are spoken by a character it is a minor one…. However, Mrs. Wilson's general principle, that the exercise of memory is a matter of responsible choice, applies to her major characters as well. The central situation in each of her novels, except The Innocent Traveller, and in several of her short stories can be fruitfully approached from this point of view….

However, in order to be true, memories do not have to be factual, and this is one of the themes of The Equations of Love. As the epigraph from Bleak House indicates, the two novellas are concerned with the definition of truth "in a spirit of love", and of course both stories turn upon lies: Victoria May Tritt's account of how Mort Johnson died a hero's death trying to save a friend from drowning, and Lilly Waller's invention of the late Mr. Walter Hughes to explain the parentage of her daughter. Both lies are true "in a spirit of love" because they are enemies of the spirits of self-pity and moral laziness that Ethel Wilson perceives as deadly sins. (p. 65)

In Swamp Angel the responsible choice is to forget some memories—not all, of course: "I sit on top of my little mound of years," says Nell Severance, "and it is natural and reasonable that I should look back, and I look back and round and I see the miraculous interweaving of creation." But when Mrs. Severance realizes that her revolver and all its associations have become a moral danger to herself and her daughter, she sends it to Maggie Lloyd at her lake in the Interior. There, in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Tennyson's "Morte D'Arthur", Maggie throws the Swamp Angel into the lake, where it becomes "a memory, and then not even a memory." Maggie herself begins her part in the novel by leaving her impossible husband Edward Vardoe and making herself forget that she was ever married to him. She remembers herself only as the widow of her first husband Tom Lloyd. In the context of the novel this is not escapism or fantasy but a necessary and responsible choice. In forgetting Edward Vardoe Maggie is leaving behind what Ethel Wilson elsewhere calls the "years of elision", those years that provide only a "semblance of reality", and she is resuming her real life.

Ethel Wilson's last novel, Love and Salt Water, contains her most elaborate treatment of the uses of memory. In this novel all the situations that require moral judgment are posed in terms of remembering and forgetting….

[The] action of Love and Salt Water sounds very complicated, and perhaps it is too complicated to be entirely effective. Nevertheless, this moral pattern is certainly present, and it is a logical extension of Ethel Wilson's concern with the nature of memory in her earlier novels. This last novel is also her most ambitious attempt to combine the world of private memory with the collective sense of British Columbia's past and to link them to a vision of the future which is both personal and social. Much more than the other novels, Love and Salt Water abounds in historical reminiscences and topographical vistas, and the sweeping journeys of all the major characters from west to east and back again are surely meant to provide a rhythm that will unify the reader's perception. If there is a fault here it comes from giving us too much, but even if Love and Salt Water does not achieve perfect symmetry of form it provides its own pleasures. Not the least of these is the communication of generous wisdom about ourselves and our past which this novel shares with the others and which makes all of Ethel Wilson's writing a source of continual delight. (p. 66)

P. M. Hinchcliffe, "'To Keep the Memory of So Worthy a Friend': Ethel Wilson as an Elegist'," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. II, No. 2, 1973, pp. 62-6.