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 environment so complete that no sadness disturbs it, no disruption mars it, no experience is incapable of being absorbed into it all—depends, naturally, on a particular kind of environment surrounding her…. [She needs] a curious combination of confinement and freedom—or of freedom to do as she is inclined and freedom from all concern about the world around her. She depends heavily, that is, on the world being ordered and maintained for her, but she cannot survive in a society that observes rules above idiosyncrasies. Thus her departure from her brother John's Europe is a move to harmony. She finds her world in turn-of-the-century Vancouver, a frontier town that only a few years previously had been called Gastown and that was quickly disguising itself in propriety. Idiosyncrasy (at that time, at any rate—perhaps as in any Far West town) was a way of life, yet out of individuality was fashioned order.
In the irony created when we see this order in relationship with time lies yet another dimension to the novel. Topaz has an innate respect for the "spirit of History"…. The trouble with history is that it does not exist just in the past; it is continually being made, and of this Topaz is ("innocently") unaware. The world her progenitors founded for her was the Victorian one…. But even the new world is influenced by time. Topaz's "open country" has "no time limit", but in 1914 the world around her knows that the Victorian sense of order and decorum is over. Time is continually operative within life, but in living their individual lives, people are often unconscious of it. They see only the spectacular event—Rose's becoming a woman goes unnoticed; her having become one therefore seems "sudden". The breakout of World War One and the concomitant end of the Victorian era seem comparably sudden, yet retrospectively they seem equally gradual in their development.
This novel, then, has at its base a kind of symbolic structure; by examining events in individual lives, it interprets a series of historical events that led to the twentieth century being what it is…. [Time's] effect is to make any social order or "absolute" code of morality that people establish seem a little ironic, for the only constant in such a life is change. Perhaps in time, then, is the only order we can know…. It is not a gloomy view, but it is a serious one, and its undercurrents stir in the depths of the novel, occasionally rising to remind readers that life, with all its frivolity, all its possible harmonies, is a mortal thing, and therefore, for most individuals, a Blakean Experience as well.
The two recurrent metaphors which Ethel Wilson uses to explore her subject both involve oppositions: peace and war, and surface and depth. Topaz's harmony is both peaceful and superficial; the world around her, by contrast, knows war and knows suffering. And so Topaz herself becomes a symbol of a certain kind of life. (pp. 26-8)
Her individuality is protected only because she lives in an environment that accepts it; in other words, for all the fact that it is individuals who create an ordered society, it is society that lets the individual survive, and any concept of individual "freedom" is ironic in its expectations if it does not take this into account.
Though Topaz lives for herself, she cannot even try to live on her own as Ethel Wilson's other characters Hetty Dorval and Maggie Lloyd do…. Neither of them, however, can isolate herself from the human race; their actions all touch others, and the books reiterate what the epigraph to Hetty Dorval borrows from Donne: no man is an island. In The Innocent Traveller, Topaz cannot isolate herself either, because she does not have either the wish to do so or the ability to survive should she have tried. In another sense, however, she is more isolated than Hetty Dorval or Maggie Lloyd could ever hope to be, for the fact that she lives a perfectly moral life that is not necessarily out of date but quite certainly out of touch with the present makes her influence upon her world negligible…. Ethel Wilson's book makes it quite clear that though Topaz delights, her particular life is, in time, of no importance. Why then write about her? Because her gaiety has value even if it is not useful, because her possibilities are those of Everyman, and because a comprehension of her life tells us something about life in general and about our own. (pp. 28-9)
The world is delightful, innocent, harmonious to Topaz precisely because she does not respond in depth to experience. She travels on, anticipating new scenery, even to the end—but reacting to it only in her own terms…. [Though] she by and large escapes sorrow, she also evades the extremes of joy, which others, responding sensitively and emotionally to the world, cannot do. (pp. 29-30)
Under [the novel's] surface lie deeps of emotional impact and intellectual perception which a careful reading will gradually reveal. It is a witty and sensitive book, too—stylistically apt, gently ironic, and quietly humane. (p. 30)
W. H. New, "The Irony of Order: Ethel Wilson's 'The Innocent Traveller'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique 1969), Vol. X, No. 3, 1968, pp. 22-30.