Ethel Davis Wilson W. H. New - Essay

W. H. New

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1431 words.)