Although Ethel Wilson’scanon is small, it is of high quality. The writing style is direct, simple, and expressive. Only occasionally, in the early books, does the diction or syntax call attention to itself as excellent. In general, only if one should try to paraphrase a passage or change a word would he or she become aware of that rightness of style that is typical of an artist. Passages describing the beauty of nature are most immediately impressive. Wilson’s account of the train journey of the Edgeworths across Canada to Vancouver, in The Innocent Traveller, offers a vivid impression of the countryside and evokes the haunting vastness of the plains and forests stretching northward from the train track to the Arctic Circle. Magnificent descriptions of the northern lights occur in more than one book, and the mist-shrouded or sun-brightened mountains of the Vancouver area are sketched with a sensitive pen.
Less frequent but equally impressive are descriptions of unsightly scenes, such as the interior of the slovenly Johnson apartment in Tuesday and Wednesday (published in The Equations of Love). It is not only in description, however, that Wilson excels; her humor is deft, ironic, and humane in passages such as the chapter “Nuts and Figs” in The Innocent Traveller, in which Great-Grandfather Edgeworth, in his declining days, proposes to two worthy lady friends in one afternoon and is refused, to the gratification of all three. Thoughtful and philosophical passages are also subtly presented, so that except for a few intrusive statements in the early, less integrated books, the concepts are suggested through economical language and apt symbols.
For Wilson, nature is not only a major inspiration for description but also a method of characterization. Most of herprotagonists are close to nature. Their ability to love and the essential civilization of their emotions are measured by their appreciation of the beauties and dangers of the Canadian mountains, forests, and waters. One notable exception is the garrulous Topaz Edgeworth, who exists in her human relationships rather than in nature, and the other is Hetty Dorval, an antagonist, whose appreciation of nature is one of the deceptive charms of her evil. Wilson’s characters are firmly rooted in their environments and grow out of them. Her attitude toward them is dispassionately empathetic; they are clearly and humorously drawn, with subtle complexities. All are believable, and the best of them are memorable. She develops understanding of even her most unsympathetic characters, to the extent that plot is often weakened because she is drawn into digressions about the characters, about whom she cares more than she cares about careful plot structure. Topaz Edgeworth, Nell Severance, Lilly Hughes, and Maggie Lloyd are her most convincing creations, and it is the success of their characterization that makes The Innocent Traveller, Lilly’s Story, and Swamp Angel her best novels.
If style and characterization are what make Wilson’s novels outstanding, the plots are what keep them from being great. Plotting appears always to have been difficult for Wilson. Her admirers defend the inconsequentiality of her plots as true to life, expressing a philosophy about the fortuitous connections, or lack of connections, between the events in a person’s history. Wilson minimizes suspense as a plot device; in fact, she often uses a technique of revealing future events, since causality interests her more than suspense. Still, the novels that are most effectively plotted, Lilly’s Story and Swamp Angel, are recognized to be her best.
The Equations of Love
The title of Wilson’s third book, The Equations of Love, suggests her recurring themes as a novelist. The typical protagonist of a Wilson novel is orphaned or otherwise separated from her family, as Wilson herself was as a child. Deprived of parental love, she becomes independent but lonely. This typical protagonist usually takes a journey, which is both a literal “trip”—aboard ship or into the Canadian wilderness—and an interior voyage of self-discovery. She is both soothed and awed by her insignificance in the natural world, which is beautiful but indifferent. Out of her new self-awareness, she learns to give of herself and to build a relationship, usually but not necessarily marriage, that brings new meaning to her life, either happiness or philosophical maturity. Love is the solution to this symbolic orphanhood, yet love, too, is imperfect. Orphanhood leaves its mark, and people make do with various “equations of love.”
This sense of irrevocable loss, of necessary compromise, saves Wilson’s love-stories from sentimentality without veering toward cynicism. There is nobility in the aspiration toward love and self-subordination, triumph in even the flawed achievement of those graces. Wilson is impressed by the human ability to transcend egotism through whatever equation of love is possible to each individual.
For a first novel, Hetty Dorval is exceptionally good, although a melodramatic climax undercuts the subtleties of its characterization. It introduces Wilson’s recurring themes: orphanhood, egotism, and love; the tempering of the ego by nature or travel; the lasting impact of momentary impressions or casual coincidences; the emotional maturation of a young woman. It is the story of Frances Burnaby, and the influence of Hetty Dorval on her maturation.
Hetty crosses Frankie’s path only a half dozen times, but the temptation that she represents is very strong. The two are parallel in certain important respects: Both are only children, and both are reared with considerable protection and privilege. Both are attracted by elements of wildness, such as the turbulent Thompson River and the flight of wild geese. Frankie, however, has been reared by her parents with friends and loving discipline. By contrast, illegitimate Hetty’s mother, Mrs. Broom, has hidden her maternal role, and with it her model of a loving relationship, to give Hetty a superior social standing: She has pretended to be Hetty’s nurse and later her lady’s maid, so that Hetty has learned tyranny and self-indulgence. Hetty is seraphically beautiful, with selfish charm, concerned only with her own pleasures. Frankie’s mother calls her “The Menace” even before she knows Hetty’s full story. Hetty’s beauty and charm and her elemental wildness attract Frankie as a child. Even though the younger girl gives up the older woman’s friendship, in obedience to her parents’ orders, she does not understand the evil in Hetty’s character. As she grows up and gains experience, however, in each subsequent contact with Hetty she learns more and comprehends more fully the destructiveness of Hetty’s egotism. Frankie’s full comprehension of what is morally wrong with Hetty’s way of life comes when Richard Tretheway, the man she loves, falls in love with Hetty, and she has to decide what action she should take.
Three of the major characters in the story are orphaned: Frankie loses her father during the course of the story; Richard has lost his mother before Frankie meets him; and Hetty is a psychological orphan, having no publicly acknowledged father or mother. Each has dealt with the problems of isolation in a different way. Frankie grows to love the Tretheway family and builds new familial relationships with them; Richard has tried to substitute as a mother to his younger sister Molly; and Hetty has turned to self-indulgence and the collection and abandonment of men. Each of these compensatory behaviors is one possible equation of love, but Hetty’s is not honest or giving. The traits in Frankie’s character that are similar to Hetty’s are finally subordinated in Frankie as she learns to love. Although Hetty comments near the end of the book about their kinship, Frankie has moved beyond Hetty in self-control and compassion, and has thus ended her egocentric solitude.
The Innocent Traveller
Wilson’s second novel, The Innocent Traveller, is a radical departure from her archetypal plot line. Topaz Edgeworth is not a solitary orphan, but a beloved child in a large and close family. Family is an all-pervasive concept throughout the book; characters are designated according to their role in the family, which changes as they age. Father becomes Grandfather and finally Great-Grandfather Edgeworth. Topaz herself is defined successively in terms of child, daughter, sister, aunt, and great-aunt. Topaz does lose her mother when she is...
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