Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Love and Salt Water was Ethel Wilson’s last novel. It lacks the unity of her best work, but it is distinguished, as all of her novels are, by her poetic style, her pervading irony, and her sense of the integrity and perversity of the human character. The novel skillfully conveys the essentials of life on the Canadian West Coast, “on the periphery,” as she calls it. She is an old-fashioned novelist in the way that she feels free to comment on aspects of character, vagaries of weather, peculiarities of settings, and so on, ex cathedra, although she normally restricts the focus of her fiction to one point of view. On the other hand, she is interested in new technologies and communications methods and is acutely aware of the constantly changing patterns in modern North American life. Even when she is dealing with near-tragic events, such as the accident with the dinghy, she does not become solemn or portentous but keeps the balance that her unerring comic sense demands.

Desmond Pacey has well summed up the basic pattern underlying her fiction: “There is a cosmic rhythm, and true life consists in surrendering oneself to that rhythm. If man seeks to preserve his personal identity, to protect himself within the shell of his own ego, he brings upon himself loneliness, fear, and ultimate horror.” This rhythm is found both in the natural world and in human life. True wisdom, in Wilson’s view, lies in learning to bring together in harmony one’s nature with that of others and with the natural world itself.