Swamp Angel, regarded by most critics as Wilson’s finest achievement, follows from her first novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), also an accomplished work dealing with a girl growing up in the British Columbia hinterland. The Harper edition of Swamp Angel, published in the United States, was substantially different (containing two additional chapters and an additional paragraph at the end) from the Macmillan edition published in Canada and England, where the reviews were more positive in their praise of Wilson’s style and characterization. Her novels set on the Pacific rim contributed to the development of a distinctive West Coast literary sensibility.
Wilson’s novels concern common themes such as the failure of love, hope and despair, and fear and courage. Her portrayal of strong female characters paved the way for other major Canadian writers such as Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. In Swamp Angel and her other fiction, Wilson combines a Victorian or Edwardian sensibility with a contemporary ironic attitude in a subdued yet seductive prose style, with its economy of words and lack of pretentiousness. In 1961, Ethel Wilson was among the first recipients of the Canada Council Medal; in 1964, she was awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal; and in 1970, she received the Order of Canada Medal of Service.