#117 Ethel Wilson
February 02nd, 2016
LOCATION: Kensington Place Apartments, 1386 Nicola Street, at Pacific Avenue, Vancouver
Born in 1888, Ethel Wilson was Vancouver’s most respected novelist for several decades. In 1921 she married Dr. Wallace Wilson and they lived here, where she encouraged upcoming writers Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. In her autobiographical story, The Innocent Traveller (1949), Wilson celebrates lifeguard Joe Fortes and his swimming lessons for children at English Bay, the poet Pauline Johnson and Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. She later lived in an apartment on Point Grey Road. Wilson spent her final eight years in the Arbutus Nursing Home where she died in 1980. B.C.’s top fiction award, The Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction, is named in her honour. Her two best-known novels are Hetty Dorval and Swamp Angel. “No other writer has more successfully evoked British Columbia as a place or its inhabitants as a strange and unique people,” wrote George Woodcock, “than Ethel Wilson.”
The top fiction award in B.C., the Ethel Wilson Prize, commemorates the author of six books and the subject of two biographies and one critical study. Wilson’s first and arguably best novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), was supposedly written in three weeks while her husband was away. It’s a post-WWII parable, narrated by an innocent girl in the B.C. Interior who recalls her unusual friendship with a visiting city woman named Hetty Dorval, who is sophisticated, charming and selfish.
Wilson’s most celebrated novel, Swamp Angel (1954), concerns the escape of Maggie Vardoe from an unpleasant second marriage in Vancouver to a new life at a remote interior B.C. lake. In Love and Salt Water (1956), she wrote that “the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people.” Hence Wilson was highly attuned to what she called “the genius of place.” Wilson’s phrase was used by one of her biographers, David Stouck, for the title of a non-fiction anthology of B.C. writing, co-edited with Myler Wilkinson.
“No other writer,” George Woodcock declared, “has more successfully evoked British Columbia as a place or its inhabitants as a strange and unique people than Ethel Wilson.”
Born in 1888 in South Africa, Ethel Wilson was the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. She went to live in Pembroke, Wales, in 1890 after her mother died. Her father died when she was nine. Her friend Mary McAlpine later surmised, “She was an Edwardian child, raised by Victorians.”
At age ten, Ethel Wilson was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver where she would be remembered as “the school beauty.” She taught in Vancouver elementary schools, dutifully but without pleasure, until 1920. In 1921, she found lasting security and happiness when she married Dr. Wallace Wilson, a much-respected president of the Canadian Medical Association and professor of medical ethics at UBC. The couple lived in relative luxury in their spacious Kensington Place apartment overlooking English Bay, surrounded by Oriental rugs, books, a photo of a sketch of Winston Churchill, an original Burne-Jones pencil drawing and the same housekeeper for 22 years.
Ethel Wilson’s presence was fundamental to the careers of both Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, who have acknowledged their appreciation.
Margaret Laurence wrote to her friend Adele Wiseman: “She is so terrific. I don’t know how to describe her. She not only writes like an angel (in my opinion) but is, herself, a truly great lady—again, that probably sounds corny, but I don’t know how else to express it. Her husband is a doctor (retired) and they live in an apartment overlooking English Bay. She is very badly crippled with arthritis, but she never mentions her health. She is poised in the true way—she never makes other people feel gauche. And she is absolutely straight in her speech—she has no pretensions, nor does she say anything she doesn’t mean, and yet she has a kind of sympathetic tact.”
After Dr. Wilson died in 1966, Ethel Wilson moved to an apartment on Point Grey Road, suffered a stroke and no longer wrote. She lived for nearly eight years in the Arbutus Private Hospital until her death in 1980.
Ethel Davis Wilson was born on January 20, 1888 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. She went to live in Pembroke, Wales in 1890 after her mother died. Her father died when she was nine. At age ten she was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver. From ages 14 to 18 she attended a school for Methodist ministers’ daughters at Trinity Hall in Southport England. She later described this period as “rigorous, almost Spartan, sound, and often very amusing.” Her schoolmistress remembered her years later as “the school beauty.” She returned to Vancouver, received her teacher’s certificate from the Vancouver Normal School in 1907, and taught in Vancouver elementary schools, dutifully but without pleasure, until 1920. In 1921 she found lasting security and happiness when she married Dr. Wallace Wilson, a much respected non-literary man (president of the Canadian Medical Association, chairman of its ethics committee, professor of medical ethics at UBC). “I think she was basically shy,” family acquaintance Muriel Whitaker has recalled, “and her confidence came from Wallace who was gentle, genial, low-keyed and absolutely dependable.” The couple lived in relative luxury in their spacious Kensington Place apartment overlooking False Creek, surrounded by Oriental rugs, books, a photo of a sketch of Winston Churchill, an original Burne-Jones pencil drawing and the same housekeeper for 22 years. Ethel Wilson claimed to have written her first stories in the late 1930s in the family automobile while her husband called on the sick. The New Statesman, to her surprise, published her work but she stopped writing during the war. She said she wrote her first and possibly best novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), in three weeks while her beloved husband was away “in order to remain alive, sane and functioning.” In it, an innocent girl form the B.C. interior, Frankie Burnaby, narrates the story of a visiting city woman named Hetty Dorval.
Wilson’s most celebrated novel, Swamp Angel (1954), primarily concerns the escape of Maggie Vardoe from an unpleasant second marriage in Vancouver to a new life at a remote interior B.C. lake. She meets a retired circus juggler and other uniquely non-urbanized women. Maggie Vardoe learns independence but is told near the end of the novel, “We are all in it together. ‘No Man is an Island, I am involved in Mankinde,’ and we have no immunity and we may as well realize it.” The novel owes many of its characters and its locale to a lodge at Lac Le Jeune where Ethel Wilson vacationed with her husband, an expert fisherman, for 40 years. Lac Le Jeune was also the setting for two short stories, “On Nimpish” and “Beware the Jabberwock, my son… beware the Jubjub bird.” Mr. Spencer, the character at the outset of Swamp Angel who buys Maggie Vardoe’s hand-tied flies to facilitate her escape, was derivative of a co-owner of Vancouver’s Harkley & Haywood sporting goods store. The Swamp Angel of the title is a small revolver that is discarded. Ethel Wilson herself once had the pleasant experience of tossing a small gun off a bridge.
The Innocent Traveller (1949) is an autobiographical but unrevealing story of a young girl coming to live in Vancouver from England and remaining a relatively happy spinster past her 100th birthday. Although it appears Ethel Wilson turned suddenly to fiction in her mature years, portions of The Innocent Traveller can be traced to preparatory writing she had started 20 years prior to its publication. The Equations of Love (1952) consists of two novellas, “Tuesday and Wednesday,” about the death of a husband on a Wednesday, and “Lily’s Story,” about the resolve of an unwed mother to raise her child. Wilson’s final novel, Love and Salt Water (1956), is a post-WW II novel most directly concerned with private wounds and the uncertainty of human relations.
Dr. Wilson died in 1966 and Ethel Wilson moved to an apartment on Point Grey Road, suffered a stroke and no longer wrote. She lived for nearly eight years in the Arbutus Private Hospital until her death on December 22, 1980. About 40 people attended a funeral service at Christ Church Cathedral. “There was no eulogy,” family friend and journalist Mary McAlpine has noted, “and afterwards most of us went across the street to a special room in the Hotel Vancouver and had a coffee or drinks and sandwiches, and she would have liked that.” She was cremated with her favourite pictures of her late husband and his letters. Socially well-connected, Ethel Wilson received more recognition for her work posthumously than most other novelists indigenous to Vancouver. For many years she was the first and almost only B.C. fiction writer besides Malcolm Lowry to have her work serve as the subject of a full-length critical study. Desmond Pacey published his study Ethel Wilson and the University of Ottawa published the proceedings of an Ethel Wilson Symposium held in 1981. A new study of Ethel Wilson and her work was published by David Stouck in 2003.
B.C.’s top fiction award, the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction, devised in 1985, commemorates the achievements of Ethel Wilson, who mostly lived in Apartment 42 at the Kensington Place apartments on Beach Avenue and Nicola Street in the West End. One of her most important literary friendships was with a neophpyte writer named Margaret Laurence. Having read a story about Africa by Laurence in the second issue of Prism, Wilson wrote to the publication praising it, whereupon Laurence wrote and thanked her. This led to an offer of tea in Wilson’s apartment in January of 1961–and a lasting friendship and correspondence. At the outset, Margaret Laurence wrote to her closest friend Adele Wiseman and offered this description of Ethel Wilson. “She is so terrific. I don’t know how to describe her. She not only writes like an angel (in my opinion) but is, herself, a truly great lady–again, that probably sounds corny, but I don’t know how else to express it. Her husband is a doctor (retired) and they live in an apartment overlooking English Bay. She is very badly crippled with arthritis, but she never mentions her health. She is poised in the true way–she never makes other people feel gauche. And she is absolutely straight in her speech–she has no pretensions, nor does she say anything she doesn’t mean, and yet she has a kind of sympathetic tact.”
In Love and Salt Water (1956), Ethel Wilson wrote, that “the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people.” Hence Wilson was highly attuned to what she called the genius of place. This Ethel Wilson phrase was used by one of her two biographers, David Stouck, for the title of a non-fiction anthology of B.C. writing, co-edited with Myler Wilkinson.
Hetty Dorval (Macmillan, 1947; Alcuin Society, 1967).
The Innocent Traveller (Macmillan, 1949)
The Equations of Love: Tuesday and Wednesday: Lilly’s Story (Macmillan,1952)
Swamp Angel (Macmillan, 1954)
Love and Salt Water (Macmillan, 1956)
Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories (Macmillan, 1961)
ABOUT ETHEL WILSON
Ethel Wilson (1967) by Desmond Pacey
Ethel Wilson: Stories, Essays, and Letters, ed. David Stouck (1987)
The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson (Harbour, 1988) by Mary McAlpine 0-920080-95-2
Self Beyond Doubt: Ethel Wilson and Indian Philosophical Thought (Mumbai: SNDT Women’s University, 1996) by Anjali Bhelande
Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (University of Toronto Press, 2003) by David Stouck $50 / 0802087418
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]
Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (UTP $50) Review
Ethel Davis Bryant’s home-sick mother died in childbirth in South Africa, before Ethel was two. Her baby brother died ten days later. But perhaps the event that most made her into a literary artist was the death of her beloved father, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, in England in 1897. He was only 40 and she was nine. “It is not to be described,” she wrote, “how a child feels when the parent dies…and the world dies too for a long time in bewilderment.”
Sent to live with a maternal grandmother named Annie Malkin in remote Vancouver, the ten-year-old put on a brave face but her growth was stifled. Thereafter, according to her biographer David Stouck in Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (UTP $50), she was always aware “chaos lurks beneath the smooth surface of events, that we always live on the brink.”
Stouck’s scholarship is generous, responsible and clear. He shows how the fiction and life of Ethel Wilson were meshed, enhancing both.
A stellar student at Crofton House, the ravishingly beautiful 14-year-old was sent to a no-nonsense Methodist school in England—uprooted again—in 1902. Summers spent with monied relatives, a trip to Paris and Monte Carlo, and her Spartan boarding school brought fodder for fiction but little happiness. Shy but athletic, ‘the school beauty’ returned to Vancouver four years later with chilblains, a good tennis racket and a passion for the English language.
If a memoir-like novel called The Innocent Traveller is to be believed, Ethel Bryant was “an innocent imitation of grownupness…an innocent ninny.” For the next 13 years she reluctantly taught at four public schools while remaining constrained by her grandmother and aunts. Methodist Church members couldn’t attend any parties where there would be dancing, they couldn’t go to the circus or the theatre, and all games of chance were forbidden.
“It was not until I was married that I learned it was possible to enjoy life without first passing a moral judgement on it,” she said. In Vancouver she was taught how to swim by the Creole lifeguard at English Bay, Joe Fortes, and she also took some private painting lessons from Emily Carr. “But as the lessons consisted entirely of conversation, and as I did not recognize genius, and I earned only $47.50 a month and had no talent, I could not afford to buy conversation.”
When Grandmother Malkin died at 86 in 1919, the woman once called ‘the prettiest girl in Vancouver’ was finally free to live independently, but her freedom at age 31 was mixed with chronic feelings of abandonment.
Full-blown happiness arrived in the form of Wallace Wilson, a doctor exactly her age. He became a caring and lifelong replacement for her lost father. They married at age 33, in 1921 and they became that rarity—an intensely happily married couple. By all accounts Wilson was a fine man, in both public and private. He became president of the B.C. and Canadian Medical Associations and, among many other things, Canada’s first representative to the World Health Organization.
Rescued from her loneliness, as David Stouck puts it, Ethel Wilson began forays into the interior of the province with her husband, chiefly on fly fishing trips. Lac Le Jeune was their favoured haunt. These journeys awakened Wilson’s remarkable appreciation for what she called ‘the genius of place’, essentially how geography can affect character, for better, or for worse.
“No other writer,” George Woodcock later surmised, “has more successfully evoked British Columbia as a place or its inhabitants as a strange and unique people.”
Unable to have children, but fulfilled in their marriage, the Wilsons travelled in Europe, had servants, loved their dogs and generally lived very comfortably. The convivial Wallace always took the social lead; Ethel Wilson remained contentedly in his shadow, sophisticated but lacking a university degree and a driver’s license. “People were universally fond of Wallace,” writes Stouck, “finding him warm and charming. They were likely to find his wife a little cool and reserved, her wit sometimes too sharp for comfort.”
Ethel Wilson published her first magazine piece at age 49. The left-leaning New Statesman and Nation printed her story, “I Just Love Dogs.’ Although she tended to present herself as a reluctant amateur at first, she was a late bloomer who did not lack ambition. She claimed to have written her first stories in the late 1930s in the family automobile while her husband called on the sick.
Her devoted Macmillan editor and publisher John Gray once compared her to someone who sits down at the piano for the first time and can play, but he was playing along. Ethel Wilson had honed her craft with a rigorous respect for the English sentence. Portions of her autobiographical story of the Malkin family and of a middle-aged woman coming to live in Vancouver from England and remaining as a relatively happy spinster past her 100th birthday, The Innocent Traveller, can be traced to preparatory writing 20 before the novel was published.
Ethel Wilson liked to go to movies in the afternoon alone. Protected by her husband, Wilson evolved self-deferentially but seriously and secretly in their spacious Kensington Place apartment overlooking False Creek. Her first novel is considered by some to be her best, even though Wilson herself was dismissive of it as ‘amateur’, ‘slight’ and ‘hokum’, once claiming Hetty Dorval (1947) was dashed off in just three weeks while Wallace Wilson was away ‘in order to remain alive, sane and functioning.’
Hetty Dorval, the title character, is a beautiful older woman who mysteriously arrives in the ranching town of Lytton. A country girl named Frankie Burnaby immediately falls under her romantic spell. Hetty doesn’t seem to play by society’s rules. Gradually Frankie becomes aware how Hetty Dorval uses and disparages others, bewitching rich men when it suits her, but she’s fascinated by Hetty’s allure. Her parents try to protect Frankie, who is sent to school in England, but she must come-of-age on her own.
In this moral allegory, written just after World War II, the psychopathic Hetty Dorval ultimately finds herself at the mercy of Frankie, who gives the devilishly selfish siren a place to sleep one night. The last we hear of Hetty, she’s headed to Vienna in 1939 with a man named Jules Stern. “Six weeks later the German Army occupied Vienna,” Wilson writes. “There arose a wall of silence around the city, through which only faint confused sounds were sometimes heard.” The political subtext attracted offers from Hollywood for movie rights, but Wilson dallied, hoping for a British production instead.
Wilson’s most celebrated and studied novel, Swamp Angel (1954), is full of symbols but it’s less engaging as a story. It concerns the escape of Maggie Vardoe from an unhappy second marriage, taking flight to live among rough-hewn characters at a lodge at Lac Le Jeune. The Swamp Angel of the title refers to a revolver that is discarded. The novel has appealed to feminist analysis, but its charm lies mainly in Wilson’s marvellously refined style. Stouck provides in-depth analysis of all Wilson’s work, noting her importance as an oft-anthologized short story writer.
Wilson’s writing attracted and influenced two budding Vancouver writers, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro.
Laurence became like a daughter to Wilson. They traded at least 50 letters. To a friend, Laurence wrote about meeting Ethel Wilson initially in 1960 when Laurence was a struggling writer in Vancouver. “She is so terrific. I don’t know how to describe her. She not only writes like an angel (in my opinion) but is, herself, a truly great lady—again, that probably sounds corny, but I don’t know how to express it. Her husband is a doctor (retired) and they live in an apartment overlooking English Bay. She is very badly crippled with arthritis, but she never mentions her health. She is poised in the true way—she never makes other people feel gauche. And she is absolutely straight in her speech—she has no pretensions, nor does she say anything she doesn’t mean, and yet she has a kind of sympathetic tact.”
Alice Munro, another ‘housewife’ in Vancouver, was also inspired by Wilson and benefited from her encouragement. For Munro, Wilson’s writing afforded ‘the glaze of perfect sentences’. “I was enormously excited by her work,” Munro has recalled, “because her style was such an enormous pleasure in itself…It was important to me that a Canadian writer was using so elegant a style. You know, I don’t mean style in the superficial sense, but that a point of view so complex and ironic was possible in Canadian literature.” Robertson Davies concurred, saying, “Ethel Wilson produces fiction as elegantly fashioned as any that is written elsewhere.”
Wilson steadfastly rejected the need to be Canadian. She also didn’t believe Creative Writing classes were viable. “The conditions of privacy are the only conditions under which writing can be done.” She failed to equate the benefits rendered to her by her editor John Gray with the critical feedback engendered by Creative Writing students. A feud arose with UBC Creative Writing maven Earle Birney, who dissed Wilson for her ‘queenly’ attitude. In private she referred to ‘poor industrious egotistic ambitious Earle!’
Shy and self-effacing until her Sixties, Wilson was briefly recognized as the grande dame of Canadian literature. Eric Nicol called her the First Lady of Letters in Canada. As her health and career were waning she wrote an unpublishable rant against juvenile delinquency, blaming the phenomenon mostly on mothers who chose to work, prompting a Macmillan reader to suggest that Ethel Wilson carried a chip on her shoulder for being childless.
As a critic, David Stouck doesn’t wear blinkers either. He notes, that Wilson’s perennial struggle with choosing titles for her books “reveals that there was something provisional and tentative in her approach to her art, that writing itself was more important [to her] than the grand designs of character and plot.”
Wilson’s books never won awards but she received an honorary doctorate from UBC (where she was very well-connected), a Canada Council Medal, the Lorne Pierce Medal and the Order of Canada. Mostly wheelchair-bound in her 70s, she disliked using the telephone due to increasing deafness. Having herself undergone a mastectomy, she grew increasingly fearful about her husband’s health. When he died of his seventh heart attack in 1966, her life became ‘a bare desert’ and she longed for death. It wouldn’t come for 15 years.
Growing ‘dumb and muttery’ (her words), she suffered several strokes and was transferred to the Arbutus Nursing Home in Kitsilano in 1974. An aspiring academic named David Stouck visited her, but she was ill and permanently afflicted with lost love. Her last written message referred to her husband. “How I miss Father—I miss him daily.” Ethel Wilson died on December 22, 1980, a month prior to turning 93. 0-8020-8741-8
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003]