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May/June 2003
Vol. 35, no. 3
ISSN 1492-4676

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The Works and Worlds of Ethel Wilson

Anne Pichora, Research and Information Services

Simone Nelles presented the January 21, 2003, SAVOIR FAIRE seminar, "Still Standing, Subdued but Strong: The Works and Worlds of Ethel Wilson in Early Twenty-First Century Canadian Literature." Having received a B.A. and M.A from the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany and a post-graduate research scholarship from Canadaís Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Simone Nelles is pursuing her interdisciplinary doctoral research at Carleton University, concentrating on the fiction of Lucy Maud Montgomery, Hugh MacLennan and Ethel Wilson.

A fundamental focus in the fictional works of Ethel Wilson is her perceptive, in-depth exploration of the challenges and complexities of human relationships. Ms. Nelles noted that Wilson was particularly interested in examining how individuals perceive themselves and others and how they deal with love, loss and isolation. With an intuitive sensitivity, Ethel Wilson portrayed the intricacies and difficulties of individual relationships while simultaneously depicting elements of light and darkness in her charactersí natural surroundings.

Ethel Wilson was born on January 20, 1888, in South Africa. Following the death of her mother in 1889, her father, a Methodist minister, took her to England where she spent her early years. Her father died in 1897, and she then moved to Vancouver to stay with her grandmother, returning later to England to attend secondary school. After receiving a teaching certificate, she taught elementary school for 14 years before marrying a Vancouver physician, Dr. Wallace Wilson, in 1921. She began her literary period relatively late in life; she was almost 60 years old when her first novel, Hetty Dorval, was published.

To illustrate Ethel Wilsonís style and thematic approach, Ms. Nelles provided the audience with quotes from a number of Wilsonís novels, novellas, short stories and letters. These excerpts conveyed a sense of her original, apt use of language and sensitive characterizations and exemplified Wilsonís perceptive vision.

"Maggie sat there in the dark and she lifted her heart in desolation and in prayer. The west wind blew down the river channel; and the wind, the river, and the quiet sound of the rippling river, a sigh in the pine trees surrounded by stillness, and the stars in the arc of the night sky between the mountains, the scent of the pines, the ancient rocks below and above her, and the pine-made earth, a physical languor, her solitude, her troubled mind, and a lifting of her spirit to God by the river brought tears to her eyes. I am on a margin of life, she thought, and she remembered that twice before in her own life she had known herself to be taken to that margin of a world which was powerful and close." 1

Simone Nelles described a number of themes that can be traced in Wilsonís works. A recurring theme is the individualís simultaneous engagement with life and responsibility toward community. John Donneís writings had a profound effect on Ethel Wilson and his words "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfeÖ" are interwoven into her fictional works. Her exploration of the concept of individuality and involvement is embodied in her charactersí relentless struggles with independence and alienation. Wilsonís interest in human interdependence is also shown in her examination of the power of friendship. In the novel Swamp Angel, for example, the protagonist, Maggie, is repeatedly tested and challenged by Vera, the jealous and tormented wife of Maggieís employer. Maggieís own tragic life experiences and ability to relate to Veraís desolation deepens and enriches the link between the two women, and this connection eventually becomes a means of salvation for Vera.

Wilsonís acute awareness of the beauty and power of the natural world is also evident in her precise and vivid descriptions of the natural landscape. Simone Nelles suggested that Ethel Wilsonís evocation of the beauty of nature serves as both a backdrop and a reflection of her charactersí lives. Links between the natural world and human experience are constant, as each contains the potential for beauty and cruelty. In the short story The Birds, Wilson describes a complex and difficult relationship between the female protagonist, who has just broken off an engagement, and her self-absorbed sister. As the former watches small birds innocently and recklessly dashing themselves against a picture window, she realizes in an instant the fragility of her independence and the potential dangers of human relationships. Nelles noted that Ethel Wilsonís use of the sea as a metaphor can also be traced in some of her works and extends her view of the fragility of life reflected in our human struggle for survival. However, despite the occasional darkness of the natural world, its enduring beauty allows Wilsonís characters to transcend their lives, even if only for brief periods.

Simone Nelles reported that interest in Ethel Wilsonís fictional works continues today due to the ongoing relevance of their universal themes. Her novels are still available in the New Canadian Library series and her short stories have been re-published in recent anthologies. Interestingly, when Swamp Angel was published in 1954 by Harper & Brothers in the United States and by Macmillan in Toronto, it was the American version that was complete while the Canadian edition was missing two chapters and the last, long paragraph in the book. The New Canadian Library 1990 edition of this novel is drawn from the more complete American edition.

Throughout her lifetime, Ethel Wilsonís novels and short stories were well received in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and in the Commonwealth countries. Her contemporary fellow writers such as Gabrielle Roy, Morley Callaghan and Joyce Marshall, in addition to current literary critics, have paid tribute to her writing in various critical reviews of her work. Wilson was awarded the Canada Council Medal for her contributions to Canadian literature in 1961, the Lorne Pierce Medal of the Royal Society of Canada in 1964, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970. The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize was established in 1985 and is awarded annually to a British Columbia or Yukon author.

Wilsonís literary canon and legacy endures in Canadian literature. The 1999 Quill & Quire list of the best 40 Canadian novels, which defines Canada and the 20th century, ranked Swamp Angel number 28.

Simone Nelles concluded her presentation by remarking that with her profound exploration of human themes and the "timeless imbalance that governs life," her lifelike character portrayals and her striking depictions of landscape, Ethel Wilsonís place in our Canadian literary heritage seems secure.

The Library and Archives of Canada has an extensive collection of Ethel Wilsonís work, most of which can be borrowed from your local library through interlibrary loan. To learn how, visit a library in your area or check out AMICUS, the Canadian national catalogue.

1 Excerpt from Swamp Angel. New Canadian Library ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990, p. 42.