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Ethel Wilson

Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography

David Stouck
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 384
  • Book Info
    Ethel Wilson
    Book Description:

    When Ethel Wilson published her first novel,Hetty Dorval, she was in her sixtieth year. With her subsequent books, among them the widely readSwamp Angel(1954), she established herself as one of Canada's most important writers. Although she fostered a reputation for being an unambitious latecomer, a happily married doctor's wife who wrote for her own pleasure, she in fact took her writing very seriously, trying for several years to place her work with major American publishers.

    David Stouck's engaging biography of this elusive Canadian writer draws on archival material and interviews to describe, in detail, her early life as an orphan in England and Vancouver and her long writer's apprenticeship, spanning from the publication of some children's stories in 1919 to the appearance ofHetty Dorvalin 1947. Stouck's narrative charts the resistance among publishers, critics, and readers to the curious mixture in her work of an Edwardian sensibility and a postmodern intelligence. He also documents her own resistance to both literary nationalism and creative writing classes as strategies for promoting literature. She was nevertheless one of the few Canadian women writers to emerge from the 1950s, and she is still being read - all her books remaining in print. Stouck observes that Wilson's writing is marked by epistemological and ethical uncertainties that are rooted in the contingencies of language, because, as Wilson herself liked to quote from Lewis Carroll, the 'meaning [of words] depends on who is the master.'Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biographyis the story of a distinguished writer whose works are rightly considered classics of Canadian literature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7464-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Child 1888–1898
    (pp. 3-14)

    When Ethel Wilson was born on a hot summer day, 20 January 1888, there were no members of her large extended family to welcome her into the world. Her father, alone, anxiously christened the baby and named her for his wife’s youngest sister, who had died five years before at the age of twelve. His concern was for his wife, who was tubercular and scarcely had strength to undergo childbirth. Would she survive? The families were in England, seven thousand nautical miles from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and it would be some weeks before they had news of the baby’s...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Orphan 1898–1902
    (pp. 15-28)

    Ethel Bryant had no memory of the grandmother who came to take her to Canada. She and her father had lived a long distance from Staffordshire and by 1898, when Ethel was ten, Annie Malkin had already been living in Vancouver for more than three years. The future writer is not likely to have been intimidated by her grandmother when they first met because the woman in widow’s weeds was ‘very little, very neat, and very quiet.’¹ The girl would quickly come to recognize, however, that in the family there was an aura around this little person, that her word...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Pupil 1902–1906
    (pp. 29-43)

    Perhaps because Ethel Bryant was a stellar pupil at Crofton House, the family felt she should be given wider opportunities for education. Perhaps because she was suddenly a ravishingly beautiful teenage girl, the pious grandmother and the maiden aunts felt uncertain how to guide their charge through this growing-up time. Or, perhaps because Crofton House was Church of England in its affiliation, Annie Malkin feared the influence on her granddaughter of the religious instruction at the school. For whatever reason, the Malkin family decided when Ethel had turned fourteen that she should be sent ‘home’ to England for the next...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Teacher 1906–1921
    (pp. 44-62)

    In ‘The Cigar and the Poor Young Girl,’ friendly shipboard ladies who attach themselves to the ‘lovely Miranda’ ask if her niece is ‘Out’ in society. Miranda replies, ‘“Not yet ... but when we get to Vancouver ...”’ That would have been the natural answer for Julia Malkin to make. She was regarded, until she started wearing glasses, as ‘the prettiest girl in Vancouver,’ and in her niece’s eyes ‘an angel of loquacity ... and a lover of Society,’ who was not by nature inclined to strict Methodist observances;¹ but her answer did not describe the little world to which...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Wife 1921–1930
    (pp. 63-77)

    Few writers have celebrated the happiness of marriage to the degree that Ethel Wilson did. It was the great fact of her life, far more important than her writing. Once Ethel and Wallace Wilson were married, their friends and family could never think of them apart, indeed marvelled at the perfection of their union. As a writer, Wilson was sometimes puzzled that there was ‘no literature of perfect and lasting fulfillment of happy love’¹ and concluded that ‘no one can write about perfect love because it cannot be committed to words even by those who know about it.’² Late in...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Apprentice 1930–1939
    (pp. 78-97)

    When did Ethel Wilson begin to think of herself as a writer? Her own story of how she came to her craft is a simple but somewhat disingenuous one. In interviews and talks she gave, she repeatedly described herself with great modesty as a doctor’s wife with a very full social calendar who, late in life, had a notion to write. She said that she had written a few stories in the late 1930s, working in the car while her husband attended meetings and called on the sick. She had no ambitions to be published, she said, but was pressed...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Innocent Traveller 1930–1949
    (pp. 98-118)

    Part of the colourful story of Ethel Wilson’s literary career is that during the Second World War she set aside her writing for volunteer work with the Red Cross. She said later that, with the world in crisis and her husband once again in military service, the writing and publishing of stories was forgotten. But, in fact, she did publish two stories during the war – ‘On Nimpish Lake’ inCanadian Forum, July 1942, and ‘We Have to Sit Opposite’ inChatelaine, May 1945 – and a correspondence she initiated with the Macmillan Company in 1944 gives evidence that she...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Hetty Dorval 1945–1947
    (pp. 119-134)

    In the middle of reworking her manuscripts forThe Innocent Traveller, Ethel Wilson paused at some point in 1945 and wrote the short novelHetty Dorval, which was her first book to be published. The details of its composition and sources are obscured by Wilson’s wish to present herself as a writer purely by chance, with no particular ambition to be published. In a talk she gave at the UBC Library in 1957, titled ‘Somewhere near the Truth,’ Wilson says that in 1946, in connection with her husband’s work as the president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association, she had assumed...

  13. CHAPTER NINE The Equations of Love 1947–1953
    (pp. 135-160)

    In August of 1947 the Wilsons left New York on the luxury linerQueen Maryfor their first trip to England together since 1938. Though Wallace’s duties as the president of the Canadian Medical Association concluded that summer, he had been selected to represent Canada at the first meeting of the World Health Organization, so that he and Ethel were bound for Paris, where the meeting was scheduled for mid-September. Meanwhile they had time to visit relations and friends in England. Ethel does not appear to have kept a diary while on this trip, but on the journey home (via...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Doyenne 1950–1954
    (pp. 161-183)

    The American novelist Willa Cather once wrote to a friend stating that, if lucky, a writer will experience in a lifetime a year or two in which artistic achievement and personal happiness come together.¹ For Ethel Wilson that time was the early 1950s. Her writing, especially after the publication of ‘Lilly’s Story,’ was attended by both critical and popular success, and novels and stories continued to flow from her pen. The conditions were right. In John Gray, she had an editor who assisted with personal interest in the shaping of her longer works, and there were magazine publishers and radio...

  15. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Swamp Angel 1951–1954
    (pp. 184-206)

    Swamp Angelwas the new book that Ethel Wilson was putting the finishing touches to in Portugal. ‘Lilly’s Story’ was bringing her popularity and a bit of money, but this new book written at the height of her creativity and personal happiness would become the novel for which she would eventually be best known. There is no question that it is her masterwork.

    The composition ofSwamp Angelwas leisurely, spanning more than two years, but it was anything but straightforward. There is a bewildering array of pencilled notes, manuscripts, and typescripts at UBC Library on all kinds of paper...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE Love and Salt Water 1954–1956
    (pp. 207-231)

    The Wilsons returned from Portugal in early March of 1954, and for a few more months they enjoyed the high tide of their popularity and personal happiness. The Empire Games (now called the Commonwealth Games) were held in Vancouver that summer, and though she was confined much of the time to a wheelchair, Ethel found her youthful enthusiasm for athletic competitions rekindled. She and Wallace attended a number of the events, ‘going daily to fencing & boxing, attending & giving parties.’¹ In August they had a happy two weeks with the Andrews and their children at Little Rock, and in September made...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Mrs Golightly 1957–1961
    (pp. 232-256)

    Although Wallace had made a full recovery from the coronary thrombosis in 1954, Ethel was never without anxiety. ‘If Wallacesneezeseven,’ she wrote John Gray, ‘I see pneumonia.’¹ The increased sense that one always lives on a brink, that one might be admiring a pretty view ‘when – crack crack,’ is strikingly apparent if the first draft ofLove and Salt Water, titled ‘Herself When Young, or Miss Cuppy’ is compared to the published novel. It is only in the latter version that Wilson plumbs the depths of physical and philosophical insecurities by portraying with chilling poignancy the surprise...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Grande Dame 1961–1966
    (pp. 257-274)

    When Sally Creighton in 1967 described Ethel Wilson as a grande dame in appearance and approach, she was summing up for radio listeners Wilson’s carefully cultivated social poise and her discriminating sense of proportion in all things. But around that epithet there were accumulated many negative associations of power, class, and snobbery, which had also become part of Wilson’s public image. In the 1960s, with one notable exception, she was in retreat from the world at large; the incapacitating effects of arthritis and deafness and the ever-present anxiety over her husband’s physical condition meant shutting the door to most social...

  20. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Widow 1966–1980
    (pp. 275-284)

    Wallace’s funeral took place at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday, March 16th.¹ The church was filled with citizens who came to pay their respects to one of the country’s most distinguished doctors and to the founder of several of the city’s cultural and charitable organizations. To many he was more than a great man who commanded public respect; he was a friend valued for his loyalty, his calm and wisdom, and, above all, for his conviviality and his sense of humour. He was also a man of great public and private dignity. Ethel was too incapacitated, emotionally...

  21. Appendix: Edge-Malkin Genealogy
    (pp. 285-286)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 287-328)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 329-338)
  24. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 339-340)
  25. Index
    (pp. 341-353)