Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Good guesses about Ethel Wilson

Mary McAlpine’s The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson
Harbour Publishing, 1988

I came across this bit in David Stouck’s biography before I even had a copy of Mary McAlpine’s book in my hands and it raised a string of questions that niggled and nagged until I finally started to read the book myself:

“The late Mary McAlpine was not a friend to this book, but her memoir, The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson, challenged me to set the record straight and to expand the knowledge we can have of Wilson’s life and art. I am grateful for some of the information and anecdotes McAlpine’s book has preserved.” (Acknowledgments, Ethel Wilson, A Critical Biography)

Not a friend to this book? Don’t you immediately want to know the story behind that? How things might have gone awry when two people obviously share a passion for another writer’s work? How “crooked” could the record have been to have so badly needed straightening? How strenuous the conflict must have been that it required acknowledgment even after one of the participants had died?

Because the act of writing a biography gets my reader’s brain circling before I’ve even thought too hard about it, I was immediately sympathetic to Mary McAlpine’s work, because I feel as though the more that somebody purports to be objective, the more likely I think they’re just overlooking the influence of their own subjective tendencies. And when I finally started reading The Other Side of Silence, I was tending even more strongly towards believing that Mary McAlpine’s admittedly subjective consideration had been unfairly judged.

When I read this, I agreed completely: “Of course nobody can tell the truth about someone else’s life any more than about one’s own life. But we can catch glimpses from letters and memories, and quiet, or angry, scenes of openness, and from places and photographs, and lack of photographs.” Particularly when it comes to interpreting the lives of women, in which so many important milestones are missing from documentation for cultural and historical reasons, I think it’s true that we often have to surmise when documentary evidence is lacking.

And, I also agreed with Mary McAlpine’s statement that “Truth has, at least with the sifting and reconstruction of retrospect, the bones of fiction as justifiably as fiction picks the bones of truth”. So, less than 30 pages into the work and my sympathy with the author was sustained. I was also enjoying her anecdotal tone and the sense, coupled with having read so much of Ethel Wilson’s fiction in recent months, that I was completing a section of a literary jigsaw.

That part of the experience was sustained throughout my reading: this work is a comfortable and inviting read throughout and it consistently upholds its premise that Ethel Wilson’s works have been undervalued and remain worthy of extensive critical study and a renewed readerly interest. But its subjectivity remains the strength — and simultaneously frames the limitations — of this work.

For instance, it’s interesting to know that “[q]uite often Ethel took to her bed during the year of being president’s wife, and later too, even when she had no rigorous social duties” because you can’t help but think of a couple of the characters in her fiction who are suddenly forced to come to terms with a more public role when their husbands’ careers take an unexpectedly influential turn (one is reserved and shy but eventually finds a way to cope with the new stress in her life and another warms to it like it was what she’d been meant to do all along).

Mary McAlpine’s comment on this subject sounds like something you’d say in conversation around the kitchen table. Here’s what she says: “It could have been the anaemia. But active, imaginative people sometimes take to their beds in crises, small or large. It gives them time and silence to think.”

Even though I’m inclined to agree with the underlying premise, I find myself wanting her to weigh in: if it’s a personal account, then I would like to have a personal opinion as to whether Mary McAlpine felt it was a combination of the two factors or if, actually, she really felt it was more a question of a creative soul seeking respite in solitude.

She doesn’t always back away from a solid opinion. For instance, she refers to Ethel Wilson’s consistent and enthusiastic admiration of E.M. Forster, who “in a talk to the Bloomsbury “Memoir Club” in 1904, said something with which she must have agreed”.

Yes, do take note of that verb tense. And then take a moment for the Forster quote, which considers the origin of fiction, its rootedness in the everyday relationships that may be fleeting in fact but which imbue our lives (and the stories we tell about them) with meaning:

“The original experience — of the kind called human, but really fatuous and shallow — is of no importance and may take any form. Soon it goes, and the continual births and deaths of such are part of the disillusionment and livingness of this our mortal state. We do constantly invest strangers and strange objects with a glamour they cannot return. But now and then, before the experience dies it turns a key and bequeaths us with something which philosophically may be also a glamour but which actually is tough. From this a book may spring. From the book, with violence and persistency that only art possesses, a stream of emotion may beat back against and into the world.”

Admittedly, I had to re-read this about ten times before I felt that I understood the intent. If I’d been in attendance at the Bloomsbury Club, I’m sure I’d have missed the whole thing.

But it turns out that Ethel Wilson didn’t hear it either. In fact, she certainly was not in attendance and, furthermore, she was not even alive when it was published (in a 1979 biography of Forster that was written by P.N. Furbank).

Mind you, Mary McAlpine acknowledges this in a footnote: “As it was published in 1979, Ethel wouldn’t have read it. Still, she would have sympathized with him.”)

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. I would guess that’s true, based on other snippets that I’ve read about Ethel Wilson’s affection for and admiration of E.M. Forster’s writing. And I’d feel it was a fairly safe bet to make because I’ve come across several references that link Wilson and Forster. But I find myself wanting more than that.

Not only do I want more content-wise (perhaps some quotes from those letters that MM referred to earlier on, even short statements about her reading of Forster’s works, or responses to reviewers’ comments that caused her to reflect on what she believed inspired and informed good fiction and how that compared/contrasted with her own perspective). But if that’s missing, then I want more of the personal anecdote: I want to know how Ethel Wilson took her tea and whether she always carried a book with her when she left the house. And I also want more than what I might have guessed myself without having had any personal experience of this woman.

If I had it to choose over again, I would have finished reading David Stouck’s biography (or, at least, his edited collection of Ethel Wilson’s Stories, Essays and Letters) before I read Mary McAlpine’s work. I do think that what you read on either side of a book influences a reading of it, and perhaps I would have been a more patient reader of The Other Side of Silence under different circumstances.

Do you, too, find yourself wondering how objective a biography can really be?

2 comments to Good guesses about Ethel Wilson

  • Do you, too, find yourself wondering how objective a biography can really be?

    Yes, always. As part of my paid work I teach students how to use primary sources for historical study, and the more I teach about bias, subjectivity and the context of creation, the less I believe in the historical or biographical ‘truth’. Biography, like history, is the act of creating a narrative out of memories, artefacts, documents, incidents that very rarely have a narrative coherence. It is impossible to be objective in my opinion, because even the simple ordering of events into a linear chronology is an act of interpretation. This is true even for people who witnessed some parts of what they write about – there are always gaps that have to be filled with story.

    I read a really interesting book of essays about this issue, and others to do with writing biography, a little while ago. It is a collection by Hermione Lee, whose biography of Virginia Woolf is one of my favourites, and is called ‘Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing’. In it she recounts her own experience of ‘creating’ lives through writing them, and gives lots of interesting examples of biographies which have manipulated their subjects for their own ends.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Victoria, and for the recommendation. You are completely and entirely responsible for three books that I’ve requested from the library today. I know, I know, you only recommended one, but that’s how it is, isn’t it. ::conspiratorial wink::

    Here’s one (or three) for you too: Telling Women’s Lives: Subject/Narrator/Reader/Text by Judy Long (New York University Press) is a bit academic but definitely raises interesting points. A more accessible work is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Midwife’s Tale, the diary itself being of interest but, even more so, the long section in which she explains how she reconstructed her subject’s life (given such spotty archival sourcing).

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