Here is what David Stouck wrote about Mary McAlpine’s book about Ethel Wilson’s life:
“When I read the book I was aware of egregious errors and great gaps in the life. In the opinion of many reviewers, the book was poorly written, and I was disappointed that Ethel Wilson had been served in this way. It was clear that a full-scale biography, to at least set the record straight, was yet to be written.”
Egregious errors? Great gaps? Poorly written? Sounds harsh, doesn’t it.
And in my response to The Other Side of Silence earlier this year, I mentioned that the glimpse of Stouck’s criticisms that I’d caught had made me sympathetic to Mary McAlpine’s less scholarly approach>
But I, too, after having read The Other Side of Silence, felt it was lacking. I definitely wanted more, more of an understanding of Ethel Wilson’s life and work.
It turns out that what I wanted was Stouck’s biography. I can’t judge whether his work has set the record straight or addressed errors but Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography offers substantive information about the author’s life and writing without sacrificing readability.
It’s not of the Charlotte Gray school (I love her works, the first that I read being Sisters of the Wilderness, which was one of the first non-fiction reads I’d found that gripped me like a good novel): Stouck’s biography is not about narrative style. But it is about Ethel Wilson, start-to-stop, and incorporates anecdotal stories (but unlike Mary McAlpine’s stories, they’re annotated) alongside the nuts-and-bolts you look for in a literary biography.
The anecdotal bits are my favourite parts (well, it’s close: those bits or the focus on her writing, entire chapters devoted to specific works). I love hearing about the intersections with the wider cultural milieu, lke Ethel Wilson’s brush with Arnold Bennett in the neighbourhood in which he set The Old Wives’ Tale, or her debating over taking painting classes with Emily Carr (before she was The Emily Carr).
And I adored the snippets of the relationship between Ethel Wilson and Margaret Laurence, with excerpts from letters on both sides, which clearly revealed the respect that the older writer had for the younger’s talent, and the appreciation that the younger had for the older’s support and encouragement.
But David Stouck’s work is not a collection of haphazard retellings — there are 40 pages of notes following the text and the bibliography and index comprise the following 24 pages — but nor is it a dry, academic work.
If you have read and enjoyed Ethel Wilson’s novels and stories, or if you have an interest in the history of writing in Canada (including the years in which it was hotly debated whether a distinct Canadian flavour characterized the fiction here, the whole question of a nationalist literature), or if you simply enjoy literary biographies, I’m certain you’d find this both an interesting read and a valuable resource.
Have you read a good biography lately?