One thing I regretted about February’s reading was my having neglected to include a short story and in March I’ve been neglecting the books on my own shelves (in favour of newer, shinier books from the library).
So before someone calls the OSPB (Ontario Society for the Protection of Books), before I revoke my own self-proclaimed status of Short Story Lover, I thought I’d reach for Ethel Wilson’s collection, Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories.
I’m especially fond of this copy, one that I lucked into at the Trinity College Booksale, a first edition that is the sort that makes my Canlit reader’s heart beat faster, but which, I realize, is of very little interest to most readers/collectors.
Which is, practically speaking, just as well, because it cost me only $5, whereas if there were more readers who shared my enthusiasm for Ethel Wilson, I would have had to stand in yet-another-bookish line to browse in the sale’s Rare Book Room and likely would have had to wave goodbye to Mrs. Golightly, instead of having been able to bring her home with me, so that I could make her acquaintance, at last, on a sunny, nearly-spring day in March, with a cup of English Breakfast and a fresh box of double chocolate cookies at hand.
The collection includes 18 stories, numbered like chapters, beginning with “Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention”. This is actually one of the longer stories in the collection, some of which are only four or five pages long.
It also happens to be, arguably, the most Persephone-ish of the bunch (which I mention because Persephone published Ethel Wilson’s first novel, Hetty Dorval and I really, really think they should publish her second, The Innocent Traveller). And, for all that there are perhaps some other, more structually and symbolically satisfying, stories that one could easily draw attention to, I do think Mrs. Golightly is exceptionally charming.
In tone this story is more similar to The Innocent Traveller than to Hetty Dorval and its preoccupations are seemingly more light-hearted than some of the other stories, but for all its talk of new hats with long quills, it’s also a more serious story about a woman’s shifting identity and a sense of belonging and an interesting study of social mores.
The collection could not be dismissed as superficial even if a reader only sampled the next story in it, for “Haply the Soul of My Grandmother” is an openly serious story about a woman accompanying her husband through a tomb in The Valley of Kings. This woman is Mrs. Forrester and a Mrs. Forrester does appear in two other stories, although I can’t tell for certain if it is the same woman; nor do I spot any indication that it is not, no contradictions in the earlier stories, so I do wonder if perhaps she would have developed into a character who may eventually have claimed a longer work had Ethel Wilson kept writing (but this collection was her last publication).
I also spotted thematic and stylistic similarities to the other two novels I’ve read of hers (awareness of — sometimes awe of — setting; a preponderance of geese and eagles and fish preying or being preyed upon by stronger creatures; simple yet rhythmic use of language; realistic dialogue and a focus on family and social relationships; observations about ordinary interactions between varying races and classes), which only makes me want to read more of her work, but I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the collection quite as much had it been my first exposure to this writer’s work.
With all the variety that characterizes a short story collection, talk of the First Folio or a story with a Shakespearean epigraph is mixed up with stories in which the big event is catching a fish or taking a train, but Ethel Wilson’s voice rings throughout Mrs. Golightly: this collection only makes me want to read more of her work.