Ethel Wilson’s Stories, Essays and Letters, Ed. David Stouck
U of BC Press, 1987

If you are keenly interested in Ethel Wilson, you will definitely appreciate this volume, which does gather nine stories not published in her Mrs. Golightly collection, six essays, and selected correspondence from 1944 through 1974.

And, even if you’re not, but have either an interest in Canlit of the era considered in her letters or a general interest in the writing life, you’d want to take the time to seek this volume out.

I especially enjoy her comments like this one, on the struggle of openly identifying as a writer when someone asks “And what do you DO?” She often simply wrote Housewife on a form, unless it was a request specifically in a literary context, whereupon she would say Housewife and Writer.

Her own hesitation in identifying as a writer puzzled her too: “I would be proud to be, but am not, a journalist, or an historian, or that magical person a good biographer. The answer might then be more frank. I am simply a writer but cannot easily say so. Why?”

She also often refers to books that she enjoys reading and re-reading, as here:

“So also I turn to Iris Murdoch’s first book (how I’d love to have written it)! Under the Net, the kind of humour I love. Some people, I’m sure, prefer her much later books, oh yes they’re damn clever — but I think The Net has a lovely unfolding quality, not only natural humour, and to me it is as if the last sickening clever tedious books must have been written by another person. Perhaps now she is!”
Letter to Margaret Laurence Nov. 10/63

Another book of which she was tremendously fond was Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale, and of course there is much admiration expressed for Forster (both as a reader and writer), but she also read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I particularly enjoyed reading the letters she sent to Margaret Laurence, Mazo de la Roche and Earle Birney.

When you read essays like “A Cat Among the Falcons” (1959), which consider the way in which one discusses literature, reads it, absorbs it, and embodies a passion for it, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of kinship that’s quite wonderful:

“I find that in talking about novelists, their lasting or passing fame, and their critics (who are an undetermined factor in their fame), I am thinking first and always as one of ‘The Great Variety of Readers’; in a small but definite degree as a writer; but not at all as a qualified critic. I am not a cat among the pigeons. I am a country cat among my friends the falcons, who are handsome, formidable and trained birds, equipped to detect and pounce upon error. It will be better, now, to take my convictions safely indoors and sit looking out of the window at what I can see, and at the sky which is so beautiful.”

What about you? Have you been reading any literary letters or essays lately?

PS For those of you who are growing impatient with the Ethel Wilson chatter, I have only one biography and two novellas left to read in June, whereupon she will join the ranks of my Favourite Authors pages and I’ll be picking up with another MRE author.