Desmond Pacey’s Ethel Wilson (1967)

After finishing the delightful novel, The Innocent Traveller,  I found myself wanting to know a little more about the woman who penned it.

And, as some of you out there have also been bitten by the Ethel Wilson bug, I’ll share some bits and pieces from Desmond Pacey’s entry in the Twayne’s World Authors Series about her, which is also the first book-length study of her work.

EW wrote six novels, eighteen short stories, nine essays and she was 49 years old when her first story published and 59 when her first novel published.

At that stage in her life, she was happily married and financially secure; she certainly did not write for money, but writing was highly regarded and valued on both sides of her family so her decision wasn’t entirely surprising either.

Her love of British Columbia and Vancouver may have contributed to her desire to write and to publish; it was a city which, in half a century, had emerged from a virtual wilderness to a thriving metropolis, and yet it was still unrecorded in serious prose fiction.

Pacey discusses how difficult it is to categorize EW’s work because each novel “is a highly integrated work of art”, so it’s impossible to say whether it is primarily a novel of manners, or theme, or of character.

(But what is it anyway with this desire to categorize: surely you can enjoy The Innocent Traveller without worrying about compartmentalizing it.)

Some readers, Pacey observes, feel that EW’s style is somewhat old-fashioned; he reminds these readers that she was born in 1888, a contemporary of Forster, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, Mansfield and Huxley.

So because she began writing later in life, publishing in the later 1940s and throughout the 1950s, her style does seem to reach back in time. (Just as Topaz, in The Innocent Traveller, does.)

This observation is more immediately relevant when you consider the writers EW admired, whose works she believed influenced her own fiction:

  • Defoe (strong sense of reality, products of observation not fantasy, set in certain time and place, person began life under handicaps and managed to survive, even triumph);
  • Fielding’s Tom Jones (great deal of humour: humour of character, situation, or irony);
  • Proust (attempt to recover lost time, savour flavour of past days, accumulation of detail and association of ideas);
  • Forster (wry humanism, respect for the individual, enthusiasm for the arts, deep distrust of mere business efficiency; comic manner but fundamentally concerned with the ultimate meaning of life);
  • Trollope and Ivy Compton-Burnett (shared concern with family chronicle, eccentricities of character, closer to the gentle irony of Trollope); and
  • Bennett (recognition of the importance of daily routines like cooking and eating, awareness of the significance of apparently insignificant events, eye for the poetry behind the prose of everyday experience).

Desmond Pacey’s book clearly focuses on Ethel Wilson’s writing and, if you had any doubt beforehand, reveals the depth and intricacy of her work, proves that it is worthy of critical time and attention (and it counts as my third read for the Canadian Reading Challenge 3).

Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the overtly biographical works by Mary McAlpine and David Stouck. And, even more so, I’m looking forward to more Ethel Wilson novels and stories.

Remember: Freedom to Read Week!

“Where were we going then? Anywhere to be together and alone.
Such a wish offends all people who have less than love in their pockets.” (63)

Quote from Elizabeth Smart’s once-banned book,
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)