Ethel Wilson’s Love and Salt Water (1956)
McClelland & Stewart, NCL 1990.

The advantages of reading an author’s works through are many; I love the sense of truly-getting-acquainted that comes with this reading immersion, the intense satisfaction of recognizing interconnections (and divergences) between stories and longer works, the sense of a community that develops when a sequence of works are set in a single region, as though the characters could, with some planning, arrange to meet for a picnic at some central point in British Columbia.

Setting is very important in Ethel Wilson’s works (indeed, one critic suggested that preserving the landscape in prose was one of her motives for writing) and she often considers how place contributes to identity, so it’s particularly easy to imagine this community taking form.

Beyond the impact of their immediate surroundings on her characters, Wilson also considers the impact of geography within a single nation: “It is possible that a relation exists between the reading habits of a nation and its climate. England is, relatively, a nation of readers and uncertain weather.” (Do you agree?!)

And she theorizes about the impact of geography on relations between nations: “The formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people; it invokes understanding or prejudice; it makes peace or war. A land that stretches across a continent extends in breadth and in some homogeneity; it gives flattering promise of peace; but in a land which is crushed in the middle of Europe or Asia, anxieties are renewed. It is the fault of geography.” (What do you think?)

But despite the importance placed on setting, in many ways it seems as though it’s the intersection between geography and personality that most interests Ethel Wilson: “…if I live to be two hundred, thought Ellen, looking down from the balcony, exulting, I shall never tire of these water matters, seen from their nearness and height; it’s life, and more than ordinary life and motion; I cannot explain it because I am not bird or water. The simple scene conveyed to her that although by her humanity she was excluded, she was a part of these things.”

Ellen is at the heart of Ethel Wilson’s final novel (her last book was a collection of stories published 5 years later)  and not only is it interesting to consider the way in which her surroundings impact — shape and re-shape — her identity, but it’s fascinating to recognize the parallels between her development and the developments in other characters’ lives in other books and stories (like Maggie in The Swamp Angel and Frankie in Hetty Dorval). Intelligent, independent, determined: Ethel Wilson’s characters are memorable indeed. It’s a reading pleasure getting acquainted with them and spending time with them.

And this leads me to the disadvantage of reading an author’s works through. Because even while I’m enjoying the thought that Love and Salt Water feels like a mix of the somewhat-more-light-hearted The Innocent Traveller and the somewhat more serious (but skinnier) Hetty Dorval (which I couldn’t have known if I hadn’t read them both and in close proximity). Even while I’m appreciating the little rushes I have, which say things like “Oh, I bet such-and-such-an-experience informed that scene and that short story I read a couple of weeks ago too”, and am contentedly debating for a moment with myself as to which work was likely written first (only possible after reading both, obviously). Even while I’m thinking that reading straight through is the best way to read an author’s works, I am quietly and disturbingly aware that I am going to finish reading them. There will be no more fresh reads.

I do have one Ethel Wilson remaining, her two novellas in The Equations of Love, along with some non-fiction, but I am, as L.M. Montgomery warned against, meeting worry halfway down the road, already shifting uncomfortably in my reader’s chair at the thought of running out of Ethel Wilson’s books.

Know what I mean?

PS And here is a bookish quote for those others who collect them: “Returning home, he entered the room in which were his desk and his books and a certain confusion which was cherished by him and respected by his housekeeper. The familiar room in the course of unpleasant time had come to be a cave in the hills, a retreat, and altogether his own.”