Ethel Wilson’s The Equations of Love
Macmillan, 1952

When Melwyk said that she, too, only had this one Ethel Wilson left to read, we decided to read the two novellas published in Equations of Love together.

You know how it is, when you are about to exhaust a favoured writer’s fresh works: it’s best to have a reading companion.

And in this case it worked out rather delightfully because we each enjoyed both works, but felt a particular connection with different ones.

So I’m going to concentrate on “Tuesdays and Wednesdays” here and she’ll focus on “Lilly’s story” on The Indextrious Reader.

Of “Tuesdays and Wednesdays”, Melwyk writes: “I enjoyed Mort & Myrtle’s story, for the writing itself, of course. I love how she can sketch a character in a few deft descriptive lines and a few interior thoughts. The Character summed up neatly.”

And I agree completely. There is a succinctness to Ethel Wilson’s characterization.

For instance, when we meet Miss Victoria May Tritt, we’re told that “Seven days are in a week and Vicky has to fill them. Take away the day’s work and there remain only the evenings, occasional Saturday afternoon, and Sundays to be filled. Mercifully, she eats and sleeps.”

It’s revealing, isn’t it? And there is a quiet kind of, well, I would say amusement, but it’s not unkind either: you smile, at the last sentence there, but it’s a soft smile.

And, then, with “this special loneliness, which at unexpected times overwhelms her because it seems as though it will never end — and it will not — is as it were a revelation of something vast which lies concealed behind a curtain”, you feel that more keenly; Miss Victoria May Tritt’s loneliness is tangible. There is a vividness to Ethel Wilson’s style that brings Alice Munro to mind.

In David Stouck’s biography of Ethel Wilson, there is mention of a letter that Ethel Wilson sent to Margaret Laurence that suggested she had captured Rachel Cameron’s loneliness (in Laurence’s 1966 novel, A Jest of God) very well, that she understood Rachel’s loneliness in those early years of life well. Both her capacity for observation and her sympathy come through even with minor characters.

“Tuesday and Wednesday” is definitely Mort and Myrtle’s story and they are not easy characters to like or cozy up to, what with his attempts to keep jobs and keep the stories he spins to Myrtle straight, and with her attempts to exaggerate her contributions to the household and her naggy and judgey ways.

Ethel Wilson conceived of the playful idea that characters in this story have little angels with them at all times. (Originally this novella began with an excerpt told from the angels’ perspective, but apparently her editor nixed the idea. The angels still, however, make appearances throughout the story.) And when they slept “…their angels, tired, slept profoundly within them.”

But, she continues: “Some angels undergo continual strain. It is too bad.” There’s that quiet smile, again, alongside the implication that Mort’s and Mrytle’s angles are grossly overworked, that issues of conscience and injustice keep them constantly working at top notch speed.

Still, as it turns out, even though the spotlight is on Mort and Myrtle, Vicky really isn’t the minor character she seemed to be. And perhaps this is the strongest evidence of the author’s presence in this tale, her belief that the marginal hold sway, that those on the sidelines deserve note.

Much has been made of her depiction of Chinese characters in the BC region, a significant element of the population regionally but not accorded a place as multi-faceted characters in Canadian literature in years past, controversy still swirling around the ways in which Ethel Wilson, as a product of her times, attempted that inclusion with the limitations inherent in her perspective.

And she received a great deal of criticism from her contemporaries for telling these tales in particular, focussing on characters from a lower economic class struggling to make ends meet, servants and labourers, when her own life experiences are so privileged, comparatively speaking.

But isn’t that just what storytellers do, reach beyond what is known?

As Melwyk writes: “Something that seemed apparent to me in both stories was how they are both really about the stories people tell themselves, and tell others about themselves. How these stories make our world into what it is.” That’s so true and one of the reasons why I so enjoyed The Equations of Love.

In describing Old Wolfenden, who lives in a hollow tree in Stanley Park, keeps a copy of King Lear or Montaigne in his pocket, and irregularly works as a journalist, Ethel Wilson writes: “He sees them with the old habit of a writer’s eye.”

Them? She’s talking about the gulls. “[Wolfenden] thinks he knows and recognizes some of these calculating active birds which have little to recommend them except their strength, their fine coarse beauty, and their wheeling flight, and that is enough. It is improbable that he knows and recognizes them. He has enormous curiosity about the seagulls. He would like to be one, he would indeed.”

If you know Ethel Wilson’s work, you won’t be surprised by either her curiosity or by the reference to birds soaring: it permeates her literary work and birds take wing in every one of her books. You might be surprised by the characters on whom she focusses in The Equations of Love, and you might be surprised by the turns their stories take, but if you’ve enjoyed her other works, you won’t be surprised to find that these novellas are just as rewarding.

But now we, Melwyk and I, have read everything: The Equations of Love was the last fresh Ethel Wilson read for us. I’m greatly relieved to have enjoyed both novellas as much as I did, but still saddened to think that I’ve met them all now, although re-reading certainly has its own charm.

How about you: have you “read up” everything from a favoured author?

More from The Indextrious Reader on “Lilly’s Story” and The Equations of Love to come. (I’ll add the link later.)