1949; New Canadian Library 1990

I don’t really need an answer to the question I’ve posed.

I understand why Persephone would have chosen to print Hetty Dorval over The Innocent Traveller: Ethel Wilson’s first book is certainly a striking work and brings to mind other brilliant novellas (e.g. Kate Chopin’s The Awaking, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy).

Hetty Dorval definitely deserves to be read.

But don’t let the absence of a lovely pearl-grey cover deter you from seeking out other Ethel Wilson works.

Reading Swamp Angel a few years back brought Ethel Wilson onto my reader’s radar (I’m planning a re-read this spring as part of my Ethel Wilson Reading Project).

But I think The Innocent Traveller is my favourite so far (or am I just saying that because it’s fresher?).

And why? I think one reason is summed up perfectly in P.K. Page’s afterword to my New Canadian Library edition of The Innocent Traveller, wherein she wonders about Topaz’s immense appeal, why she is “so memorable, so endlessly fascinating, so– lovable?”

So why do we love Topaz?

“The answer must lie in the fact that Wilson’s inscribing eye — her incising, incisive eye — is sufficiently infused with a loving spirit that we catch her love.”

I think that’s it exactly.

I had the idea that I’d be meeting Topaz in her irrepressible old age, but she is just a child when the book opens.

“Topaz, who could not be squelched, was perched there [at the table] on the top of two cushions, as innocent as a poached egg.”

Don’t you just love that? As I read along, I kept thinking “She who could not be squelched”: Topaz, from the first moment, is a terrific heroine.

So we do love Topaz, partly, at least, because the author does. But why is Ethel Wilson’s work itself, apart from Topaz, so appealing?

I could turn to a series of quotes (and I will include a few, below, so, if you’re interested, click the Continue link) but again, I turn to P.K. Page, who summarizes it beautifully: “Literate Ethel Wilson, master of implication, mistress of delicate balances, is incapable of a boring thought.”

As it that’s not enough, an author’s incapacity to record a boring thought (well, come on, you didn’t really think that a phrase about poached eggs could be interesting until you read that one up there, right?), PKP continues:

“She carries us lightly, as though bearing no weight at all, through a myriad of interweaving mini-stories, deftly skirting the real pain, burning us only a little, but burning us just the same. Letting us touch the flame so we know how it feels. But not dwelling on it anymore than does Topaz herself.”

As with Hetty Dorval, in which the narrative is driven by Frankie’s experience of Hetty (not by more conventional structural demands, leaping from one Hetty moment to the next, as Frankie makes sense — or doesn’t — of things), the narrative of The Innocent Traveller is a reflection of the characters within.

This is one of those novels which you can read quickly and easily, a novel you can enjoy simply for the spirit of Topaz, but it is actually very carefully constructed and crafted and worthy of re-reading, layered like a bed with cozy quilts that you can pull up over you if you wish, or just leave at the bottom of the bed to warm your feet.

Has anyone else loved a character who must have been loved by its author lately?

[Note: If you’re not already familiar with her work, P.K. Page is another wonderful Canadian writer whose works deserve a long, lingering look.]

Early Quotes from The Innocent Traveller:

Father had a fine nose with generous nostrils, the kind of nose which, when surrounded by other suitable features, causes more trouble among females who are responsive to a bit of trouble than people suspect. 16

Mary had never yet been Mary, a person in her own right. And here she was, a person, / with Edward Shaw walking beside her in the dark and speaking to her in urgent husky tones, and a future coming quickly towards her. She was inexperienced, but she knew. 23-4

When Mrs. Porter had learned to read books with her father the whole world had opened before her. 36