My rating: 9/10
Every once in a while a book comes along which, unexpectedly, completely delights me. The Innocent Traveller is one such novel.
There’s not much in the way of drama in this joyfully written book, but it struck a chord of shared experience and of common humanity in its delicious narrative of the irrepressible Topaz. Always witty and occasionally poignant, the tale spans a full century of one woman’s life, and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved through, and of the society of her peers.
From the Author’s Note:
This is the story – part truth and part invention – of a lively woman who lived for a hundred years and died triumphant in Vancouver and is nearly forgotten after her small commotion of living.
The metaphors are not mixed. The drop of water, the bird, the water-glider, the dancer, the wind on the canal, and Topaz, are all different and all the same…E.W. Vancouver British Columbia 1947
Our story – Topaz’s story – begins in the 1840s, in a respectable and prosperous London house, at dinner with the family (and important dinner guest) all decorously present.
Far away at the end of the table sat Father, the kind, handsome and provident man. At this end sat Mother, her crinoline spread abroad. On Mother’s right was Mr. Matthew Arnold. On each side of the table the warned children ate their food gravely, all except Topaz, on Mother’s left. Topaz, who could not be squelched, was perched there on top of two cushions, as innocent as a poached egg. Mother sat gracious, fatigued, heavy behind the majestic crinoline with the last and fatal child.
Topaz in a few moments makes the expected scene and ends the evening under the table amongst the trouser legs and skirts of her elders; poor Mother is indeed doomed, perishing along with her “last and fatal” baby within the next 48 hours. After a suitable period of mourning, Father remarries in order to provide a suitable mother and guide for his large family, choosing his late wife’s sister Jane as replacement and new helpmeet.
Stepmother is absorbed into the Edgeworth family, and life goes on. We watch the brothers and sisters blossom, go forth into the world, marry, have children, and flourish (or decline into early death) each in their turn, and we return again and again to take a look at little Topaz, who, still innocent of deliberate intent to speak out of turn, does indeed manage to do so continuously.
Boarding school, an unfulfilled love affair, travels with her older siblings, and the long gentle transition into adult, then middle-aged daughter-at-home with elderly parents; through this all Topaz burbles as irrepressibly as a forest spring. Stepmother dies, and Topaz finds herself in control of the household, and sadly at a loss. Others step in, as always, and Topaz goes back to her comfortable niche as universal companion to all, talking her way through her days, greeting each new thing with cries of alarm or delight (mostly delight); persisting in her perennial girlishness until she finds herself at fifty, Mother, Stepmother and Father now all gone, at last on her own.
Now this could go very badly indeed, but luckily (for Topaz) the Victorian custom of family looking after family is one the Edgeworths faithfully and automatically practice, and Topaz is absorbed into a new family grouping, one which will see her out to the end of her days. She moves, along with her elder widowed sister Annie and her unmarried cousin Rachel, across the Atlantic to Canada, via sea journey and long train trip, all the way to Vancouver, where Annie’s sons welcome the three adventurers, “whose years added up to over one hundred and fifty”, and helped them to establish a new home.
Topaz embraces her new life with typical enthusiasm, and we follow her for the last five decades of her life until her peaceful ending, a full century after her birth.
Ethel Wilson writes this semi-biographical tale with a very personal touch – she appears just a little over half way in in the person of recently orphaned eight-year-old Rose, born in South Africa to English parents – Annie’s son and daughter-in-law. Annie, Rachel and Topaz warmly enfold this fourth person into their world, and subsequently raise her in to womanhood in her turn.
Through the fabulous social and scientific changes of the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, through two world wars and the stunning growth of the colonial city of Vancouver and change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure. Her death is sad but not tragic; her memory persists in those whose lives she fluttered in to and out of.
Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a lovely ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.