Archive for the ‘Ethel Wilson’ Category

New Canadian Library paoperback, circa 1990. Another inappropriate NCL cover illustration – who the heck was in charge of selecting these? The E.J. Hughes painting depics Shawnigan Lake, on Vancouver Island. Sure, it’s a lake, and it’s even in British Columbia, but it’s a far, far way away from the Kamloops bush and the interior lake where most of the action of Swamp Angel takes place.

Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson ~ 1954. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1990. Afterword by Georger Bowering. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8958-9. 216 pages.

Maggie walks away from her deplorable second marriage, and goes to earth at a remote fishing lodge northeast of Kamloops.

Nell, with the help of a small pearl-handled revolver, puts Maggie’s abusive husband absolutely in his place.

Hilda, Nell’s daughter, watches from the sidelines, taking it all in, storing it all up.

And Vera, reluctant resident at the fish camp, sees Maggie both as a saviour and as a very personal devil.

Intrigued? Good.

Find it. Read it. The book is probably Ethel Wilson’s most well-known; copies from its multiple printings are easy as pie to come by, at least in every used book shop I’ve been in here in the writer’s home province.

Grand stuff from the brilliant and not nearly prolific enough British Columbian writer Ethel Wilson. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this gem of a small novel, this delicate and complex story of suffering and personal redemption? (A quick online search brings an embarrassment of riches in the way of scholarly discussion.)

Maggie Lloyd, our main character in that the story follows her most intimately, is a woman of uncompromising integrity, and though that may sound dull, it’s not, not at all. Her moral sense drives her actions, her intelligence makes those actions generally successful, and her wry sense of humour – well-tamped down for understandable reasons (Maggie’s had more than her share of personal tragedy) but still active – keeps her likeable.

Maggie rescues herself from an unbearable situation, and proceeds to remake her life as a solo operator, making this something of a feminist manifesto. But while most of Swamp Angel’s main characters are women, the men in Ethel Wilson’s cast are memorable, too, whether swinish or heroic or stoic or just plain decent.

Early edition (first edition?) dust jacket. Those who’ve read the novel will know immediately what this depicts; I won’t give it away to those who still have to experience the quiet joys of Ethel Wilson’s little masterpiece of personal redemption.

Wilson paints her word pictures with brushes both broad and finely delicate; her pacing might well be described as variable (uneven sounds like a critique, so I won’t use that term, though it is also apt); her frequent descriptive passages sometimes stray into sentiment; but mostly it all clicks.

As a native British Columbian, I found an extra piquancy in the place descriptions, which Ethel Wilson made something of a specialty of, portraying mood as much as scenery. Very much about genius loci, as I touched on in my recent post on Hetty Dorval. Not sure if these passages will appeal quite so strongly to those not from here, but I am deeply appreciative of this element in her work.

A good strong 9/10.

 

 

 

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The 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Hetty Doval has an inapt cover illustration. Its reproduction of an E.J. Hughes painting depicts coastal Ladysmith, B.C., a rather different locality (though they share a water’s edge location) to arid inland Lytton and its rivers descending from the mountains.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. New Canadian Library edition. Afterword by Northrop Frye. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8953-8. 104 pages.

Canadian-by-circumstance writer Ethel Wilson – born in South Africa, orphaned at the age of ten and brought to Vancouver, B.C. to live with her grandmother – produced a sadly meager handful of very well regarded novellas, novels and short story collections, all sharing themes of strong female protagonists and distinct senses of place.

In Hetty Dorval the place is the tiny Fraser Canyon community of Lytton, British Columbia. Ethel Wilson captured its unique essence perfectly, as I can affirm to, having spent some time there myself, the latest occasion being a day-and-night stay just a month ago. Though I didn’t consciously choose to read the novella in response to that recent experience, I found it added a definite piquancy to my reading.

Twelve-year-old Frances Burnaby – “Frankie” – is a ranch child boarding in Lytton during the week to attend school. She rides the fifteen miles to and from her home with calm competence, quietly revelling in her good fortune of having a loved and loving family, congenial friends and acquaintances, and physical surroundings of immense natural beauty.

The blue Thompson meets the silt-laden Fraser at Lytton, viewed from the bridge over the Thompson, where Frankie would have stood. The joining of the two rivers is used as a strongly symbolic metaphor throughout Hetty Dorval, its most obvious representation being the meeting and melding of innocence and its opposite.

Coming into Lytton from the north, a view much as our fictional Frankie would have had almost a century ago; the village hasn’t changed all that much; its setting not at all.

Not much happens in quiet little Lytton. Life for Frankie follows a predictable pattern of school and after school ramblings with best friend Ernestine. When the train pulls into the village’s tiny station, Frankie and Ernestine are there to watch as often as they can get away with it, “hanging out” by the train station being gently frowned on by the adults in the girls’ lives. (Social mores are predictably strict as the novella’s start is set in the early 1930s.)

So there they are at the train station, standing among the lounging bystanders, and there they see the household effects of newcomer Mrs. Dorval being unloaded – crates and crates of household effects, a grand piano, and a large Newfoundland dog. These are collected by a quiet grey-haired woman; the girls assume she is Mrs. Dorval, but they are wrong.

The real Mrs. Dorval turns up a few days later, and she proves to be quite the stunner. Young, beautiful, an accomplished horsewoman, musician and singer, both Frankie and Ernestine find her fascinating enough to mildly stalk in their adolescent way, collecting what information the local gossips can provide (not much) and trailing by the isolated bungalow Mrs. Dorval has rented and staffed with a housekeeper, the elderly Mrs. Broom (nicknamed by Hetty “Mouse”), and has turned into a retreat from the world. She does not encourage callers.

Frankie meets Mrs. Dorval one day while both are out riding, a spark is struck between the two of them, and while Frankie’s emotion is that of a garden variety schoolgirl crush, we’re not quite sure why Mrs. Dorval encourages her company. “Call me Hetty”, orders Mrs. Dorval, and though Frankie can’t quite bring herself to breach social etiquette between children and adults to this degree, she is happy enough to be plied with tea and treats and to provide an audience for Hetty’s musical performances. Frankie falls in with Hetty’s request to not tell anyone about her on-the-sly visits to the bungalow, and the infatuated Frankie complies, but inevitably someone catches on and word gets out, and Frankie comes home one weekend to a stiff grilling by her concerned parents.

An “unsavoury story” has followed Hetty Dorval from her last port of call – exotic Shanghai, a long way indeed from Lytton – and Frankie’s parents are appalled that their daughter has been co-opted into Hetty Dorval’s questionably moral establishment. Frankie’s mother won’t divulge the nature of Mrs. Dorval’s past history to her innocent daughter, but she is adamant in her condemnation, calling Hetty, with dry almost-humour, “The Menace”, and when she asks Frankie to break off the acquaintance, Frankie reluctantly complies, going back just once to say goodbye, which seems to be harder on her than on the jaded Mrs. Dorval, who sighs and takes it all in stride.

She looked at the fire a minute and then went on. “I know what they’ve told you, Frankie. They’ve told you I’m bad. You must try to believe,” she turned her brilliant look on me, “that I’m not bad, and that if you knew a little more you’d understand about it. Can you believe that? . . . Do you think I’m bad, Frankie?” she said, laughing a little.

I almost whispered, “No.”

“Try and stay my friend,” she said. “Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend . . . Very well . . . Good-bye . . . ” and with as little emotion as she would have shown in saying good-bye to the postman she got up – she did not come over to touch me – and went into her bedroom and shut the door. It made it easier and harder that she did not come and touch me. She left me standing in the suddenly withdrawn intimacy of the firelit room, with only Sailor sleeping there on the hearth.

I had stood only a moment when Mouse, who must have been listening, came into the room. She opened the front door. “You’d best be going,” she said. And I went.

As Frankie matures and moves out into the wider world – boarding school for a year in Vancouver, then off to England and the Continent – she finds herself once more crossing paths with Hetty Dorval, and the true nature of the woman at the centre of that childhood infatuation becomes ever more apparent, to Frankie’s growing dismay.

Is Hetty truly the menace that she seems to be? The label of “Narcissist” seems to fit perfectly, but how did Hetty get this way? What emotional scars (if any) has she hidden behind her beautifully emotionless face? Esther Wilson gives what might be telling clues, but denies a final judgement, leaving the reader to ponder possibilities…

Hetty Dorval is a memorable example of the novella form, and it is no wonder that it was chosen by the esteemed Persephone Press for reprinting in 2015.  Persephone’s expanded review is well worth reading, though it does contain a number of “spoilers” – first time readers may wish to wait till after to peruse this one.

An easy 9.5/10 for Hetty Dorval from me. Very close indeed to perfect. (I’m still mulling over what exactly Hetty was after regarding the childish Frankie. Was it merely moral predation, or something more sexually sordid? The author leaves a lot unsaid, but my 21st century mind speculates and wonders…  Fellow readers, what did you think?)

I have had a similarly positive response to two other of the writer’s novels, Swamp Angel – read in 2016 but not yet written about –  and The Innocent Traveller, posted about in 2013 here.

I do love the settings, because I know them so very well in real life, and though my Captive Reader friend Claire might differ regarding long passages of description (she’s not keen!) I’m always a sucker for a good word-picture of a place. The stories transcend their setting; for a native British Columbian it’s merely an added bonus. We agree on the essentials: good stuff from Ethel Wilson!

The view from behind the railway station at Lytton taken in mid September, 2017, looking northward up the Fraser River. All symbolism aside, Ethel Wilson’s vivid descriptions of the setting of her story demonstrate the strong emotional appeal of certain geographies on susceptible human emotions. Genius loci is discussed at some length, and the term is most apt.

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This is a most enjoyable post to write, and, as last year, it was quite easy to chose the books on it. They definitely stood out from the crowd. I have only included books which were new to me this year; if I’d included old favourites this list would be a whole lot longer.

Here we go, then. Leaves and Pages’ Top Ten Reads Discovered in 2013.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2013

Ranked more or less in order of “favouritism”, countdown-style, 10 to 1, though the order was just a bit hard to decide.

Except the Number One book. That one was easy as pie!

*****

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The Innocent Traveller

by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947

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, 1840s to 1940s , and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved 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. Through change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure.

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 who joins the household which includes the middle-aged Topaz. Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a delicious ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.

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Turtle Diary 

by Russell Hoban ~ 1975

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés beautifully, and I salute him for it.

extra virgin annie hawes8.

Extra Virgin

by Annie Hawes ~ 2001

I’ve read a whole lot of memoirs this past year, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, but this one was just a little bit extra-special. It was a quietly intense pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”. The two eventually purchase a bargain property in the area, 2000 pounds for a stone house in an olive grove. Of course, it needs a bit of work…

But this is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

And, as a bonus, the author can certainly write about food. Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. Well done, Annie Hawes.

monkey beach eden robinson7.

Monkey Beach 

by Eden Robinson ~ 2000

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson. Such a strong book, and completely mesmerizing.

Lisamarie Hill is a young woman of mixed Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European heritage, from the Haisla village of Kitamaat, on an island in the Haida Gwaii group off the north coast of British Columbia. Lisamarie’s younger brother Jimmy has been reported as lost at sea, and as she and her family wait for news of the search mission, Lisamarie thinks back to her childhood, and the life she shared with Jimmy growing up in an intricately complex world of tradition and modernity and a mix of cultural influences.

The author flouts our expectations by both detailing some of the bleakness of First Nations life as her protagonist experienced it, and the more frequent deep joy of family and community. The humour is constant throughout, accompanying the most horrible of scenarios, a happily ironic paradox which inexplicably works.

This book almost made my Most Unexpected list, but it was so good that it really belongs over here.

midnight on the desert j b priestley 0016.

Midnight on the Desert 

by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937

Midnight on the Desert is subtitled Chapters of Autobiography, and there is indeed a fair bit of journalizing going on in here. Written while the author was staying in Arizona, much of the content has an American connection; Priestley was very much in love with the physical space he found himself in here; the desert and the natural features such as the Grand Canyon are described with deep feeling.

I had expected this to be a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. It is an articulate examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

Near the end, Priestley really lets himself go as he mulls over the time theories of J.W. Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky, which are all about time as a fluid entity, which can be compressed, reversed, and experienced as a simultaneous multiple strand. (Novelist Rumer Godden plays with some of these ideas as well, especially in her book Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. I was fascinated to realize that both Godden and Priestley were playing along the same metaphysical byways, though many of their musings go completely over my head.)

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

The Joyous Season5.

The Joyous Season 

by Patrick Dennis ~ 1964

Ten years after penning his highly successful social satire starring the exuberant Mame and her sedate nephew Patrick, author Edward Tanner – writing under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis – came up with this little  comedic gem. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having only ever previously experienced Auntie Mame, but The Joyous Season was absolutely marvelous, and much better than I had anticipated. Such a treat!

As the story opens, 10-year-old Kerry, 6-year-old Missy, and their nanny Lulu are reluctantly heading out the door from their posh New York apartment  to Gran’s place in East Haddock. Gran is Mom’s mother, and oh boy, is she ever a snooty piece of work! And she’s more or less the reason for the whole darned dilemma Kerry and Missy are in. To condense greatly, on Christmas morning there was a bit of a situation with Mom and Daddy which saw several kinds of shots fired, much broken glass, some physical violence and some exceedingly blunt words spoken. As a result, Kerr and Missy are poised to become Children of Divorce, much to the delight of meddling Gran. Everyone (except Gran, who openly gloats about the come-uppance of her despised soon-to-be-ex son-in-law) has decided to be Very Civilized About It All, and Not To Make The Children Suffer, but suffering they are indeed, though not perhaps in the way one would expect.

Kerry and Missy, despite all of the adult antics going on in their world, are the epitome of well-adjusted, and Kerry’s knowing-naive narrative exposes the follies of the grown ups, and New York upper crust society at large, to our appreciative eyes. As Kerry and Missy navigate their way through their new life, they conspire to bring their beloved parents back together again, with numerous setbacks along the way.

4.

Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness  

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1926 and 1950

Two very different books by always-changing and challenging author, both featuring young heroines on the cusp of entry into their adult lives.

crewe train rose macaulay 3At the start of Crewe Train we are introduced to our sullen 21-year-old heroine, Denham Dobie. She and her widowed father are English expatriates living in attempted seclusion from the world in a small Andorran village; this hasn’t worked out quite as planned as the Reverend Dobie has allowed himself to be married to a local woman, giving Denham a number of unwanted step-siblings. But things are about to change, when a family of visiting English relatives are present when Mr. Dobie suffers a fatal heart attack, and whisk Denham off with them – to her stepmother’s loud relief – to England.

Denham is an unusual example of the innocent abroad – or, rather, the repatriated innocent in the land of her long-ago birth. She looks about not with the wide eyes of amazement, but with the hooded eyes of scorn. So much fuss about everything! Changing one’s clothes several times a day, all this bothersome bathing and personal grooming, and talk, talk, TALK at every meal. People get so worked up about ideas and books and plays and art…

Denham is a true sensualist, living a life of the body and not of the mind, which makes it most interesting when she catches the eye of the intellectual Arnold, a partner in Denham’s uncle’s publishing firm. And then Denham emerges from her prickly shell enough to respond to Arthur’s advances…

Gorgeously funny little book, very quirky and unusual. A great pleasure to read.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness is quite different in tone, and much more sober, as befits a post-World War II novel.

I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years.

With the war just over, Barbary is unexpectedly sent to live with her father in London, and the culture shock of being suddenly thrust into “civilized” society is more than Barbary can cope with; she creates a secret life for herself which eventually has dire consequences for everyone concerned.

I’ve earlier described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. Not at all depressing, because it is so obviously contrived, but a powerfully memorable reading experience.

3.

All the Little Live Things

by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967

all the little live things wallace stegner (2)An intense novel set in the California hills concerning love in all its forms. And death.

Here Wallace Stegner addresses one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Decidedly one of my most memorable reads of 2013.

hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 32.

Hostages to Fortune 

by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

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The Innocents

by Margery Sharp ~ 1974

I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

Just prior to the start of World War II, a middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is unexpectedly left in charge of a mentally handicapped toddler whose mother refuses to believe that her child is anything less than “normal”.  The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. I absolutely loved it. Hands down, my very best new-to-me read of the year.

 

Happy Reading to Everyone in 2014!

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the innocent traveller ethel wilsonThe Innocent Traveller by Ethel Wilson ~ 1949. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9316-0. 277 pages.

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.

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