Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography
By David Stouck
University of Toronto Press,
353 pages, $50
It is trite to say that Ethel Wilson was a "writer's writer," but the observation is no less true for all that. At last we have a proper biography of her. I can pay no higher compliment to its author, David Stouck, than to say that his magnificent book does near-to-perfect justice to its complex and enigmatic subject. Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography is a carefully researched account of Wilson's life and art, and adroitly links the forces at play in her interior and worldly experience to her remarkable literary output.
Stouck, a professor of English at Simon Fraser University, has prepared a sympathetic but not adoring portrait of one of Canada's most accomplished if under-celebrated literary figures. The persona that emerges is not always wholly consistent with the face that Wilson herself sometimes tried to present to the world -- that of "an unambitious latecomer, a happily married doctor's wife who wrote for her own pleasure." Stouck shows us that, while she clearly wrestled with self-doubt, she was a serious writer who had definite literary ambitions and pressed firmly, if sometimes circuitously, ahead in the pursuit of those ambitions.
Certain aspects of Wilson's early life exerted powerful, formative influences that can be seen across the nine decades that passed between her birth in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1888, and her death in Vancouver in 1980. Her father, Robert Bryant, was a Methodist missionary who suffered from tuberculosis; her mother, Lila, was also of delicate health. The young family came from well-to-do stock in that part of Staffordshire -- the "Potteries" -- that Arnold Bennett made famous. Somewhat surprisingly, despite their infirmities, this newly married couple ventured out from England to Africa to spread the Methodist message. The results were predictable and disastrous.
Ethel Bryant lost her mother a year into the African assignment, before her second birthday. She and her father later returned to England where, when she was 9, he succumbed to his tuberculosis. With that, "the bottom dropped out of everything." For a time, Ethel was passed around among relatives in England, and then in 1898 she was taken by her maternal grandmother -- a loving but eccentric and exceedingly strict Methodist -- to live in Vancouver.
As she matured, Ethel Bryant came to love her new country. She spent time in England at a boarding school, where she excelled in her studies. She eventually returned to Vancouver and followed a path that led to a short, generally unsatisfying career as a teacher. Happily, romance spared her a longer tour of duty in the classroom. Wallace Wilson, a successful young doctor, became her husband in 1921. Their relationship became the central fact in her life thereafter. Their marriage was joyous. Wallace's career led him to senior posts in the B.C. and Canadian Medical Associations and carried many social demands, to which his shy wife accommodated herself with great difficulty but little complaint.
Ethel Wilson found throughout her life that the spectre of pending loss and the trauma of multiple early uprootings could never be fully banished. So also, the constraints imposed by a Methodist upbringing (Stouck refers to it as an "ostrich egg") inculcated an almost suffocating diffidence, which she battled all her years. The precariousness of human contentment (she called it being "on the brink") is a recurring theme in her writings, as we would expect in one who had been orphaned and who had lived on three continents by the age of 10. We see it clearly in the surreal A Visit to the Frontier -- arguably her best short story -- and in novels such as Swamp Angel and Love and Salt Water. That perceived precariousness made her extremely dependent upon her husband. When, in later years, Wallace underwent a harrowing series of health crises, Ethel faced corresponding emotional ups and downs that imprinted themselves starkly upon her novels and stories.
Materially, her life was an extremely comfortable one. She was financially secure through the Great Depression and the Second World War -- a fact that tugged at her Methodist conscience and caused an unease reflected in her sometimes unsubtle efforts to address issues of class and race in her fiction. Opportunities for global travel were always present and, accordingly, her striking word portraits of British Columbia are surrounded by works set in other parts of the world. She was a keen observer of the human condition and of the physical settings to which, in her view, the human condition is inextricably bound.
Ethel Wilson will be best remembered as an innovative and consummate stylist. She struggled with editors who (in keeping with the traditions of the day) placed heavy emphasis upon conventions of plot, characterization and structure. They objected to her "authorial intrusions" and other stylistic and metafictional idiosyncrasies. She had no choice but to yield at times, but as she grew in stature and confidence, increasingly she stood her ground. We are all the richer for it. To her, the allure of language, of the "inevitable word," was a transcendent value that ought not to be subordinated to literary conventions. History, and those of her contemporaries blessed with greater discernment, have passed favourable judgments on her pioneering efforts.
Stouck has, here and there, hazarded an educated guess where the historical record is thin, but has not engaged in the fanciful indulgences to which many biographers are prone. As a result, Ethel Wilson is a chronicle and a trustworthy and authoritative assessment of her life and contributions. It is, of course, a critical biography, and Stouck has done an admirable job of assessing and analyzing Wilson's literary legacy without lapsing into tortured postmodern theorizing of the sort that would have annoyed Wilson herself. Let us hope that this fine, insightful book will contribute to a more widespread appreciation of Ethel Wilson as one of our most talented and articulate literary forebears.
Thomas S. Woods is a Vancouver lawyer, editor and writer. He first discovered Ethel Wilson when he was an undergraduate, and has read and re-read her work enthusiastically since.