Wilson, Ethel. Hetty Dorval. New York: Harper, 1925.

On our blog, I post poems by the women writers in our project, many of whom readers have never run across before. I also post reviews of books that are relatively if not completely unknown. Today, though, I am writing about the first novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), by a more well-known Canadian author, Ethel Wilson. My story is as follows…

I have a friend, Brenda, who—in the way of all good friends—passes on to me the books she loves. She, similarly, has a friend Lorie who does the same. A few weeks ago, Brenda came to me with Lorie’s latest, thinking three things: 1) this author was likely on our list; 2) the novel’s setting of Lytton, BC, spoke to us all; and 3) it was a beautifully crafted, fascinating novel. She is right on all three points.

Ethel Wilson (1888-1980) was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and by all accounts shared a close relationship with her father, who had moved her back to England when her mother died giving birth when Ethel was only a year and a half. When Ethel was nine, her father died and she was shipped out to her maternal grandmother in Vancouver. After a stint in a Methodist boarding school in England, Ethel returned to Vancouver and studied to be a teacher, teaching elementary school until 1921, when she married Dr. Wallace Wilson (1888-1966). According to David Stouck in Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (University of Toronto Press, 2003), the couple spent a belated honeymoon travelling through the interior of British Columbia and “most likely stopped the first night at a hotel in the town of Lytton.

This is where the two great rivers, the Thompson and the Fraser, converge, and where the blue and white Thompson is swallowed up and disappears into the swollen and muddy Fraser. For Ethel Wilson it was a powerful, perhaps frightening, sight and would occupy her imagination for years until it finally emerged in her fiction. (68)

Image from the Wikipedia entry on the Thompson River
Brenda and Lorie and I, discussing the novel on an evening arranged specifically this purpose, knew that Ethel Wilson must have spent some time in Lytton, for the description of the confluence of the Thompson and the Fraser was breathtakingly accurate. We didn’t know her history in the Thompson-Nicola, but I knew whom to ask… An email to Scotland later, and I was sent quotations and information from David Stouck’s biography by Dr. Faye Hammill at the University of Strathclyde, who has worked on Wilson in the past. (I’d just like to state at this juncture that I did not, in fact, research or write our SFU entry on Wilson, as is likely obvious.)

Wilson writes of the British Columbia interior from the heart of someone who knows and loves it, but also recognizes the power of the rivers and the harshness of the dry, hot landscape. For a reader who grew up in the locale (well, the Similkameen rather than the Thompson-Nicola, but sharing a geography), the opening lines brought back a childhood with summer days spent lying in the shallows of a river to escape the scorching heat:

The day that Mrs. Dorval’s furniture arrived in Lytton, Ernestine and I had gone to the station to see the train come in. It was a hot day. The heat of the sun burned down from above, it beat up from the ground and was reflected from the hot hills. (1)

From the perspective of a child, too, we meet Hester (“Hetty”) Dorval, who captivates the young Frances (“Frankie”) Burnaby with her secrets and disingenuous affection. Frankie is conflicted at Hetty’s extorting a promise not to mention their acquaintance, and even more conflicted when she gleans from her parents a more adult understanding of the enigmatic Hetty’s history. “It was hard to tell,” she notes later, “how much of Hetty was artful and how much was artless” (52).

As Frankie grows, and grows in knowledge of Hetty, whose life touches her life at random but essential moments, Frankie’s perspective and voice both transition smoothly from that of an innocent child to a naïve adolescent to a woman with an adult understanding of Hetty’s irredeemably flawed personality. We feel that we grow with Frankie through her transitions, as she sorts through her experiences, learning slowly to parse reality from artifice as she matures. We are caught with Frankie in not knowing what to do, what will happen, and in accepting the painful results of circumstances beyond her control, or errors in judgment made as a result of her youthful inexperience.

“But,” says Frankie, “this is not a story of me … but of the places and ways known to me in which Hetty Dorval has appeared. It is not even Hetty Dorval’s whole story because to this day I do not know Hetty’s whole story and she does not tell. I only knew the story of Hetty by inference and strange chance.” (57)

We see through Frankie’s eyes; we watch her infer and discern and synthesize and finally comprehend. In the end, we feel a sympathy with Frankie in the pain of her understanding. It is fitting that Hetty passes from Frankie’s life somewhat as she came in: in mystery. But her leaving is only a mystery of circumstance and history, coming as it does at the outbreak of war. The final lines encapsulate Frankie’s experience of Hetty, leaving us with a feeling of sorrow and inevitability:

Six weeks later the German army occupied Vienna. There arose a wall of silence around the city, through which only faint confused sounds were sometimes heard. (92)