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Review

Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography

By David Stouck

November 4, 2013

Review By Misao Dean

THE TWO THINGS about Ethel Wilson’s writing that David Stouck emphasizes in his critical biography are her ability to evoke a sense of place and her great reverence for “the English sentence.” Anyone would think that Stouck had taken Wilson’s fiction as his model, for the great strengths of this book are its ability to evoke Wilson’s British Columbia in its historical and material detail and the graceful, clear, and sympathetic prose that suggests that his reverence for the English sentence is as great as is hers. This book is a wonderful achievement – a work of painstaking scholarship that is enjoyable to read – and it will be of special interest to British Columbians for the ways it situates Wilson within the history of early Vancouver and her writing at the centre of BC literature. 

Ethel Wilson published six books of fiction set in British Columbia in the years between 1947 and 1961. Her best known work is Swamp Angel (1954), a novel that engages the hearts of readers with its perceptive descriptions of the BC landscape and its almost philosophical approach to the possibilities of human community. Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography is the first and only scholarly biography of this important BC writer. A collection of her unpublished stories, essays, and letters edited by David Stouck appeared in 1987, and its positive reception provided the impetus for this work. 

Ethel Wilson was raised in Vancouver by her mother’s family, the Malkins, after the early deaths of both her parents. The family home on Barclay and Jervis Streets was built when the West End was composed mainly of woods and building lots. The future novelist trudged to school through the rain and rode her bike on wooden sidewalks, learning to swim at English Bay from Joe Fortes, the “heroic” black man who later became a subject of her fiction. Stouck carefully builds a portrait of Vancouver in the early decades of the twentieth century, drawing details from local histories and Wilson’s own fiction to create an engaging and detailed picture of an earnest young girl caught in the already complex web of social relationships in the growing city. Haunted by the loss of her parents and her personal history of abrupt dislocation, Wilson was painfully shy. Yet she occupied a privileged position in the newly founded city, and she counted among her relatives prominent businessmen, a mayor of Vancouver, and founding members of Vancouver’s Methodist Church. Stouck deals with this material sympathetically, emphasizing how Wilson’s education in formal courtesy and her Methodist sense of duty determined elements of her character. 

While her family expected her to marry, and to marry well, Ethel remained single until the death of her beloved maternal grandmother in 1919, when the Barclay Street household was broken up, and, at the age of thirty-one, she married Wallace Wilson. Wallace was a returned soldier and a doctor who eventually became president of the BC Medical Association, a founder of the BC Cancer Society, and chief of Medicine at Shaughnessy Hospital; their friends and professional acquaintances would include H.R. MacMillan, Leon and Thea Koerner, and professors and presidents at the University of British Columbia. While Wallace’s public position required Ethel’s support as hostess, he also introduced her to fly fishing and European travel, and provided her with the emotional and financial support that facilitated her writing career. Their happy marriage extended over many years, Wallace s outgoing personality and casual manners in some ways balancing Ethel’s relative shyness and formality. 

While Wilson often depicted herself publicly as simply a doctor’s wife who scribbled away in her spare time, Stouck has established that she began her writing career much earlier than she admitted and that her work was more important to her than she acknowledged. Drawing on the extensive collection of Wilson papers in the UBC archives, Stouck offers chapters on each of her major publications, carefully detailing correspondence, negotiations with editors, and manuscript versions and revisions as well as surveying reviews and critical responses. Stouck emphasizes her achievements as a stylist, pointing out that “the life or death of a character was often of less importance to Wilson than the placement of a comma or the choosing of a word” (190). He quotes from a letter to her close friend and editor at Macmillan, John Gray – “her subject was ‘Nature’ and ‘things’ with relation to People” (204) – and shows how novels like Swamp Angel and Love and Salt Water illustrate what Wilson called “the formidable power of geography that determines the character and performance of a people” (xiv). Stouck also includes accounts of Wilson’s friendships with poets Earle Birney and Roy Daniells, and discusses the inspiration and support she offered younger women writers like Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. 

Many of the biographical details in this book are derived from Wilson’s own fiction, itself inspired by her life and her family history. However, Stouck avoids the questionable practice of blindly attributing all the thoughts and feelings of Wilson’s fictional characters to the author in her proper person: he carefully picks his way among the published and unpublished versions of Wilson’s life, conscientiously identifying his sources as well as his speculations. The book strives to correct the more egregious errors of Mary McAlpine’s memoir of her friend (The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson, Harbour, 1988), without denying its debt to that work. Stouck displays respect both for his subject and his sources in his elegant and engaging prose, and he demonstrates mature insight and useful evaluation in his survey of previous scholarship. The result is a treat for literary readers and scholars.