LITERARY LOCATION: Kensington Place Apartments, 1386 Nicola Street, at Pacific Avenue, Vancouver

Born in 1888, Ethel Wilson was Vancouver's most respected novelist for several decades. In 1921 she married Dr. Wallace Wilson and they lived here, where she encouraged upcoming writers Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. In her autobiographical story, The Innocent Traveller (1949), Wilson celebrates lifeguard Joe Fortes and his swimming lessons for children at English Bay, the poet Pauline Johnson and Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. She later lived in an apartment on Point Grey Road. Wilson spent her final eight years in the Arbutus Nursing Home where she died in 1980. B.C.'s top fiction award, The Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction, is named in her honour. Her two best-known novels are Hetty Dorval and Swamp Angel. "No other writer has more successfully evoked British Columbia as a place or its inhabitants as a strange and unique people," wrote George Woodcock, "than Ethel Wilson."

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

The top fiction award in B.C., the Ethel Wilson Prize, commemorates the author of six books and the subject of two biographies and one critical study. Wilson's first and arguably best novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), was supposedly written in three weeks while her husband was away. It's a post-WWII parable, narrated by an innocent girl in the B.C. Interior who recalls her unusual friendship with a visiting city woman named Hetty Dorval, who is sophisticated, charming and selfish.

Wilson's most celebrated novel, Swamp Angel (1954), concerns the escape of Maggie Vardoe from an unpleasant second marriage in Vancouver to a new life at a remote interior B.C. lake. In Love and Salt Water (1956), she wrote that "the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people."; Hence Wilson was highly attuned to what she called "the genius of place."; Wilson's phrase was used by one of her biographers, David Stouck, for the title of a non-fiction anthology of B.C. writing, co-edited with Myler Wilkinson.

"No other writer,"; George Woodcock declared, "has more successfully evoked British Columbia as a place or its inhabitants as a strange and unique people than Ethel Wilson.";

Born in 1888 in South Africa, Ethel Wilson was the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. She went to live in Pembroke, Wales, in 1890 after her mother died. Her father died when she was nine. Her friend Mary McAlpine later surmised, "She was an Edwardian child, raised by Victorians."

At age ten, Ethel Wilson was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver where she would be remembered as "the school beauty."; She taught in Vancouver elementary schools, dutifully but without pleasure, until 1920. In 1921, she found lasting security and happiness when she married Dr. Wallace Wilson, a much-respected president of the Canadian Medical Association and professor of medical ethics at UBC. The couple lived in relative luxury in their spacious Kensington Place apartment overlooking English Bay, surrounded by Oriental rugs, books, a photo of a sketch of Winston Churchill, an original Burne-Jones pencil drawing and the same housekeeper for 22 years.

Ethel Wilson's presence was fundamental to the careers of both Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, who have acknowledged their appreciation.

Margaret Laurence wrote to her friend Adele Wiseman: "She is so terrific. I don't know how to describe her. She not only writes like an angel (in my opinion) but is, herself, a truly great lady-again, that probably sounds corny, but I don't know how else to express it. Her husband is a doctor (retired) and they live in an apartment overlooking English Bay. She is very badly crippled with arthritis, but she never mentions her health. She is poised in the true way-she never makes other people feel gauche. And she is absolutely straight in her speech-she has no pretensions, nor does she say anything she doesn't mean, and yet she has a kind of sympathetic tact.";

After Dr. Wilson died in 1966, Ethel Wilson moved to an apartment on Point Grey Road, suffered a stroke and no longer wrote. She lived for nearly eight years in the Arbutus Private Hospital until her death in 1980.

FULL ENTRY:

Ethel Davis Wilson was born on January 20, 1888 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. She went to live in Pembroke, Wales in 1890 after her mother died. Her father died when she was nine. At age ten she was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver. From ages 14 to 18 she attended a school for Methodist ministers' daughters at Trinity Hall in Southport England. She later described this period as "rigorous, almost Spartan, sound, and often very amusing."; Her schoolmistress remembered her years later as "the school beauty."; She returned to Vancouver, received her teacher's certificate from the Vancouver Normal School in 1907, and taught in Vancouver elementary schools, dutifully but without pleasure, until 1920. In 1921 she found lasting security and happiness when she married Dr. Wallace Wilson, a much respected non-literary man (president of the Canadian Medical Association, chairman of its ethics committee, professor of medical ethics at UBC). "I think she was basically shy,"; family acquaintance Muriel Whitaker has recalled, "and her confidence came from Wallace who was gentle, genial, low-keyed and absolutely dependable."; The couple lived in relative luxury in their spacious Kensington Place apartment overlooking False Creek, surrounded by Oriental rugs, books, a photo of a sketch of Winston Churchill, an original Burne-Jones pencil drawing and the same housekeeper for 22 years. Ethel Wilson claimed to have written her first stories in the late 1930s in the family automobile while her husband called on the sick. The New Statesman, to her surprise, published her work but she stopped writing during the war. She said she wrote her first and possibly best novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), in three weeks while her beloved husband was away "in order to remain alive, sane and functioning."; In it, an innocent girl form the B.C. interior, Frankie Burnaby, narrates the story of a visiting city woman named Hetty Dorval.

Wilson's most celebrated novel, Swamp Angel (1954), primarily concerns the escape of Maggie Vardoe from an unpleasant second marriage in Vancouver to a new life at a remote interior B.C. lake. She meets a retired circus juggler and other uniquely non-urbanized women. Maggie Vardoe learns independence but is told near the end of the novel, "We are all in it together. 'No Man is an Island, I am involved in Mankinde,' and we have no immunity and we may as well realize it."; The novel owes many of its characters and its locale to a lodge at Lac Le Jeune where Ethel Wilson vacationed with her husband, an expert fisherman, for 40 years. Lac Le Jeune was also the setting for two short stories, "On Nimpish"; and "Beware the Jabberwock, my son... beware the Jubjub bird."; Mr. Spencer, the character at the outset of Swamp Angel who buys Maggie Vardoe's hand-tied flies to facilitate her escape, was derivative of a co-owner of Vancouver's Harkley & Haywood sporting goods store. The Swamp Angel of the title is a small revolver that is discarded. Ethel Wilson herself once had the pleasant experience of tossing a small gun off a bridge.

The Innocent Traveller (1949) is an autobiographical but unrevealing story of a young girl coming to live in Vancouver from England and remaining a relatively happy spinster past her 100th birthday. Although it appears Ethel Wilson turned suddenly to fiction in her mature years, portions of The Innocent Traveller can be traced to preparatory writing she had started 20 years prior to its publication. The Equations of Love (1952) consists of two novellas, "Tuesday and Wednesday,"; about the death of a husband on a Wednesday, and "Lily's Story,"; about the resolve of an unwed mother to raise her child. Wilson's final novel, Love and Salt Water (1956), is a post-WW II novel most directly concerned with private wounds and the uncertainty of human relations.

Dr. Wilson died in 1966 and Ethel Wilson moved to an apartment on Point Grey Road, suffered a stroke and no longer wrote. She lived for nearly eight years in the Arbutus Private Hospital until her death on December 22, 1980. About 40 people attended a funeral service at Christ Church Cathedral. "There was no eulogy,"; family friend and journalist Mary McAlpine has noted, "and afterwards most of us went across the street to a special room in the Hotel Vancouver and had a coffee or drinks and sandwiches, and she would have liked that."; She was cremated with her favourite pictures of her late husband and his letters. Socially well-connected, Ethel Wilson received more recognition for her work posthumously than most other novelists indigenous to Vancouver. For many years she was the first and almost only B.C. fiction writer besides Malcolm Lowry to have her work serve as the subject of a full-length critical study. Desmond Pacey published his study Ethel Wilson and the University of Ottawa published the proceedings of an Ethel Wilson Symposium held in 1981. A new study of Ethel Wilson and her work was published by David Stouck in 2003.

B.C.'s top fiction award, the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction, devised in 1985, commemorates the achievements of Ethel Wilson, who mostly lived in Apartment 42 at the Kensington Place apartments on Beach Avenue and Nicola Street in the West End. One of her most important literary friendships was with a neophpyte writer named Margaret Laurence. Having read a story about Africa by Laurence in the second issue of Prism, Wilson wrote to the publication praising it, whereupon Laurence wrote and thanked her. This led to an offer of tea in Wilson's apartment in January of 1961--and a lasting friendship and correspondence. At the outset, Margaret Laurence wrote to her closest friend Adele Wiseman and offered this description of Ethel Wilson. "She is so terrific. I don't know how to describe her. She not only writes like an angel (in my opinion) but is, herself, a truly great lady--again, that probably sounds corny, but I don't know how else to express it. Her husband is a doctor (retired) and they live in an apartment overlooking English Bay. She is very badly crippled with arthritis, but she never mentions her health. She is poised in the true way--she never makes other people feel gauche. And she is absolutely straight in her speech--she has no pretensions, nor does she say anything she doesn't mean, and yet she has a kind of sympathetic tact."

In Love and Salt Water (1956), Ethel Wilson wrote, that "the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people."; Hence Wilson was highly attuned to what she called the genius of place. This Ethel Wilson phrase was used by one of her two biographers, David Stouck, for the title of a non-fiction anthology of B.C. writing, co-edited with Myler Wilkinson.

BOOKS:

Hetty Dorval (Macmillan, 1947; Alcuin Society, 1967).
The Innocent Traveller (Macmillan, 1949)
The Equations of Love: Tuesday and Wednesday: Lilly's Story (Macmillan,1952)
Swamp Angel (Macmillan, 1954)
Love and Salt Water (Macmillan, 1956)
Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories (Macmillan, 1961)

ABOUT ETHEL WILSON

Ethel Wilson (1967) by Desmond Pacey
Ethel Wilson: Stories, Essays, and Letters, ed. David Stouck (1987)
The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson (Harbour, 1988) by Mary McAlpine 0-920080-95-2
Self Beyond Doubt: Ethel Wilson and Indian Philosophical Thought (Mumbai: SNDT Women's University, 1996) by Anjali Bhelande
Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (University of Toronto Press, 2003) by David Stouck $50 / 0802087418

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]