I’ve taken a break from Mariana at the moment because it all became too British. I do love cozy Brit Lit, but it seems to be all I’ve been reading lately! I had picked up the Goncourt’s Journal (1850s Paris) and then today I found I’d gotten another Persephone novel from the library (printed in a different edition)… by a Canadian author.
(Can anyone guess which one?)
It’s slim and fresh and I just finished it, even though I also was at work all day. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson is exquisite, a short novella that captures the wild beauty of the west coast of Canada. (It also moves on to Cornwall, London and briefly Paris, but her gorgeous descriptions are mostly reserved for the land I call home.)
Most Canadian authors that I have read are so realistic that it gets depressing. I read Margaret Laurence in high school and while A Bird in the House is a good collection of short stories, one of her novels (all set in Manitoba), A Jest of God, is very sad indeed. I’ve read one Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace, which was good but I’m not that tempted to read more. And on it goes. People can talk about Alice Munro, but she looks much the same. (I suppose I must exempt L.M. Montgomery from this litany of literary sadness, but her lovely Prince Edward Island is about as far away from where I live in Alberta as it is from England. Most Canadian authors live on the other side of the country, so this was delightful to read about something closer to the place where I live.)
This small book so captures the wild joy I feel in the wind, in nature, in prairies, hills and mountains. There is a subtle and complex drama going on between a beautiful and charming and utterly amoral older woman and the young girl who is at first infatuated with her and then gradually… grows up. It’s a coming of age story, but unlike Mariana, it does not meander. Repeatedly the collide of two rivers, the Thompson and the Fraser, is described early on in the book, to mirror the collide of the two women:
Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other, and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quantity than before.
And all I am going to do now is share a few more quotes, since I’ve rarely been so grabbed, right from the start of a book.
Yes, I remembered, standing there in London at the foot of a small shabby brass bedstead listening to Hetty, looking at her and wondering, “Do nocturnal animals feel like that? What is Hetty?” I remembered the yelling of the coyotes in the hills, and the moon shining on the hills and the river; the smell of the sage; and the sudden silence as the coyotes stopped for a moment in their singing all together. I remembered the two coloured rivers. And my home. What a strange Hetty, after such an evening, calling up this magic — for it was a disturbing magic to me, the genius of my home — and Hetty’s smart wrinkly gloves lying on the floor, her little black hat lying there too. I remembered Lytton, and the rivers, and the Bridge, all as real as ever in British Columbia while we looked at each other in London, yet saw them plainly.
And a little dove grey sneaking in…
As evening comes on, the hills grow dove grey and purple; they take on a variety of surprising shapes and shades, and the oblique shafts of sunlight disclose new hills and valleys which in daylight merge into one and are not seen.
I’m not sure exactly how this little book ended up in the Persephone canon, but I’m so glad it did.
Edit! As I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth, I reflected on how this novel echoes themes in Henry James, of how the devious older more sophisticated European characters trick the naive and hopeful younger ones from the New World (usually in order to get the inheritance), but here the Canadian landscapes Ethel Wilson so lovingly details offer courage and a life force to the younger girl. Even though she mourns some losses as Isabel Archer and Millie Theale do, she retains her strength in the memory of home.