An unexpected find

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.

10 thoughts on “An unexpected find

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Isn’t it exciting to find a Canadian Persephone? I haven’t read this one yet but just knowing it exists (and that it’s set in my home province of BC) fills me with a strange sense of pride.

    I was intrigued by your thoughts on Canlit. I generally read quite a lot by Canadian authors (this years seems to be an exception to that, so far) but I’ve never really considered the geographic bias. For me, it’s more interesting reading about the parts of Canada where I haven’t lived – the Maritimes, any rural setting – than the ones I have (Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston, Ottawa). I would urge you to try Atwood again one day: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin are both wonderful and I much preferred them to Alias Grace.

    • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

      What Canadian authors do you like? I think for me, because I’ve lived in Alberta all my life (I’ve moved around within it a lot but unfortunately not outside of it yet) and really do love the beauty of it, I’m very frustrated that so much of Canadian writing seems to come only from Ontario and not from a place I can relate to more. Which is partly why I so loved Hetty Dorval, her descriptions of the sage brush in the wilds of BC didn’t seem that far off from the unruly hilly prairies around Drumheller, where I used to live for a while. It’s nice to meet someone I can discuss this with.

      • kiss a cloud says:

        Ooh a Canadian Persephone.. I want to read this!! It sounds wonderful.

        I’ve Alias Grace on my to-be-read pile. Am not a very big Atwood fan, but The Blind Assassin is excellent. I also liked Cat’s Eye.

        I really love Munro though, and Carol Shields.

        • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

          I picked up The Lives of Girls & Women by Alice Munro the other day, it’s a bit sad and slow to get started, but Del’s involvement with boys and sex still comments on gender relations in a very relevant way (unfortunately).

          I’d like to read Carol Shields eventually, so far I’ve only read the beginning chapter or so of The Stone Diaries and one of her short stories, which I can still remember.

  2. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    Oh yes so true about reading too much cozy Brit lit at a time. Having just read some very not ‘female books’ for a time I’m relishing it. But I know the time will come when I search for something else. There’s a Tolstoy on my shelf whichcI’m gathering strength for!

    • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

      Gathering strength for Tolstoy indeed! I read Anna Karenina a few years ago and really loved it, but then tried War & Peace… whew! I gave up after 400 pages (simply wanted it to be more Anna Karenina-y, which it’s not, quite). I don’t know if I’ll try again, certainly not soon… Which of his are you wanting to read? I see he has lots of short stories/novellas as well, but am somewhat put off by his extreme moralizing!

  3. Thomas at My Porch says:

    I agree with Claire. Give Margaret Atwood another chance. Alias Grace is the only one of her books that I put down about half way through. I eventually finished it, but it clearly didn’t hold my interest like all of her other books. Unlike Claire though, I would suggest some of her works that have story lines that are a little more everyday like The Robber Bride or her first novel The Edible Woman. I have only read two Margaret Laurence novels and I loved A Jest of God. If you want something less depressing in CanLit you might try Carol Shields. I know she was born in America but spent so much of her adult life in Canada that many consider her a Canadian author. While her books aren’t comedies, they never seemed depressing to me (with the exception of her final book Unless).

    • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

      I actually finally picked up Alice Munro last night and really started to get into it! Maybe I just needed to get that complaint off my chest. I would like to read Carol Shields at some point and despite what I said about Atwood, I still for some reason seem to collect her books when I come across them… I keep thinking everyone can’t be wrong about liking her! And I do quite like Helen Humphreys, Michael Ondaatje and Ann-Marie MacDonald who are all great Canadian authors with a bit more poetry and a bit less realism, so. Clearly I just wanted to complain. 😉 I am thinking of a CanLit reading project now, with one book for every province.

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