Okay, so I really like Canadian author Ethel Wilson. I've added her to my list of authors whose work I want to continue exploring (read that as a 'must read all her books' now statement). She is definitely one of my best finds of the year so far. I was impressed by Swamp Angel but was unsure what to expect of her debut novel, Hetty Dorval, which was published first in 1947 and has most recently been reissued by Persephone Books. I was pleasantly surprised by it, however. With barely a hundred pages to flesh out a story, Wilson does a masterful job of it creating one of great depth and subtlety. Of course I should have known better. If Persephone Books has deemed it a worthy book to add to their lineup of titles, it's pretty much a given that I'm going to be in good hands with this author.
The story of Hetty Dorval is told through the eyes of Frankie Burnaby who first encounters the sophisticated Hetty when she is just a young girl growing up in the small town of Lytton in British Columbia. It's with a sense of wonderment and attraction that she views Hetty.
"Through the years in the various times and places in which I came to know Mrs. Dorval, I never failed to have the same faint shock of delight as I saw her profile in repose, as it nearly always was. I can only describe it by saying that it was very pure. Pure is perhaps the best word, or spiritual, shall I say, and I came to think that what gave her profile this touching purity was just the soft curve of her high cheek bone, and the faint hollow below it. Also the innocence of her slightly tilted nose, which afterwards I called in my mind a flirt's nose, and the slight droop of her mouth, whose upper lip was perhaps a little over-full."
Frankie spends her weeks in town attending school and boarding with a local Lytton woman and only returns to her family's ranch on weekends. Her parents are hardworking and respectable people who allow Frankie a certain amount of freedom but with the understanding and assumption that Frankie won't take advantage of her situation. The Lytton community is, as are Frankie's parents, curious about Mrs. Dorval and her very serious and not particularly friendly housekeeper. Frankie meets Hetty one afternoon as she is returning to town and is captivated by the glamorous Hetty who takes a liking to Frankie and invites her home.
Young and perhaps a little naive Frankie is taken with the seductive nature of Hetty who has yet to be joined by Mr. Dorval. The more time she spends with Hetty, however, the more she suspects that her visits would be frowned upon by her parents and maybe even her friends. Even Hetty asks Frankie not to tell anyone about their afternoon chats, which sets off a niggling voice in Frankie's mind. Although few in number Frankie isn't forthcoming about the afternoons she spends at Hetty's home, especially when her mother takes to calling Hetty "the Menace". Hetty may be charming with Frankie, but there is also something secretive about her as well.
When Frankie's parents discover she's been spending time with Hetty, they're disappointed and ask her to promise to stay away from Hetty Dorval, which she does but only after one last visit so she can explain. More disappointment is heaped on Frankie but this time from Hetty, and when she owns up to having saw Hetty one last time, her parents pack her off to Vancouver to complete her education. Time and again, however, Frankie's path will cross with Hetty's over the next decade or so. First in Vancouver and then later shipboard when Frankie and her mother are sailing for England she spots Hetty who is always so calm and collected.
Whatever transgressions there are in Hetty's past are only eluded to throughout the beginning of the story. For a novel as subtle as Hetty Dorval, Wilson is certainly adept at plotting and creating a page turner of a story. The mystery of Hetty is slowly revealed after much build up and a realization on the part of Frankie that there's more to Hetty Dorval than her fine profile. Frankie begins her life in a small Canadian town, and when someone as cosmopolitan as Hetty Dorval arrives she's in awe, but as Frankie herself becomes a woman of the world Hetty's grasp on her loosens, and the tables turn when she realizes with how little thought Hetty gives to those around her.
I suspect that Swamp Angel may well be the more sophisticated and perhaps better developed story, but while I really liked Swamp Angel, I loved Hetty Dorval. Hetty Dorval is a completely engaging story--so much so that once you start reading you won't want to stop. I could easily pick it up right now and begin reading again and fully expect I would get even more out of the story than I did the first time around. Wilson is also talented in how she describes the natural world. The setting is the same as that of Swamp Angel, and it's obvious she has a great love of the region and it shines through in her writing.
I've already got The Innocent Traveller on my reading pile, which I have borrowed from the library, but if it's as good (and I am told its perhaps her best novel) as Hetty Dorval, I may be buying it as well. I'll be looking for her other books, though I think she only wrote a handful. At the moment, however, I'm reading Merilyn Simonds The Holding, and have L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle in my reading queue. This is one reading challenge I may actually complete.