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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Ethel Wilson's Mothers

  • Verena Klein (Author)
    Mothering Her Self: Mothers and Daughters in Ethel Wilson's Works. Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ethel Wilson (Author) and Li-Ping Geng (Editor)
    Swamp Angel. Tecumseh Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by David Stouck

Ethel Wilson once wrote: “when a far-off review from the Times of India recognized the common humanity of one of my books . . . I could not ask for more.” With the exception of my 2003 biography, most of the attention paid to Ethel Wilson in the last twenty years has, in fact, come from afar. I am thinking here of the influential essays by American critic, Blanche H. Gelfant, included in her 1995 volume, Cross-Cultural Reckonings, Anjali Bhelande’s wholly original and compelling Self Beyond Self: Ethel Wilson and Indian Philosophical Thought (1996), and the modestly elegant British edition of Hetty Dorval (Persephone Books, 2005). The recent critical edition of Swamp Angel, based on the novel’s different manuscripts and first editions, was prepared by Li-Ping Geng of Shandong University at Weihai, China. Why Wilson’s appeal is so predominantly international is a question beyond the scope of this review, but that fact frames my introduction nonetheless to yet another study of Wilson produced outside Canada, Mothering Her Self: Mothers and Daughters in Ethel Wilson’s Work, published in Germany in 2006 by Austrian critic, Verena Klein. One thing that can be said about these studies is that they direct the reader away from local issues in Wilson’s writing, the question of her Canadian content for example, and address literary and cultural issues that have worldwide engagement and application.

The central issue in Klein’s reading of Ethel Wilson is mothering, which she approaches by means of international feminist theory. Klein applies theory sparingly but with an unerring sense of what has relevance and revelation for reading this author’s work. The central fact for Klein is that Wilson was an orphan, and she views the different ways Wilson writes about motherless women as strategies of mourning. Some of her motherless characters, writes Klein, are trapped by their unhappy childhoods and extend their misery to those around them. In this light, she is able to argue for a sympathetic reading of Hetty Dorval, a character who does not recognize her mother in disguise and cannot sustain meaningful relations with others. It allows her to describe Topaz Edgeworth’s childish irresponsibility in terms of development arrested by a mother’s death, and Vera Gunnarsen’s jealousy in terms of maternal abandonment.

More successful mourning strategies are accomplished by characters such as Lilly Waller, who first assumes the role of mother and caregiver and eventually learns to care for herself, the most important step, argues Klein, in conquering orphanhood. For her consideration of other female characters in Wilson’s writing, Klein takes up the term “othermothers” from Debold, Wilson, and Malave’s Mother Daughter Revolution to examine how extra-familial role models can provide the developing woman with a foretaste of female power, while simultaneously equipping her with “a sense of agency.” Most striking in this context is Klein’s study of Maggie Vardoe in Swamp Angel, her crucial relationship to Mrs. Severance, an embodiment of the Great Mother archetype, and her function as the central mothering figure herself for the community at Three Loon Lake. In a body of fiction haunted by origins, this redefinition of female genealogy, writes Klein, “can be read as a courageous step beyond the limits of the core family” and an example of the secondwave feminist concept of othermothering.

The comprehensiveness and depth of Klein’s study is owing to more than her reading in feminist theory. Her study draws on details from the Wilson archives at UBC Library, and is also grounded in conversations she had with Ethel Wilson’s niece, Mary White, whose insights on mother-daughter relations and account of Wilson’s dependency on her husband confirmed for Klein that her way of reading had substance.

Klein’s study is one of those in which Maggie Vardoe/Lloyd grows to be an increasingly potent figure in our literature. Enhancing the stature of Swamp Angel as a whole is Li-Ping Geng’s Canadian critical edition, which footnotes more than 350 substantive textual variants and an equal number of accidentals existing among the archived manuscript versions of the novel and the differing Canadian and American editions published in 1954. These notes and Geng’s exemplary editorial essay titled “The Making of Swamp Angel” give us rich insights into Wilson’s creative process and suggest further ways of interpreting her work. This edition also contains four new readings of the novel, including a study of region by Burke Cullen, further reflections on self and the word by Anjali Bhelande, and a discourse analysis of Wilson’s language by Janet Giltrow.

Klein’s study of mothering in Wilson’s work and Geng’s edition of Swamp Angel should be acquired by both academic and public libraries. In fact, a lengthy second chapter of Klein’s book titled “Mother-Daughter Theory: From Separation to Connection” will be extremely useful for students and general readers alike for its concise outline of forty years of feminist reasoning. These books represent literary criticism and editing of a very high order. They are excellent additions to the scholarly literature surrounding Ethel Wilson, one of the foremothers of Canadian writing, and are again confirmation from afar that she is a writer with a wide reach.

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MLA: Stouck, David. Ethel Wilson's Mothers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 148 - 149)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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