Monday 9 December 2013

Hetty Dorval - Ethel Wilson

Somehow I'd forgotten, when noting down books to read for my Reading Presently project, that quite a few of my unread Persephones had originally been gifts.  So there might be a little flurry of them as I come to the end of the year... and first up is the shortest, which accompanied me on my trip to the Lake District (and which I read in its entirety on the train): Hetty Dorval (1947) by Ethel Wilson. (Thanks, Becca!)

Hetty Dorval isn't really the heroine of the book, and she certainly isn't its narrator - that title goes to Frankie (Frances) Burnaby - but she is perhaps its leading figure.  Frankie first sees her on her arrival in their small British Columbian community, and is enchanted (and a little intimidated) by Hetty's beauty and lack of convention:
We walked our horses side by side, I feeling at the same time diffident and important.  Mrs. Dorval did not 'make conversation'.  I discovered that she never did.  It began to seem so easy and natural riding beside her there and no one making an effort at conversation that I was able to steal a few looks at her side face.  This was especially easy because she hardly seemed to know that I was beside her; she just took me for granted in a natural fashion.  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.
Frankie is only a child, and does not understand the mystery of the woman - but agrees to keep coming to visit her secretly, flattered because Hetty Dorval refuses to have any other people call.  And, of course, it all ends rather calamitously.

The novel follows the various different times that the paths of Frankie and Hetty overlap, as the narrator realises and mentions, when she is a young adult:
But this is not a story of me [...] but of the places and ways known to me in which Hetty Dorval has appeared.  It is not even Hetty Dorval's whole story because to this day I do not know Hetty's whole story and she does not tell.  I only knew the story of Hetty by inference and by strange chance.  Circumstances sometimes make it possible to know people with sureness and therefore with joy or some other emotion, because continuous association with them makes them as known and predictable as the familiar beloved contours of home, or else the place where one merely waits for the street car, or else the dentist's drill.  Take your choice.  But one cannot invade and discover the closed or hidden places of a person like Hetty Dorval with whom one's associations, though significant, are fragmentary, and for the added reason that Hetty does not speak - of herself.  And therefore her gently impervious and deliberately concealing exterior does not permit her to be known.
It is a curious and interesting way to structure a novel, because it leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness and an obviously skewed sequence of events.  Both factors enhance the mystery and complexity of Hetty, seen through the narrator's evolving eyes.  The early enchantment becomes, inevitably, disenchantment - as Hetty's past is revealed to show her not only disliked, but dislikeable.  Hetty Dorval is a intriguing counterpart to another Persephone book, Susan Glaspell's Fidelity, and all others of its reactionary ilk which sought, George Bernard Shaw style, to show that the fallen woman need not be immoral.  That was so much the dominant narrative of interwar fiction that a 'conservative' viewpoint would be more revolutionary than a liberal one - or so it seems to me.

Not that Wilson is making any grandiose point about sexual morality - rather, she is depicting one woman's sexual morality, and the impact this has on another young girl growing up.  Hetty Dorval is psychologically so subtle that the narrative can read deceptively simply - but it is an impressively measured and restrained portrait of two women.  Well, restrained, that is, until the final section where things get suddenly melodramatic - but somehow it doesn't feel out of place; it is as though emotion had been repressed or held back for so much of the novel, that it has to burst out at some point.

The Persephone edition has an afterword by Northrop Frye, of all people, and an amusing and interesting letter from Ethel Wilson to her publisher, obviously in response to various corrections and suggestions - largely asking for them all to revert to her initial wording.  It's always great to see 'behind the scenes', and this is the sort of thing to which the reader all too seldom has access.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"This is a “small” story of ordinary dramas, but it illustrates a big truth that is easy to forget in a world that prizes the independent spirit." - Teresa, Shelf Love

"This is a book definitely worthy of its dove-grey cover and beautiful endpapers!" - Jane, Fleur in Her World

"This small book so captures the wild joy I feel in the wind, in nature, in prairies, hills and mountains." - Carolyn, A Few of My Favourite Books


  1. Always on my horizon are those Persephone books which I intend to get one day, either buying them myself or by dropping not so subtle hints at around this time of year. Hetty Dorval has been one I have not considered I would want. Why? I love the sound of it. Thank you Simon anoher one for my Persephone wishlist.

  2. I sometimes wonder if the interwar years offer more books with women's names in the title or whether I'm getting a false impression because of what is being republished (maybe Persephone likes women's names!). Naming is pretty significant (she says, vaguely but hopefully...).

  3. You said, "That was so much the dominant narrative of interwar fiction that a 'conservative' viewpoint would be more revolutionary than a liberal one - or so it seems to me." I'm finding this to be true as I read, but I probably haven't read near as widely from this era as you have. It would be interesting to see some book titles that do have a conservative viewpoint on the subject if you know of any.

  4. Sounds lovely as usual Simon. It does seem that you can rely on a Persephone for a good tale, whatever the background to it!

  5. Her 1954 novel "Swamp Angel" is also excellent. The heroine leaves her husband and moves north to work in a fishing camp.

  6. Simon, have you read A Far Cry yet? It is my favorite Persephone. I hope you will consider reading it next should you already own a copy.

  7. I was scared to read this review in case you didn't like this one! I love Ethel Wilson, and am glad that Persephone is sharing one of her titles. Some of her short stories are exceptionally good, too.


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at