Ethel Wilson

The Little Shadows

The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott)

“‘I want to be honest,’ she said. ‘I don’t much care about honour’” (465).

Endicott’s Shadows relates the lives of three sisters—Aurora, Clover, and Bella—and their mother, as the three pitch their “sister act” for the early 20th-century vaudeville stage across Canada and the northern United States. While they dream of stardom and earning “a thousand a week,” they are all too aware that they are only a few missteps away from penniless, but both poverty and passion push them onward. 

Endicott’s supporting cast, too, is wonderfully developed. “Vaudeville people… [are] used to separation” (453), but they enjoy reunions all the more for it, and acts, performers, and vaudeville families pop up again and again, at different theatres and in new permutations all around the circuit and through the sisters’ lives. Early on, for instance, the girls encounter another sister act, the Simple (later, Saucy) Soubrettes, and while the Soubrettes are the stronger performers at the time, the girls become not enemies, but colleagues and friends. The Soubrettes, too, are the sisters’ first glimpse into the darker side of vaudeville, Mercy, the oldest, having been forced to give the theatre manager a “French job” to ensure their billing. Like anywhere, vaudeville is not always safe for the sisters, but Endicott handles her material—which includes rape, suicide, and war—gently, intelligently, and with great compassion for the injured. 

Having recently attended a preview screening of the incredible film, Testament of Youth, I’ve been thinking (once again) about the First World War, and though fiction where Testament is based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, Shadows, too, captures the war’s impact on the lives of women at home (and Canadian women, to boot).

If you liked this, check out:

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

If you liked this, check out:

  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

The Innocent Traveller

The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

For readers 13 years and up

“But Father laid no Commands upon them. He only said, “Let them be, Mother. I hope when I die that I shall have friends in the many mansions and they won’t all think like me. Let them be.”

“The metaphors are not mixed. The drop of water, the bird, the water-glider, the dancer, the wind on the canal, and Topaz, are all different and all the same.” 

I first read this novel while in a class on Canadian fiction, and let it be known throughout the land, from sea to sea: I love it. The Innocent Traveller is the story of Topaz Edgeworth, who lives to be 100 and spends one half  of her life in England, and the other in Vancouver. There is nothing special about Topaz, and that’s the point. The fact of the matter is that she is an absolute delight, whether as a child explaining indoor plumbing to Matthew Arnold, a young woman confronting an unrequited love, a chaperoned sister embarrassing her brother at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or an older woman learning to ride a bicycle,* or as a speaker laying a smackdown on her racist friends.

Topaz Edgeworth, quite simply, is the bomb, and The Innocent Traveller not only gives us a novel’s worth of her, but also of the women of her family (including her sisters, her niece, her mother and step-mother, family friends, and her Minerva Club), the men, too, (including her devoted brother, John), and Vancouver in the first half of the twentieth-century. (Ethel Wilson, born in 1888, based this novel on her own experiences and her own relations: You can find her in the novel as Rose.)

In all seriousness, for whatever reason, I rarely cry over novels. (I mean rarely—I could count them on one hand.) This, though, was one of them. I want to quote everything, so I guess you’ll just have to go read it, and form your own opinion.

*”The bicycle intentionally fell on them both and knocked them down. This bicycle was very ill-tempered and ingenious, and was given to doing this kind of thing when possible on purpose.”

If you liked it, check out:

  • A Kind of Courage (Colleen Heffernan)
  • Swamp Angel (Ethel Wilson) — I haven’t read this one, but it is one of Wilson’s best-known novels.
  • Crackpot (Adele Wiseman) — I recommend 16+ here, friends

Pick up a pen!

  • Who in your family should be commemorated? Record their stories for yourself and for the future, and if you can talk to them about it, do!