Casting for the Rainbow: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel

Wilson, Ethel. Swamp Angel. Harper & Bros., 1954. Ed. George Bowering. UBC Library-Macmillan, 1990. E-book.

If you had taken a Canadian literature course in the late sixties and early seventies, you would probably remember that much of the focus of what was included in reading lists then—a time when Canadianists were fighting English Departments to have their specialty recognised as something worthy of attention—how much of what we read seemed to focus on surviving geography. A few years later, I was assigned to teach an introduction to Canadian literature, and at the end of the thirteen-week semester I asked my students what sense they had of what made literature Canadian: they said, “snow.” I was beset by something like a cross between amusement and a total sense of failure.

Oddly enough, perhaps, despite my long ago experience with Canadian Literature in the classroom, I had neither been required to read Swamp Angel nor had I assigned it to others. Therefore, I read it for the first time a couple of months ago. I knew it was regarded as probably Wilson’s best novel, and if I had any preconceptions about the work they were that its setting would be important.

This I found to be the case. If you want, you can map Maggie Lloyd’s journey, though some of my fellow reading group members rather disagreed about Wilson’s complete accuracy.

However, while Wilson does indeed celebrate the physical landscape of British Columbia, the more important aspect of the novel lies in Wilson’s empathic delineating and understanding of her characters’ personal navigations of their own inner geography. The novel follows Maggie Lloyd as she walks out on her second husband Edward Vardoe and finds work in a fishing lodge in BC’s interior. Much bereaved, her first husband Tom Lloyd having been killed in action during the war, and both her son and her father, who had taught her to fish and to tie flies, also dead, Maggie, “with no-one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity” and “married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes” (ch. 1).

Notice that juxtaposition of “compassion and fatal stupidity.” It’s just one example of Wilson’s tone in the novel. Yes, Wilson is very understanding of her characters, but she isn’t saccharine. Her vision is sharp and appraising, as is that of one of the major characters in the novel Mrs. Severence, the owner of the gun that gives the novel its name: the swamp angel. Mrs. Severence, who was once a juggler, might now be described as a puppeteer pulling the strings of those around her. A benevolent and manipulative ogress, in many ways, she is, to my mind, a far more interesting character than Maggie Lloyd, and her function in the novel though supporting is definitely not secondary.

Two other characters whose own stories act as foils to Maggie’s are Vera Gunnarson, wife of Haldar Gunnarson who owns the fishing resort where Maggie finds sanctuary and Hilda Severence who marries Albert Cousins. Swamp Angel is very much an examination of women’s lives, and I found this aspect of the novel of far more interest than its being Canadian.

In his Afterword, Bowering recalls early critics of Wilson’s work who saw her as “an unambitious chronicler, innocent of intellectual and moral matters but somehow gifted in limning character.” He takes the rest of his essay to show just how untrue that is and concludes that “Wilson’s feigned simplicity is the most complicated trick of all.”

Where I might disagree with Bowering is in his use of the word “feigned,” a word that suggests an intent to deceive the reader. I would argue there is no authorial deception in Swamp Angel. Wilson tells it as it is in a style that is simple because it is acerbic. A sharp razor blade is a simple thing, but it is also deadly. What is fascinating about this novel is Wilson’s ability to balance this kind of duality underscoring that life is part of what Nell Severence calls “the miraculous interweaving of creation” (ch. 46).

Earlier, I commented that Nell Severence is more interesting than Maggie Lloyd and called her a “puppeteer.” There is, of course, another puppeteer at work, the author herself. Any work of fiction is itself an “interweaving of creation.”  When we consider Wilson’s sensitivity to image and use of metaphor, her ongoing motifs of fishing, of birds, her presentation of the tension between the elements of earth, water, and air, and the way she ensures that these facets of her work support and illustrate her plot and characters, we realise her threads are woven silky fine.

Her vision is neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic; rather, it looks at the world’s apparent randomness and sees cohesion and acceptance that “we have no immunity” (ch. 46) from life because “we are all in it together” (ch. 46).

I finished this novel aware of a faint sense of melancholy but aware I had been engaged with a very finely crafted work.

 

 

 

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