My first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson. It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.
The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents. For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating. When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too. “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out. And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:
He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’. Father stopped short there. Apparently he could have said more. In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself. But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.
Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris. Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation. By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.
It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton. Apparently, these appeal to many other readers. Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur? Regardless, it is a minor quibble. Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured. A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!