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Posts Tagged ‘Ethel Wilson’

Hetty Dorval Persephone book 58, is a modern classic in Canadian literature. A slim volume it is a delightful quick read, that could be read in one sitting. There is an ambiguity about the titular character which I found especially interesting.

Frances (Frankie) Burnaby is just a young girl when Mrs Dorval comes to Lytton in British Columbia. Her arrival causes some discussion in the town that impresses Frankie and her friend Ernestine with whose family she lives during the week. Frankie’s own family live on a farm fifteen miles out of town, and Frankie is trusted with riding between her home and the town each weekend so she can spend Friday afternoon to Sunday evening with her family. During the week Frankie is happy with Ernestine and her family, going to the public school as well as receiving French lessons at the convent. She and Ernestine enjoy taking walks out of the town, hanging round the railway station, seeing what’s going on. They witness the arrival of Mrs Dorval’s furniture and are immediately curious. The two girls decide to go to Mrs Dorval’s house and see if they can see her through the windows. The woman they see is Mrs Broom – who takes care of Hetty Dorval and has arrived ahead of her to set up the house. 

“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.”

When Frankie finally meets Hetty Dorval it is accidentally. Frankie is riding back to town from her parent’s farm when she comes across Mrs Dorval riding the same way. Frankie falls into conversation with a woman who immediately fascinates her with her beauty, youth and poise. Hetty invites Frankie to tea and makes her promise to not tell anyone she has visited – hiding in another room Frankie witnesses the non-too subtle dismissal of the local clergyman. Frankie visits Hetty several times where Mrs Broom – aka Mouse is always in attendance and frequently on the receiving end of Hetty’s irritation, although it is clear she gives as good as she gets.

When Frankie finally comes clean to her parents about her visits to Mrs Dorval – who they have never met – she is made to promise to stop her association with her immediately. It would seem that stories have followed Hetty from Shanghai to Lytton and popular opinion is firmly against her.

Frankie loses sight of Hetty for a few years, as she goes away to school shortly afterwards and Hetty ends up leaving Lytton too. After Frankie leaves school she and her mother take a trip to England. In the way that only ever happens in fiction, Frankie leaves the wilds of Canada, and on a trip to England bumps into her enigmatic former neighbour not once but twice.

“I turned as soon as I felt it was safe, and I feel now that before I turned I felt a pricking in my thumbs. Perhaps not. Well, I turned, and by this time the woman had stopped looking in our direction and was again listening to the two men in a way infinitely gentle and pretty. It was Hetty. I gave a little gasp. ‘What, Frankie?’ asked Mother.

‘Mother,’ I said very quietly, ‘you won’t believe me, but that’s Mrs Dorval.’

Mother turned and faced me, all seriousness. ‘Frankie! You don’t mean that!’ She paused ‘So that is the Menace! Frankie I can’t believe it. Not that girl! She can’t be Mrs Dorval.’”

In England Frankie stays with her mother’s godfather Mr Trethewey and his son Richard and daughter Molly. Frankie is really happy, becoming close to both Molly and Richard, in time she finds herself falling in love with Richard. Then one day while out with Richard and Molly she bumps into Hetty again, who she had seen briefly aboard ship. Frankie sees Richard and Molly become as instantly fascinated – as she once was, with Hetty Dorval. Hetty is newly widowed, but as compelling as ever. Frankie is older now, and she sees Hetty quite differently to how she did when she was younger.

It is Frankie’s changing perspective that is most interesting. When she first meets Hetty she is an innocent, she responds to Hetty quite naturally, uninfluenced by society’s prejudices. When she meets Hetty again, she has more awareness of the gossip that followed Hetty to Lytton and why her parents stopped her seeing her. Hetty is a fascinating character – she tries to keep herself to herself holding the community of Lytton at arm’s length. We know little about her past, but she is clearly self-absorbed and quite capable of throwing off her past with practised ease.

Hetty Dorval is a wonderfully ambiguous novella with a fabulous sense of place.

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