Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson – A Canadian Novella – A Post a Day in May

Hetty Dorval is Canadian author Ethel Wilson’s first novel, or novella. It was published in 1947. I came across this book on Heavenali’s blog who reviewed the Persephone edition.

The book, which is mostly set in British Columbia, tells the story of how Frankie Burnaby fell under the spell of a mysterious stranger, Hetty Dorval. The story, told in first person by Frankie herself, begins when young Frankie, an impressionable schoolgirl, meets the elegant, beautiful, and charismatic Hetty Dorval. Mrs Dorval has bought a cottage, far off any other houses, and lives there alone with a housekeeper. Hetty who tells Frankie that she doesn’t really like people visiting her, nonetheless, invites Frankie to her house, where she gives her tea and sings for her. Before Frankie leaves, Hetty makes her promise, not to tell anyone. It won’t take long until loyal Frankie gets in trouble because of this. Her parents find out and forbid her to ever visit Hetty again. They won’t tell her why but it’s clear that Hetty has a reputation.

After this initial meeting ends so abruptly, Frankie doesn’t see Hetty anymore and shortly after, Hetty moves away. But that’s not the last Frankie or the reader have heard of Mrs Dorval. Over the next years, Frankie and Hetty will cross paths several times. Every time, Frankie is a little older and every time, she sees more clearly what kind of person Hetty Dorval is. Soon there’s nothing left of the early enchantment but total disillusion.

Hetty Dorval is a short novel. It is flawed but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment. Hetty is a fascinating character. She’s a free spirit but, sadly, also painfully narcissistic. I enjoyed seeing how Frankie’s perception of her changes over the years.

What I liked the most about this short book (just over 100 pages) were the descriptions of the landscape. Most of the story takes place in British Colombia, at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers. Young Frankie is often on horseback and explores her surroundings. I had another picture of Canada in my mind. Not one where sage-covered hills abound. The way Ethel Wilson describes it is so beautiful.

Here’s a short quote that illustrates this. It’s taken form the end of the book. Hetty is speaking.

“Do you remember that mare I had in Lytton? Juniper? Wasn’t she a beauty? Sometimes when the moon was full I used to saddle Juniper and ride at night down to the Bridge, and across, and up to the Lillooet road and off into the hills. And Frankie, it was so queer and beautiful and like nothing else. Though there was nothing round you but the hills and the sage, all very still except for the sound of the river, you felt life in everything and in the moon too. All the shapes different at night. And such stars. And once in the moonlight the geese going over. I remember the shadows the moonlight made on the ground, great round sage-bushes all changed at night into something alive, and everything else silver. And once or twice the northern lights – yes, really. And the coyotes baying in the hills to the moon – all together, do you remember, Frankie, such queer high yelling as they made, on, and on, and on?” (p.105)

What also seems worth mentioning is Ethel Wilson’s knack for ominous sentences. I can’t explain this in detail as it would ruin the book but in one case, she uses it to foreshadow and in another to hint at a possible tragedy in a character’s life. The result is uncanny.

Overall this was a unique and enjoyable reading experience.