Ethel Davis Bryant Wilson was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on January 20, 1888, to Robert William Bryant and Lila (Malkin) Bryant. Her mother died when she was only two, and her father took her to Staffordshire, England, to be reared by her maternal grandmother and successive aunts and uncles. Her family members were involved in a number of literary activities, including reading, journalism, and translation, and were acquainted with Matthew Arnold and Arnold Bennett. This literary atmosphere no doubt stimulated her interest in letters, and the literary allusions and quotations in her works demonstrate a comprehensive familiarity with the English tradition. Her father died when she was ten, and she went to Vancouver, British Columbia, to join her grandmother, who had moved there. Many of these family and early personal experiences are recounted in The Innocent Traveller, the semibiographical novel based on the life of her aunt.
In Vancouver, Wilson attended Miss Gordon’s School, but she was sent to Trinity Hall School in Southport, England, for her secondary education. In 1907, she graduated from Vancouver Normal School with a Second Class Teacher’s Certificate. Between 1907 and 1920, she taught in Vancouver elementary schools.
On January 4, 1921, Wilson married Wallace Wilson. Their marriage was a happy one, marked by much traveling in Canada, Europe, and around the Mediterranean, and the successful development of both their careers. Her husband became a respected physician; he studied internal medicine in Vienna in 1930, represented Canada at the British Medical Association’s convention in 1938 and at the World Health Organization in Paris in 1947, and was president of the Canadian Medical Association in 1946 and 1947. The relationship between the Wilsons may have provided details for the happy marriages and the deepening love relationships in Hetty Dorval, Lilly’s Story, and Love and Salt Water. The love of travel is also obvious in her work; travel is healing, broadening, and sensitizing to her characters, and Wilson’s ability to describe the essential atmosphere of various locales is one of her strongest attributes.
Wilson published her first short story in 1937, at the age of forty-nine, and another in 1939 before her career was interrupted by World War II. Although her husband was in the Canadian army, and although Wilson herself served by editing a Red Cross magazine between 1940 and 1945, she made little use of wartime experiences in her novels, except tangentially in The Innocent Traveller and Love and Salt Water. Only the short story “We Have to Sit Opposite” deals specifically with wartime problems.
It is likely that Wilson’s career in writing was encouraged by ill health. She was a victim of arthritis, which by 1956 had become so severe that she could not walk around in London, an experience she described in her essay “To Keep the Memory of So Worthy a Friend.” She wrote, “One of the advantages of being lame is that one can sit and think. . . . And so I often think and think.” In her last three novels, several major characters suffer handicaps, either physical or psychological, which affect their relationships with others in various ways and which must be transcended. No doubt her own disability enabled her to interpret this theme sympathetically.
The late 1940’s and the 1950’s were Wilson’s most productive years; all of her novels and most of her short stories and essays were written or published during that period. At the peak of her success, after the publication of Swamp Angel, she received three awards: an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 1955, a special medal from the Canada Council in 1961 for contributions to Canadian literature, and the Lorne Pierce Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Canada in 1964. Dr. Wilson died in 1966, and Ethel Wilson lived in retirement in Vancouver until her death in 1980.
Perhaps because Wilson did not attempt to follow literary trends, and perhaps also because she began publishing relatively late in life, her works did not have a dramatic effect on Canadian letters. She was publishing out of her generation, and her realism and understatement seemed somewhat old-fashioned to those authors who were following naturalistic trends. Still, she was influential in raising the quality of the art in Canada and in quietly introducing the theme of women “finding themselves” well before the theme became popular among feminists. Her heroines are not necessarily strong or aggressive, but they mature, meet the vicissitudes of their lives with determination and ingenuity, and for the most part succeed in small but important ways. Wilson’s treatment of this theme and her impeccable craftsmanship contributed significantly to the maturing of the novel in Canada.