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Hetty Dorval

by Ethel Wilson
Persephone book no:

57 58 59

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A Well Full of Leaves
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Emily Carr 'Forest', 1940 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinberg, Ontario)

ISBN 9781903155479

The first novel by one of Canada's most distinguished novelists, written in 1947, this is a quiet, subtle, morally complex story set in British Columbia about a young girl's growth from innocence to maturity.

The title character, Hetty Dorval, seems to have behaved unconventionally, indeed immorally ('a very ugly story has followed her from Shanghai to Vancouver'). But is narrator Frankie Burnaby's adult perception of Hetty to be preferred to that of her childish innocence when she first met her? There are thus many ways to read this book. Is Hetty objectively a 'Menace'? Or is this a novel about the pernicious effect of gossip and about John Donne's 'no man is an island' quoted on the frontispiece? Hetty has chosen to live outside society, but perhaps she should not be condemned for this; perhaps she should be granted some of the primaeval, elemental qualities of the British Columbia landscape. Its vivid descriptions of mid-twentieth century life in British Columbia, both in a small town called Lytton where the Fraser River meets the Thompson River as well as in Vancouver where Frankie briefly goes to school, make this short, compelling novel all the more memorable.  

The author Ethel Wilson was an orphan herself and often wrote about women forced to navigate a difficult and alien social world alone in order to live an independent and meaningful life. As Charlotte Moore put it in the Spectator, Hetty Dorval is 'a psychological journey' that is 'reminiscent of Edith Wharton or of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, but is clearer and prettier than either. Ethel Wilson sketches people and places with marvellous economy... the novel has one of the most resonant and suggestive concluding sentences I've ever come across. It's a strange little treat.' 


The endpaper is a late 1930s cotton fabric manufactured in the United States; it has a charm and a freshness appropriate for a young girl living in the country.

Read What Readers Say

Fleur in her World (blogger)

Every character is perfectly formed; every scene is set out seemingly effortlessly and with wonderful clarity… ‘Hetty Dorval’ is a simple story, but it grips from beginning to end.

Elena Seymenliyska, ’The Guardian’

First published in 1947, Canadian Ethel Wilson's first novel is a charming period piece, told in a lovely sing-song voice. It is the 1930s, and Frankie is a 12-year-old farmer's daughter in British Columbia. A bright, sensitive child who loves the "flying crying skein of wild geese", she longs to know more about the urbane, enigmatic newcomer, Hetty Dorval. With her flirt's nose and an over-full upper lip, Hetty is the talk of the town. Frankie becomes entangled in the web of a woman who engages the attention of too many men and doesn't bother to placate women. The story moves to London in the early 40s, where Hetty and Frankie meet again, this time as rivals, before the dramatic truth about Hetty is revealed in a film-noirish denouement. Wilson's brief novel is immaculately written, and the author's letter to her publisher, politely rejecting most editorial changes, provides a fascinating appendix to a beautifully produced edition.

Categories: Overseas

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