Your novella Hetty Dorval (1947), about a childhood affection that gradually turns into a confrontation of good and evil, had a puzzling effect on me. It is a ‘tale of two readings’, as two confluent rivers, colliding.
The story opens in the 1930s, when the mysterious Hetty Dorval moves to Lytton, a small town in British Columbia. Mrs. Dorval is a beautiful and unconventional woman, who supposedly has a husband no one knows nothing of. She never attends church; enjoys riding alone; and avoids receiving visits from the town people. She arrives with her fancy furniture, her dog Sailor, and her grumpy companion, Mrs. Broom. Such an exotic woman does not fail to excite curiosity in the small town, and soon rumours spread that the eponymous anti-heroine must be seeking refuge from a past of wrongdoings, and that she is “a woman of no reputation”.
Twelve-year-old Frances Burnaby (Frankie), whose parents lived in a nearby ranch, could help but feel drawn to this fascinating woman. After a chance meeting in the forest surrounding Lytton, a bond is formed between the two over a shared experience of seeing the flight of wild geese. Frankie was amazed at the fact that a stranger like Mrs. Dorval could not only share with her the same feeling over the event, but also speak freely about it, unashamedly. “We didn’t seem to be in our bodies at all, did we?” This seemed to set Hetty apart from the other adults in Frankie’s life so far.
Right after this experience, Frankie and Mrs. Dorval stopped on the bridge to look at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, “the bright water hurrying to be lost in the brown.” This collision of waters mirrors not only the encounter of the two characters, but also their sharing of experience: “It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other, and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quantity than before.”
Hetty soon welcomes Frankie into her home, but persuades her to keep the visits secret from her parents. Mrs. Dorval fears that other neighbours may feel free to visit her, if they know Frankie is a regular in her house. “I will not be called upon. I will not have my life complicated here”, says the mysterious Hetty. Frankie agrees, feeling both flattered and uncomfortable in committing her first deception: she gives in to temptation; she is “under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”.
However, Frankie’s parents inevitably find out. Despite the fact that they know nothing about the newcomer, they disapprove of the friendship, and show concern over the fact that Mrs. Dorval might be a bad influence, ‘a woman of no reputation’. A divide immediately forms in Frankie’s affection for Hetty: although she has a strong intuition that her friend is a good person, this first impression is shattered by the fact that her parents have told her not to trust the exotic woman. “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.”
From this moment of rupture, we follow the relationship between the two characters as it evolves and changes. The story is narrated in first person by Frankie: we follow her path through her time in a boarding school in Vancouver, then her crossing to England to attend school, and her brief time in Paris. While Frankie comes of age, her path will overlap with Hetty’s many times, randomly, as she and Hetty Dorval run into each other over the years. We will follow the narration as Frankie tries to piece together their story, until the moment they met for the last in London, in the early 40’s.
Frankie warns us from the beginning: this is not a story about her, nor about Hetty. In fact, she confesses that, to this day, she does not know Hetty’s whole story – and the little she knows about that mysterious woman, she does so either by inference or chance. This is a story “of the places and ways known to me in which Hetty Dorval has appeared”.
It is interesting that Frankie have made such a remark, because what will follow in her narration diverts from her confession of lack of knowledge, and runs in the opposite direction: that of a strong indictment against Hetty. As we see the newcomer through the girl’s eyes while she is growing up, the early infatuation leaves place to disenchantment and, eventually, rivalry. Hetty’s image changes as Frankie changes herself, as she is growing up.
And it is precisely at this point that I was confronted with ‘the tale of two readings’ I mentioned at the beginning of this letter: either we have an indictment, or a confession of guilt. But here we seem to have both at once.
On a first reading, we have a tale of Frankie’s disenchantment about Hetty; a tale about a girl who gradually finds out that the woman she thought innocent was a treacherous, immoral, manipulative person who was guilty of her own downfall; a tale about a girl who finally grows up when she is able to confront that woman, and drive her away forever; a tale about a girl who is entangled in different forms of deceit, every time she meets this ‘fallen woman’. Or does she?
Here we have a second reading, colliding with the first, like the two rivers in the story: not an indictment against Hetty, but a confession of Frankie’s own guilt. Here we do not have a tale of a girl lured into deceit, but of a girl who consciously chooses to deceive; a tale about the way affection can get distorted by gossip; a tale about a girl who not only assumes moral superiority over a woman she does not completely knows, but also condemns her on the flimsy basis of hearsay and inference.
Because Frankie presents Hetty as she remembered; because this perspective changes over time, as Frankie grows older; and because Frankie herself admits that she does not know the whole story, we never know which tale we are reading: is it the direct indictment of Hetty, or Frankie’s subdued confession of guilt? A literal interpretation would speak for the first, but would inevitably carry evidence of the second – besides rendering the book fairly melodramatic and stereotypical. Perhaps we have both: the two characters are guilty in their own ways.
The fact that we can only see Hetty through Frankie’s own interpretation of the events renders the narrator fairly unreliable. And this is a highlight of the book for me: the narration intertwines the different ways Frankie, both as a child and as a young woman, interpreted Hetty’s story – as if Frankie herself were unsure about what to think of the ‘fallen woman’. It is difficult to sort out these two perspectives – as it is to separate the waters of two colliding rivers: evil and innocence are layered in Hetty, and those layers are not to be detached from one another. As Frankie’s imagination as a child has invested Hetty with allure, her imagination as an adult has invested the newcomer with contempt.
But is it all in her head then? Was Frankie’s adult viewpoint more accurate than the one she had as a child? Or was it distorted by the assumptions made against Hetty by the people around her? Wasn’t Frankie’s viewpoint as an adult as superficial as the one she made as a child? Can both perspectives be right and wrong at the same time, in different ways?
You focus your attention upon the binaries of experience and innocence, good and evil, like the pair of rivers confronting each other, mingling with each other. Did Frankie become wiser with age, and thus was able to see Hetty for what she really was? Or did Frankie’s judgements become narrower and more conventional as she grew up, thus rendering an equally distorted image of Hetty, albeit in an opposite direction? Are both viewpoints misconceived?
As Frankie gains experience of the conventional rules and social expectations, she moves farther away from innocence and loses affection for Hetty – as if both loss of affection and loss of innocence were interchangeable states. Frankie deliberately moves away from the shared experience of the ‘loud music of the wild geese’ – the love of wildness, the spontaneity that sets Hetty apart from the conventional standards of the rest of the town people, the innocence that unite the two characters. Frankie deliberately moves towards a conventional idea of innocence that differs greatly from this original wildness, but is more acceptable, less ambiguous and easier to discern. Frankie makes us think that she has been spoilt by her early contact with ‘the fallen woman’, as the Thompson River has been spoilt by the murky waters of the Fraser. But it may just have been the opposite: her bright innocence was lost in the dark waters of public opinion.
Perhaps a clear distinction between social conventions and moral good must be made here: the former is more visible. You return to the book’s epigraph – ‘Good is as visible as green’, by John Donne – in a scene where Frankie compares Hetty to her mother: “In my mother, good was visible. I thought of others in whom good was visible as green, but it was not visible in Hetty. I could not tell what Hetty was really like.” But, because good can be difficult to discern, does it mean that it turns into its opposite? Even Frankie does not know. Real good can be exceedingly difficult to recognize. It may even change according to shade and colour.
The irony of the ending lies in the fact that Frankie deliberately makes the same mistake that she condemned in Hetty: driving her away, Frankie forgoes assuming responsibility for her former friend, and thus ‘islanded herself’ by refusing the stretched hand of affection. Frankie forgoes Hetty’s only plea: “’Try and stay my friend. Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend’”. When Frankie says she wants to live her own life, and asks for Hetty to keep away from her, Hetty replies: “I understand exactly.” Here the two of them seem to share more than the loud music of the wild geese.
I still don’t know which of the two tales you intended to write. A conventional tale of lessons learned and personal growth? Or a subtle tale of misconception, followed by self-righteous satisfaction, overcome later by plain guilt? Maybe my very question is misconceived: good and bad do not struggle for dominance; on the contrary, they flow into each other, like the waters of a river and its tributary.
“The valley of the Fraser lay broad below, lit by the September afternoon, and the geese, not too high, were now nearly overhead, travelling fast. The fluid arrow was an acute angle wavering and changing, one line straggling out far behind the other. It cleft the skies, and as always I felt an exultation, an uprush within me joining that swiftly moving company and that loud music of the wild geese. As we gazed, the moving arrow of great birds passed out of sight on its known way to the south, leaving only the memory of sight and sound in the still air. We drew a long breath.
‘God,’ said Mrs. Dorval. Then, ‘What a sight!’ (…)
“Can we often see that?” she asked. “Will it ever come again? Oh Frankie, when we stood there and the geese went over, we didn’t seem to be in our bodies at all, did we? And I seemed to be up with them where I’d really love to be. Did you feel like that?
That was so exactly how the wild geese always made me feel, that I was amazed. Perhaps Mother and Father felt like that because they, too, dearly loved watching the geese passing overhead, but somehow we would never never have said that to each other – it would have made us all feel uncomfortable. But Mrs. Dorval said it naturally, and was not at all uncomfortable, and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to agree with her without confusion and apology” – Ethel Wilson, Hetty Dorval
“’I have come as far away from people as I can, and yet they go on being tiresome. They make scenes and complicate life terribly. I don’t want to have my life complicated and I can’t bear scenes. I don’t really like women, Frankie – except Mouse, of course – they’re the worst, but I thought that you, being just a child … and when I saw how you loved the wild geese, I liked you.’ I nodded.
She looked at the fire a minute and then went on. ‘I know what they’ve told you, Frankie. They’ve told you I’m bad. You must try to believe,’ she turned her brilliant look on me, ‘that I’m not bad, and that if you knew a little more, you’d understand about it. Can you believe that? … Do you think I’m bad, Frankie?’ she said, laughing a little.
I almost whispered, ‘no.’
‘Try and stay my friend,’ she said. ‘Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend.'” – Ethel Wilson, Hetty Dorval
Was this woman of unknown experience really ever a girl like me? — Ethel Wilson, Hetty Dorval
“Yes, I remembered, standing there in London at the foot of a small shabby brass bedstead listening to Hetty, looking at her and wondering, “Do nocturnal animals feel like that? What is Hetty?” I remembered the yelling of the coyotes in the hills, and the moon shining on the hills and the river; the smell of the sage; and the sudden silence as the coyotes stopped for a moment in their singing all together. I remembered the two coloured rivers. And my home. What a strange Hetty, after such an evening, calling up this magic — for it was a disturbing magic to me, the genius of my home — and Hetty’s smart wrinkly gloves lying on the floor, her little black hat lying there too. I remembered Lytton, and the rivers, and the Bridge, all as real as ever in British Columbia while we looked at each other in London, yet saw them plainly.” — Ethel Wilson, Hetty Dorval