Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson

  • Educated in seething back alleys
  • Abandoned by worthless parents

  • Waitress by day and lost woman by night

You gotta love ever-reliable smarminess of the guys who used to come up with the cover blurbs for old paperbacks. These lines are on the back of the copy of Lilly’s Story that I picked off the dollar cart sitting outside Magus Books while in Seattle last month.

Yes, at the start of the book, Lilly Waller is a waitress. But the rest is baseless or mostly baseless.

Well, whatever it takes to get the keisters in the seats–or the books into the hands of the keister owners.

In reality, Lilly’s Story is sensitive character study written by Ethel Wilson, a Canadian writer who didn’t publish her first book until she was almost 60, and for whom an annual prize for best work of fiction written in British Columbia is named. The story pivots on a single decision, made by a young, scared and extremely naive woman, that leads her to live most of her life in suspicion and fear.

From the battered condition of the paperback and its lurid cover and blurb, I didn’t expect much, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the writing so simple yet subtle. Most of the story takes place around the turn of the 20th century, when Victorian manners constrained people to dealing with such things as a child born out of wedlock tangentially. Lilly herself–a rather stupid, if hard-working girl–only makes matters worse by her own ignorance of others’ perspectives and meanings. Throughout the book, she often takes extreme decisions in response to the slightest indications of trouble.

As a character study, Lilly’s Story is well served by the short novel form. A full length novel could only have been achieved through liberal use of padding or extraneous detours into the lives and minds of other characters–something that would have been unfathomable given Lilly’s state of bewilderment when it came to understanding much of what was going on around her. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t quite short enough, and whether to pad out the story or to satisfy the public with a happy ending, Wilson stapled onto her fine sketch an implausible outcome completely contrary to the instincts reflected in Lilly’s choice throughout the preceding 30+ years.

My copy is too battered to provide a good scan of the cover, so I’ve used one of a more proper and serious paperback edition for this post. You can find the garish version at Consumed and Judged, which reviewed the book late last year. Lilly’s Story was later paired with another short novel, “Tuesday and Wednesday,” and published as The Equations of Love.

Most of Wilson’s books were reissued about 20 years ago as part of the New Canadian Library series, but it appears none of them is still in print, according to Amazon. However, Persephone Books, which reissued her first novel, Hetty Dorval, back in 2005, still reports that it has copies for sale.

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952

1 thought on “Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson

  1. I’m always pleased to see Ethel Wilson recognized, particularly outside Canada. While she’s not ignored here, she’s not accorded anywhere near the attention she deserves. I think you’re spot on – “simple and subtle” captures her style.

    A couple of small corrections, if I may, The Equations of Love (Toronto & London: Macmillan, 1952) predates the separate publication of Lilly’s Story. According to biographer David Stouck, Harper wasn’t interested in a book comprised of two novellas. The NCL Wilsons are still in print. The current edition of The Equations of Love features an Afterword by Alice Munro.

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