Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Edwardian Vancouver

Feb 28, 2016

I have been reading Ethel Wilson's autobiographical novel, The Innocent Traveller, looking for a version of pre-World-War-One Vancouver told by someone who was there. Wilson, then Ethel Bryant, a ten-year-old orphan, came out from England in 1898 to be raised by her grandmother and aunt and the three women lived together in the city's West End for the next twenty years.

The Innocent Traveller is Wilson's account of that period. "It was the 'end of steel,' the beginning of the Pacific, and the people thought that possibly the place had a future. Who could tell." Her view does not often stray from the leafy streets of the West End, home to the city's Anglo elite at the time, but there are occasional forays into the downtown where our young heroine on occasion sees the prostitutes from the Dupont Street brothels sauntering down the sidewalk "with a swaying of opulent hips and bosom, looking softly yet alertly from lustrous eyes set in masks of rose and white. 'Aunt Rachel, Aunt Rachel, look at those pretty ladies, who are they, just look!' But Aunt Rachel did not look."

Back in her own neighbourhood, Rose (who is Wilson in the book) is taught to swim at English Bay by the famous Barbadian lifeguard Joe Fortes. "Joe Fortes saved several people from drowning; some of them were worth saving and some were not worth saving in the slightest..." At one point a great scandal erupts in polite society when the leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union is seen "bathing in the arms of a black man."

The Innocent Traveller is a charming account of Edwardian Vancouver and at times the reader is brought up short by a sight or a sound that evokes the eternal city, the city that still is. “Sometimes the sea-gulls fly over the city streets, and their mewing cries disturb the busy or distracted minds of the townspeople going about their business. Something shakes for an instant the calm of a man crossing the street when he hears the cry of a gull above the traffic, something that is not a sound but a disturbing, forgotten, unnamed desire, a memory…  The cry of the wheeling gulls in the city streets.”

My own family has a tenuous link to Ethel Wilson. For a few years in the 1970s my parents lived in the same Kitsilano apartment building as the novelist who by that time was a widow in failing health and no longer writing. She died in 1980. The BC Book Prize for fiction is named in her honour.