Hetty Dorval

When I was in London last week, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Persephone bookshop with Claire (of Paperback Reader) and pick up a few short books in hopes of completing at least one for Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire and Verity of The B Files. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Persephone is a small London press that republishes little-known books, usually by 20th-century women.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson, originally published in 1947, was one of the shorter books that Claire recommended, and it was a great introduction to the world of Persephone Books. (Well, technically, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was my first Persephone, but I listened to the audiobook, so I didn’t get the experience of holding one of their lovely dove grey books or enjoying the beautiful endpapers with matching bookmarks. It seems to me that all of those elements are part of the Persephone experience.)

Frankie Barnaby, the narrator of Hetty Dorval, is just entering adolescence when she meets the vivacious Hetty Dorval, a new arrival to Lytton, the small British Columbia town where Frankie lives and attends school during the week, going back to her parents on weekends. Mrs Dorval welcomes Frankie into her home, but warns her not to tell anyone of these visits, lest Hetty’s neighbors get the idea that she wants visitors, and the last thing she wants is visitors. “I will not be called upon. I will not have my life complicated here,” she declares. “I do not propose to spend my time paying attention to all sorts of people.”

Frankie is uneasy about Hetty’s attitude, and especially about her desire that Frankie not even tell her parents about her visits, but she finds Hetty so interesting that she can’t stay away. Eventually, however, Frankie’s parents do find out about the visits, and they inform Frankie that she must not visit Hetty again because Hetty is a “woman of no reputation.”

Although Hetty claims the title of this book, the story is really all about Frankie’s growing up and her eventual understanding that people aren’t always what they seem. When Frankie is young, she can see Hetty’s glitz, glamour, and independence, but she does not see anything beyond the fun times they spend together. In fact, it’s not entirely clear to the reader whether Hetty is the “Menace” Frankie’s parents believe her to be. I couldn’t quite decide myself until the final chapters of the book.

Eventually, however, Frankie does learn the truth, and she must choose how to respond. Unlike Hetty, Frankie realizes that, as stated in the book’s epigraph by John Donne, “no man is an Iland, intire of it selfe.” Our choices, even seemingly trivial ones, do matter because our actions affect others. This is a “small” story of ordinary dramas, but it illustrates a big truth that is easy to forget in a world that prizes the independent spirit.

See other reviews at Paperback Reader and Fleur Fisher Reads.

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24 Responses to Hetty Dorval

  1. I’m pleased (and relieved) that you enjoyed this, Teresa. Your review has refreshed my memory of reading it last year; it actually has a lot in common with Every Eye, with the influence of an older woman on a younger woman’s life.

    Hetty Dorval was a book that called loudly to me last Persephone Reading Week (after reading Fleur Fisher’s review) and fortunately Verity had a copy she loaned me, which I read the same evening.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, You’re just trying to get me to read another Persephone this week, since you just happen to mention one you know I have ;) I’m hoping to snatch a little time for it this weekend, but we’ll see.

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  3. Kathleen says:

    I still haven’t had the pleasure of holding a Persephone in my hands, let alone reading one. I clicked on your link and am adding myself to the mailing list for the catalog!

  4. Frances says:

    Now I know a bit about yet another Persephone with which I was unfamiliar. By week’s end I will be wanting them all I’m afraid.

    You know that I am green with envy about your shop visit too, don’t you? Hope your trip was everything you wanted!

    • Teresa says:

      Frances, Visiting the shop made me want so many that I’d never heard of, and this week is making matters worse!

      And the trip was great! I’ll share a bit more on Sunday :)

  5. A Persephone set in my home province of British Columbia? Clearly, this must go on my TBR list! (a list that is growing at an alarming rate as this week wears on)

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, The book isn’t entirely set in British Columbia–large sections also take place in Europe–but she writes a lot about the countryside of Lytton and the geese and so on, so there’s definitely a sense of place there.

  6. thepygmygiant says:

    I own this, but hadn’t any idea what it was about – given my latent love of Canada, and short books(!), I’ll have to pick it up… but embroiled in Little Boy Lost at the mo.

    • Teresa says:

      Simon, This is a good one for a short read. I read the whole thing in the airport and on the plane trip home (and watched two movies besides).

      And Little Boy Lost is one of the Persephones I especially want to read once I’ve gone through the ones I have, so I’m eager to hear your thoughts on it!

  7. Simon T says:

    Oops, sorry, that last comment was from me – on my housemate’s computer!

  8. Iris says:

    This Persephone Reading Week is bad for my already-endless wishlist.

    I do hope I’ll experience the pleasure of holding a Persephone in my hands soon :)

  9. bookssnob says:

    I hadn’t heard much about this one before and now I am intrigued. I was sorry to have missed your visit to London Teresa but I’m glad you had a wonderful time!

  10. bybee says:

    ooooh Persephone! I’d gladly stay down in the Underworld for 6 months if I could possess some of these books.

  11. Verity says:

    Ooh, I hope you had fun visiting the shop with Claire – I was very envious!

    • Teresa says:

      Verity, I did enjoy the shop! It’s a lovely place.

      And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I almost went back the next day to get Fidelity by Susan Glaspell because I found myself regretting not purchasing it.

  12. rebeccareid says:

    This sounds like fun! If only these books were widely available…

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I know. It’s too bad. I was surprised to find that other bookstores in the UK besides the main shop actually carry them. I saw several in other stores in London. But as I mentioned at your blog, it’s worth wishlisting the ones you’re interested in at PBS and Bookmooch. I was really surprised to get several that way.

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  14. When I was in Lytton recently, I had such a strong sense of the period of Hetty Dorval (I love Ethel Wilson’s novels…) and kept wondering, as I walked through the little town, which house might have been Hetty’s… It’s a novel with the Thompson River and the dry hills above Lytton (and on the way to Lillooet where Frankie’s parents live) circling around every paragraph… Thank you for your review!

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