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.