In the world of Canadian Literary Fare, the question “Going fishing?” means so much more than casting a line and securing a meal.
“Going fishing?” is the question posed to Maggie Lloyd, the protagonist of Ethel Wilson’s novel Swamp Angel (1954), when she leaves her second husband, Edward Vardoe, and their Vancouver home and sets out to begin a new life working at a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia.
Fishing enthusiasts themselves, Ethel Wilson and her husband Wallace Wilson vacationed for over 40 years at Lac Le Jeune near Kamloops, which served as the model for her novel’s setting. (Whitaker 13)
In Swamp Angel, fishing represents freedom and possibility. Trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, Maggie Lloyd uses her skill at tying fishing flies to secure her independence. She sells her hand-tied flies to a Vancouver “shop known up and down the Pacific Coast.” (2) Wilson modelled this fictional sporting goods store after the actual Harkley and Haywood Sporting Goods Ltd., which was in business for over 60 years at 101 West Cordova Street. (Whitaker 18)
Not far from the sporting goods shop is Vancouver’s Chinatown, where Maggie purchases a peacock feather fan – the iridescent feathers are perfect for her fishing flies. It takes Maggie a year to save enough cash, but her husband never suspects.
Throughout Swamp Angel, fish and birds are closely related, signalling movement between elements, just as Maggie slips from one life and identity into a new one. But these transitions are never easy or quite what one anticipates.
Having fled her marriage, Maggie secures work at Loon Lake Fishing Lodge, where the days are long and fraught with tensions between herself and the owners. In his Afterword, George Bowering warns of the “delimiting” meanings of fish and birds: “birds such as eagles eat fish and take them flying; people such as Maggie Lloyd make flies out of feathers and feed trout to their death.” (226)
While Ethel Wilson does not romanticize this fisherwoman’s autonomy, the bountiful food that Maggie prepares at the lodge suggests a forward-looking contentment:
- 10 quarts of bottled tomatoes
- 5 bottles of tomato chutney
- 8 loaves of bread
- 1 applesauce cake
- 2 large crocks of beans in the oven
- And pie-making scheduled for tomorrow!
Visitors from Vancouver relish Maggie’s fried trout, bacon, bread, tomatoes “still smelling of the leaves of the tomato plant,” apple pie, and coffee. (142)
The trout dish is one with the natural setting and contrasts with urban fare: the hot-dog and fried potato vendors that litter Stanley Park, or the five-pound roast with gravy (and pudding for dessert) that Maggie prepares for her unsuspecting husband on the night that she leaves. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Wilson clearly recognized Vancouver as “a roast beef and suet pudding city” — in other words, a conservative population with strong cultural ties to Britain. (Stouck 83)
In the opening chapter, the beef dinner is formal, heavy, and begrudged by husband Edward, who declares, “Who wants to eat cold meat that cost the earth for a week!” (8) Little does he know those leftovers will come in handy.
The dinner provides the necessary cover for Maggie’s surreptitious departure, but it also communicates a different set of life circumstances than those of the fishing lodge.
Who wants a traditional roast beef dinner with unhappy marital trappings when instead there is the lightness of fish that flies through the air the moment that it is caught?
Going fishing? Most definitely.
Bowering, George. Afterword. Swamp Angel, by Ethel Wilson, McClelland and Stewart, 1990, pp. 222-29.
Stouck, David. Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography. University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Whitaker, Muriel. “Journeys to the Interior: The Wilsons at Lac Le Jeune.” The Ethel Wilson Symposium, edited by Lorraine McMullen, University of Ottawa Press, 1982, pp. 13-18.
Wilson, Ethel. Swamp Angel. 1954. McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
Text and Images (except where indicated) by Shelley Boyd