Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Contemporary Women

Swamp Angel

by (author) Ethel Wilson

afterword by George Bowering

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Dec 2008
Contemporary Women, 20th Century, Classics
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2008
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Walking out on a demoralizing second marriage, Maggie Lloyd leaves Vancouver to work at a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia. But the serenity of Maggie’s new surroundings is soon disturbed by the irrational jealousy of the lodge-keeper’s wife. Restoring her own broken spirit, Maggie must also become a healer to others. In this, she is supported by her eccentric friend, Nell Severance, whose pearl-handled revolver – the Swamp Angel – becomes Maggie’s ambiguous talisman and the novel’s symbolic core.

Ethel Wilson’s best-loved novel, Swamp Angel first appeared in 1954. It remains an astute and powerful study of one woman’s integrity and of the redemptive power of compassion.

About the authors

Ethel Wilson is a Fitzhenry and Whiteside author.

Ethel Wilson's profile page

George Bowering, Canada’s first Poet Laureate, was born in the Okanagan Valley.After serving as an aerial photographer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Bowering earned a BA in English and an MA in history at the University of British Columbia, where he became one of the co-founders of the avant-garde poetry magazine TISH. He has taught literature at the University of Calgary, the University of Western Ontario, and Simon Fraser University, and he continues to act as a Canadian literary ambassador at international conferences and readings.A distinguished novelist, poet, editor, professor, historian, and tireless supporter of fellow writers, Bowering has authored more than eighty books, including works of poetry, fiction, autobiography, biography, and youth fiction. His writing has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, and Romanian.Talon has published Bowering’s Taking Measures, a collection of serial poems.Bowering has twice won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary prize.

George Bowering's profile page

Excerpt: Swamp Angel (by (author) Ethel Wilson; afterword by George Bowering)


Ten twenty fifty brown birds flew past the window and then a few stragglers, out of sight. A fringe of Mrs. Vardoe’s mind flew after them (what were they – birds returning in migration of course) and then was drawn back into the close fabric of her preoccupations. She looked out over the small green garden which would soon grow dark in evening. This garden led down a few steps to the wooden sidewalk; then there was the road, dusty in fine weather; next came the neighbors’ houses across the road, not on a level with her but lower, as the hill declined, so that she was able to look over the roofs of these houses to Burrard Inlet far below, to the dark green promontory of Stanley Park, to the elegant curve of the Lions’ Gate Bridge which springs from the Park to the northern shore which is the base of the mountains; and to the mountains. The mountains seemed, in this light, to rear themselves straight up from the shores of Burrard Inlet until they formed an escarpment along the whole length of the northern sky. This escarpment looked solid at times, but certain lights disclosed slope behind slope, hill beyond hill, giving an impression of the mountains which was fluid, not solid.

Mrs. Vardoe had become attached to, even absorbed into the sight from the front- room window of inlet and forest and mountains. She had come to love it, to dislike it, to hate it, and at seven- fifteen this evening she proposed to leave it and not to return. Everything was, she thought, in order.

Behind her unrevealing gray eyes of candor and peace she had arranged with herself that she would arrive at this very evening and at this place where, on Capitol Hill, she would stand waiting with everything ready. There had been time enough in which to prepare. She had endured humiliations and almost unbearable resentments and she had felt continual impatience at the slowness of time. Time, she knew, does irrevocably pass and would not fail her; rather she might in some unsuspected way fail time. Her look and habit had not betrayed her although she had lived more and more urgently through the last few weeks when an irrational fear had possessed her that she – or he – would become ill, would meet with an accident, that some car, some fall, some silly bodily ailment would, with utmost indignity and indifference, interfere; but nothing had happened to interfere. The time was now half past five. It was not likely that the unlikely – having so far held its hand – would happen within two hours, but, if it did, she was armed against revealing herself and she would build in time again, or again, like the bird who obstinately builds again its destroyed nest. So strong was the intention to depart.

She had been most vulnerable and desperate when, more than a year ago, she had taken a small box of fishing flies to the shop known by sportsmen up and down the Pacific coast.

“May I see Mr. Thorpe or Mr. Spencer?”

“There’s no Mr. Thorpe. I am Mr. Spencer.”

“Here are some flies, Mr. Spencer.”

He picked up each fly and scrutinized it. Turning it this way and that he looked for flaws in the perfection of the body, the hackle, the wings. There were no flaws. He looked up at the pleasant young woman with less interest than he felt in the flies. There were small and large flies, dun- colored flies, and flies with a flash of iridescent green, scarlet, silver.

“Who made these flies?”

“I did.”

“Who taught you?”

“My father.”

“Where did he learn?”

“At Hardy’s.”

Mr. Spencer now regarded the young woman with some respect. She was unpretentious. Her gray eyes, rimmed with dark lashes, were wide set and tranquil and her features were agreeably irregular. She was not beautiful; she was not plain. Yes, perhaps she was beautiful. She took no pains to be beautiful. The drag of her cheap cloth coat and skirt intimated large easy curves beneath.

“Would you like to sell us your flies?”

“Yes, but I have no more feathers.”

“We can arrange that. Have you a vise?”

“Yes, my father’s vise.”

“We will take all the flies you can make. Would you like to work here? We have a small room at the back with a good light.”

“I would rather work at home.”

“Where do you live?”

“Out Capitol Hill way.”

“And you come from . . . “”

“I have lived in Vancouver for some time.”

“Oh. You were not born . . . “”

“I was born in New Brunswick.”

“Will you come to the desk? Sit down.”

He took up a pen. “Your name?”

“Lloyd.” The word Vardoe died in her mouth.

He looked at her large capable hands and saw the ring.

He smiled. “You won’t mind me saying, Mrs. Lloyd, but I always back large hands or even short stubby hands for tying flies.”

She looked down at her hands as if she had not noticed them before. “Yes,” she said, “they are large,” and she looked up and smiled for the first time, a level easy smile.

“Your telephone number?”

“There is no telephone.”

“Oh, then your address?”

“I’d rather call on Mondays.”

He pushed his lips out and looked at her over his glasses.

“Oh,” she said, “I know. The feathers. Please trust me the first few times and then I’ll pay for my own.”

“No, no,” he protested. “Oh no, you must do whatever suits you best.”

“It suits me best,” she said, coloring a very little, “to call on Monday mornings and bring the flies I’ve made, and see what you want done for the next week and take away the material.”

“That suits me too. What do you know about rods?”

“Not as much as I know about flies. But I can splice a rod, and mend some kinds of trout rods.”

“Would you want to take the rods home too?”

She hesitated. “No, if I do rods, I must do them here. But I would like to do all the work you can give me . . . if I can arrange to do it.”

That was how it had begun and she had been so clever; never a bright feather blew across the room; vise, hooks, jungle cock and peacock feather were all ingeniously hidden, and Edward had never known. The curtains, drawn widely, now framed her in the window as she looked out and out over the scene which she had loved and which she hoped not to see again.

In the woodshed by the lane was her canvas bag packed to a weight that she could carry, and a haversack that she could carry on her shoulders. There was her fishing rod. That was all. How often she had lived through these moments – which had now arrived and did not stay – of standing at the window; of turning; of walking through to the kitchen; of looking at the roast in the oven; of looking, once more, to see that her navy-blue raincoat with the beret stuffed in the pocket hung by the kitchen door, easy to snatch on her way out into the dark; of picking up the bags and the rod inside the woodshed door as quickly as if it were broad daylight because she had learned their place so well; of seeing the light in the Chinaman’s taxi a few yards up the lane; of quickly entering the taxi on seeing the slant face of the Chinese boy; and then the movement forward. She had carefully planned the time, early enough to arrive; too late to be seen, recognized, followed, and found.

Now she advanced, as planned, along these same minutes that had so often in imagination solaced her. When, in the night, as had soon happened after their marriage, she lay humiliated and angry, she had forced her mind forward to this moment. The secret knowledge of her advancing plan was her only restoration and solace. Often, in the day and in the night, she had strengthened herself by naming, item by item, the contents of her haversack and bag. She would, in fancy, pack a sweater, her shoes . . . the little vise and some flies. . . . How many scores of times, as her hands lay still, she had packed these little bags. Each article, as she in fancy picked or discarded it, comforted her and became her familiar companion and support. And last night she had lain for the last time beside her husband and he did not know that it was the last time.

She had once lived through three deaths, and – it really seemed – her own. Her country had regretted to inform her that her husband, Tom Lloyd, was killed in action; their child was stricken, and died; her father, who was her care, had died; and Maggie Lloyd, with no one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity. She had married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes. Now she was to disappear from Edward’s eyes.

Mrs. Vardoe, still standing at the window, raised her left hand and saw that the time was now a quarter to six. She turned and went through to the kitchen. She took her large apron from the chair where she had thrown it, tied it so that it covered her, opened the oven door, took out the roast, put the roast and vegetables back into the oven, and began to make the gravy in the pan. These actions, which were familiar and almost mechanical, took on, tonight, the significance of movement forward, of time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past). Each action was important in itself and, it seemed, had never been real before.

The front door opened and was shut with a bang and then there was silence. As she stirred the gravy she knew what Edward was doing. He was putting his topcoat on its hanger, turning his hat in his hand, regarding it, reshaping it, and hanging them both up – the good topcoat and respectable hat of Eddie Vardoe, E. Thompson Vardoe. It’s a good thing I’m going now, she thought as she stirred the gravy. I’m always unfair, now, to Edward. I hate everything he does. He has only to hang up his hat and I despise him. Being near him is awful. I’m unfair to him in my heart always whatever he is doing, but tonight I shall be gone.

As he walked to the kitchen door she looked up from her stirring. He stood beside her, trim, prim, and jaunty in the little kitchen. He was in rare good humor, and excited.

“Well,” he said, “I pretty near bought it. Guess I’ll settle tomorrow. Four hundred cash and easy terms.”

She straightened herself and looked mildly at him. Was it possible that what she was about to do was not written plain on her brow.

“If you gointa show people real estate,” he said, “you gotta have the right car. Something conservative but snappy. Snappy but reefined. See.”

“Yes, oh yes,” she agreed. She had forgotten about the car.

He took off his coat, revealing a tie on which athletes argued in yellow and red. That tie, and other ties, were new signs of Edward’s advancement and self- confidence. What a tie, thought Mrs. Vardoe, stirring mechanically. When Edward took off his coat a strong sweet sour smell was released. He took a paper from an inner pocket, went to the hall and hung up his coat. He came back to the kitchen and held out the paper to her.

“Take a look at that, woodja,” he said with a smile of triumph. “‘E. Thompson Vardoe’ – sounds all right, doesn’t it!”

“Just a minute till I put the roast on the table,” she said, picking up the hot platter.

He turned and followed her into the room. “Well,” he said aggrieved, “I’d think you’d be innerested in your husband starting in business for himself!”

She went with her usual light deliberation into the kitchen again, brought in the vegetables, gravy, and plates, took off her apron and sat down at the table.

“Let me see it,” she said.

Mr. Vardoe, sitting down in his shirt sleeves before the roast, passed her a piece of paper with a printed heading. She read aloud “Weller and Vardoe – Real Estate – Specialists in Homes – West End, Point Gray and Southern Slope – Octavius Weller, E. Thompson Vardoe.”

“Oh it does look nice! I hope that . . .”

Say!” said Mr. Vardoe in an affronted tone, holding the carving knife and fork above the roast of beef. “Whatever got into you, buying this size roast for two people! Must be all of six pounds! Is it six pounds?”

“No,” said Mrs. Vardoe with her wide gentle look upon the roast, “but it’s all of five pounds.”

“And solid meat!” said Mr. Vardoe, striking the roast with the carving knife. His voice rose shrill with anger. “You buying six-pound roasts when I gotta get a new car and get started in a new business! Bet it wasn’t far off a dollar a pound!”

“No, it wasn’t,” admitted Mrs. Vardoe. She gave a quick look down at her watch. The time was twenty minutes past six. It seemed to her that time stood still, or had died.

“It’ll be nice cold,” she said, without self- defense.

“Nice cold!” he echoed. “Who wants to eat cold meat that cost the earth for a week!”

If you only knew it, you will, thought Mrs. Vardoe.

Edward Vardoe gave her one more glare. In annoyed silence he began to carve the roast.

As Mrs. Vardoe put vegetables onto the two plates she dared to give another downward glance. Twenty- five minutes past six. The roast was delicious. When Edward Vardoe had shown enough displeasure and had satisfied himself that his wife had felt his displeasure he began eating and talking of his partner Octavius Weller, a man experienced – he said – in the real estate business.

“Octavius’s smart all right,” he said with satisfaction and his mouth full. “Anyone have to get up pooty early to fool Octavius. I guess we’ll be a good team, me and O.W.” He at last pushed his plate aside. He continued to talk.

Mrs. Vardoe got up and took away the meat course and brought in a pudding. Her husband looked at her strangely. He took his time to speak.

“Well, say,” he said at last, “you got your good tweed suit on!”

“Yes, I have,” she said, looking down at it. The time was twenty minutes to seven. She had to control a trembling in her whole body.

“Cooking a dinner in your good suit!”

“I had my apron.”

“Well, what you got it on for! You never sit down in your good suit like that before! Wearing that suit around the house!”

She could conceal – how well she could conceal! – but she could not deceive and she did not need to deceive.

“I wanted to see Hilda and her mother. I went there and they weren’t in. So I walked around for a bit and went back there and they weren’t in, so I came home.”

And never took that suit off, and went and cooked dinner in that suit!” (That suit, that suit, that suit.)

Yes, but, her mind said, if I didn’t wear my suit I hadn’t room to pack it. That was all arranged. Long ago that was arranged, arranged by night, arranged by day. I won’t tell him any lies. I can stay quiet a little longer whatever he says. She ate her pudding mechanically, hardly knowing what she did or what he said. It all depends on me, now, she thought. If I can manage the next quarter of an hour? Oh God help me. Just this quarter of an hour. Time could kill a person, standing still like this. A person could die.

“Any more pudding?” she said.

He shook his head. Ill temper made his face peevish.

“Gimme the paper,” he said sourly.

“It’s here.” She passed it to him and her heart beat like a clock.

He turned himself from the table and seemed to settle to the paper. A weight lifted a little from her. She took out the plates, cleared the table, and went into the kitchen, closing the door behind her. She ran the water into the dishpan. Water makes more noise than anything but crumpling paper, doesn’t it, she thought. I must have things quiet, so that I can listen both ways. She piled the dishes, one on one, very quietly. It was seven o’clock. She began to wash the dishes, silently enough. The moments became intolerable. A person could die, waiting for a minute to come. She could not bear it. She dried her hands on her apron and threw off the apron. It dropped to the floor. She snatched the raincoat off the peg by the door. She slipped her arms into the raincoat and went out into the dark. If it’s not here, she thought in her fluttering mind, what shall I do. If he comes into the kitchen and I have to go back in, what’ll I do. The taxi might be two or three minutes early. It might. She walked quickly down the little back garden path to the lane where the woodshed stood. The air, cool and fresh and dark after the warm lighted kitchen, blew upon her face. She saw up the dark lane a car standing, its engine running. The absurd fear nearly choked her that this might not, after all, be her car. Some other car might be standing there. Ducking into the woodshed, she picked up the two bags and the thin fishing rod in the case, slung the haversack over her shoulder, and began to run. She reached the taxi and looked eagerly in. She saw the Chinese face. Before the driver could reach the door handle, she wrenched the door open, sprang in and closed it.

“Drive,” she said, and leaned back in the car with a relief that made her for a moment dizzy.

Other titles by

Other titles by

Related lists