Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, she moved to England in 1890 following the death of her mother. In 1898, after the death of her father, she was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver, British Columbia. She received her teacher's certificate in 1907, and for thirteen years taught in Vancouver elementary schools. In 1921 she married Wallace Wilson, President of the Canadian Medical Association and professor of medical ethics at the University of British Columbia.
In the 1930s Wilson published a few short stories and began a series of fictionalized family reminiscences which were later published as The Innocent Traveller (1949). Her first published novel, Hetty Dorval, appeared in 1947, and was followed, seven years later by Swamp Angel (1954), generally thought of as her most accomplished work. Her final book was Mrs Golightly and Other Stories (1961).
In 1980 she was hospitalized and suffering from a series of small strokes. The day before she died, she was in physical distress from passing a kidney stone. A doctor injected her with medication to ease the pain.
Wilson is the subject of one work of criticism, Ethel Wilson by Desmond Pacey, and two biographies, The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson by Mary McAlpine and Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography by David Stouck.
The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize is named in her honour.
Ethel Wilson was born on January 20, 1888, with only her parents, Robert and Lila Bryant, to welcome her into the world. The Bryants were Methodist missionaries, and were living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa at the time. Lila was unwell at the time of childbirth, and her health continued to deteriorate. She became pregnant again nine months after the birth of Ethel, but this time could not survive the ordeal. She died on July 28, 1889, after giving birth to a baby boy. Ethel's little brother, Robert Norman, died ten days later, and both he and his mother were buried in Port Elizabeth's Russell Road Cemetery. In July 1890, Robert Bryant decided it was best to bring his daughter Ethel to England, and there they stayed until he died of pneumonia on June 19, 1897, at the age of 40. Ethel Bryant was nine at the time.
After the death of her father, Ethel was passed around from relative to relative until she eventually went to live with her maternal grandmother, Annie Malkin, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Ethel remained in Vancouver until 1902, when she returned to England at the age of 14 in order to attend Trinity Hall School in Lancashire. She received her teacher's certificate in 1907, and returned to Vancouver to teach in elementary schools, until she married Wallace Wilson in 1921 and began publishing short stories and family reminiscences. It is unclear when exactly she wrote her first novel, "The Innocent Traveller"; however, it was published in 1949. Her second novel, Hetty Dorval, was published in 1947, and followed this with Swamp Angel in 1954. She wrote her final book, Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories in 1961.
Dr. Wallace Wilson died in 1966, after which Ethel Wilson suffered a stroke and no longer wrote. She died on December 22, 1980. The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, British Columbia's top fiction award, was created in 1985, commemorating Wilson's achievements.
Wilson is well known as one of the first Canadian writers to truly capture the beauty of BC. She wrote often of places in BC that were important to her and was able to detail the ruggedness and magic of the landscape. Yet in 1958 at the University of British Columbia, in a talk entitled "An Approach to Some Novels," Wilson stated that there was no school of 'Canadian novel-writing,' nor was one necessary. In her opinion, there were novels written in Canada by Canadians, but these were written with no prescribed formula for what would make a 'Canadian novel.' While Wilson was not overly patriotic in her writing, she did find environment to be very important to her characters. In fact, the connection to place is central in her writings to exploring relationships and the way people react to life. Wilson's characters are observed in relation to the environment. In Love and Salt Water, she states that "the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people."
- Hetty Dorval — 1947 (Republished in 2005 by Persephone Books)
- The Innocent Traveller — 1949
- The Equations of Love — 1952
- Swamp Angel — 1954
- Love and Salt Water — 1956
- Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories — 1961
- Ethel Wilson: Stories, Essays, and Letters — 1987 (edited by David Stouck)
Awards and recognition
For her contribution to Canadian literature, Wilson was awarded the Canada Council Medal in 1961 and the Royal Society of Canada's Lorne Pierce Medal in 1964. In 1970, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada "for her contribution to Canadian literature". 
- Stouck, David (2003). Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-8741-8.