De la Roche, Mazo 1885–1961
De la Roche was a Canadian novelist and playwright, best known for her series about the Whiteoak family of Jalna. Although accused by critics of exaggerated romanticism and popular escapism, de la Roche's novels continue to attract a wide readership. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88)
It is just 25 years since that excellent American magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, having offered a very large cash prize for the best novel submitted to its editors during a year, decided to award that prize to a young author with the romantic-sounding name of Mazo de la Roche [for her new novel Jolana]….
[It] always comes as something of a shock when an author who not merely got born in Canada but still lives there scores a first-class hit in one or other of the two larger English-language countries; and I shall not readily forget the sensation caused by the announcement of Miss de la Roche's prize….
And then to our amazement she did not do it again, not of course in the shape of another gigantic prize, but at least in the shape of another highly successful novel about the same family as the first one, the first prize one; and this was followed by a whole series of novels, until the Whiteoaks family has become one of the great imaginary families of the world, something like the clerical families in Trollope or the rather less religious families in Balzac, and is known not only to the English-speaking world but also to vast numbers of others who can read about it in translations….
When it became obvious that the Jalna series could not be written off as a lucky accident but would have to be accepted as one of the great literary creations of the second quarter of the century, some...
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Jalna contains virtually everything which was included in [Miss de la Roche's] later novels…. (p. 60)
[Her] audience was one that much admired ornate style. Her readers were obviously entertained by [Jalna's] appeal to snobbery, its romanticism, its erotic scenes, and its titillating incidents. All of these help to explain the popularity of Jalna and the novels which followed it.
Jalna began with a genealogical chart listing the twenty-or-so members of the Whiteoak family who were to be prominent characters in the novel, plus a few often-referred-to deceased members. Given this large cast of characters, the story inevitably moves ponderously….
Since the outside world does not really intrude on the Whiteoaks, the scandal of their lives is heightened. There is great stress on family tradition and a justification of Anglo-Saxon snobbery. The Whiteoaks are praised inordinately, both for their strengths and for their weaknesses. Though their sexual activities are as plentiful and fanciful as those of the lower classes on the fringes of their lives, the Whiteoak family scandal assumes respectability. The Whiteoaks are, after all, landed gentry…. (p. 61)
[Jalna] is in fact, a glorification of much the same life, lacking only slaves, that Margaret Mitchell pictured in the beginning of Gone With the Wind. As befits such a legend, Captain Whiteoak was handsome; his wife was imperious and headstrong.
In keeping with English domestic drama, Miss de la Roche has many of the scenes played out at dinner or at teatime. Conversations run on rather interminably, for each member at the table or fireside is talkative and is put through his paces, performing in a highly predictable fashion, once one has grasped (and one does so easily) the character's personality. (p. 62)
Artistically, Miss de la Roche had come to a most advantageous place to end her Jalna saga [including Jalna, Whiteoaks of Jalna, and Finch's Fortune]. But with the urging of publishers and readers, she chose not to do so.
Miss de la Roche began to realize that if she wanted to go on making her living off the Whiteoaks, she needed to deal with them not only in the near present but also in the past; that is, before the beginning of the first volume of the series [and so she wrote the six books which present the Whiteoaks' history before Jalna]. (p. 68)
While most of the volumes, after the first three in the series, are certainly less fresh, they contain scattered incidents which are of some interest: there are scenes of comic relief and occasional good dramatic episodes; there is an embarrassing imitation of Jane Eyre; there is shameless exploitation of the American Civil War and a glossing over of the 1930's; there is a total immersion in Playland; and there are touches of incest and sadism. There is no real indication, however, that Miss de la Roche's narrative style or artistic understanding were much different in 1960 than in 1927. If her literary abilities progressed at all, the direction was downward. (p. 69)
Miss de la Roche was clearly captive of her own fantasy world, her publishers, and her public. She had no delusions about the "importance" of her Jalna novels…. (p. 114)
But the question remains: was she aware of what makes the readers interested? Clearly she had several groups of readers. Lonely ranchers' wives in Wyoming and teen-aged girls in Canberra found the novels appealing in different ways. For the frustrated woman, hungering for a virile male, Miss de la Roche could offer Renny, who smelled of the stables but was found irresistible by the neighboring ladies. For high-school girls, she could offer escape into a fantasy world far different from dull parents and staid schools. For garden-club types, yearning after culture, she offered various artistic types: Finch, the musician; Eden, the poet; and Wakefield, actor and...
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Although the success of the Jalna novels has tended to overshadow [de la Roche's] earlier works, they represent some of [her] most interesting writing and suggest the principal characteristics of all her work and the nature of her contribution to the development of the Canadian novel. At a time when Canadian fiction was dominated by historical novels and sentimental stories of village and rural life, de la Roche challenged the code of conduct associated with Victorian morality and dramatized the tension between instinct and convention. Possession, her first and in many respects one of her most successful novels, reveals her efforts to turn away from the typical local colour story and to temper the essentially pleasant world of escape with realism.
Possession is a mixture of elements of the romance and the novel. On the one hand, the lively and convincing presentation of highly individualistic characters, the immediacy with which domestic action is dramatized, the absence of a stable conclusion, and the realistic scenes depicting the way of life at Grimstone, contribute to the feeling of realism. On the other hand, the episodic nature of events, the sudden shifting from melodramatic confrontations to comic or pastoral scenes, the artificiality of some of the dialogue, and the emphasis on individual freedom and instinct, suggest the extent to which elements identified with the romance are incorporated in the novel. The result is romantic realism or … a "romance novel" in which the strict realism of the naturalist is blended with...
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The Jalna novels are a fictional expression of [the Loyalist Myth]…. The Jalna novels describe obliquely some very basic ideas of the Canadian national identity, at least of the English-speaking identity. Leaving aside a consideration of the novels as literature, they provide a most interesting source for the student of social and intellectual history.
From the time that Philip Whiteoak and his young bride emigrated to Southern Ontario …, the family accepted intrinsically the idea that they held a certain position in society. This position was one of a kind of squirearchy, or to quote de la Roche, the Courts and Whiteoaks were "gentlemen, soldiers, 'goddamming' country squires." The family dominates the immediate neighbourhood—which means that they claimed a kind of feudal authority over a small, miscellaneous collection of country bumpkins, maiden ladies of humble means, the local clergymen and a few farm hands. (p. 284)
The elemental, basic quality of the authority exercised by the Whiteoaks is repeated often in the books. It is organic and timeless, based on the family group, the tribe, the clan and eventually the kingdom, with a religious re-inforcement…. The maintenance and the function of the family on the basis of these forces is the most important value in the novels. This authority demands a limiting of the choices available to the individuals in the family, but it is also provides for mutual protection and...
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