Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487
First published: 1927
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Domestic realism
Time of work: 1920's
Renny Whiteoak, the head of the family
Meg, his sister
Wakefield, their half brothers
Pheasant Vaughan, Piers's wife
Maurice Vaughan, her father
Alayne Archer, Eden's wife
The Whiteoaks of Jalna were quite a family. The parents were dead, and the children, ranging in age from eight to more than forty, were held together by Renny, the oldest son, and tyrannized by Grandma Whiteoak, a matriarch of ninety-nine years. The family estate of Jalna had been founded by Grandfather Whiteoak, but it had dwindled somewhat from its original greatness. By common consent, Renny managed the farms and the family, although he frequently encountered resistance from both.
Meg, the oldest daughter, had been engaged in her youth to Maurice Vaughan, a neighbor and a friend of the family. While he waited out the long engagement insisted upon by Meg, he had become entangled with a low-class girl and fathered a child, Pheasant. The girl had disappeared, and Maurice had grudgingly raised Pheasant. Meg, deaf to the pleas of Maurice and her family for a forgiving heart, had broken the engagement and gone into almost complete retirement. Maurice was never allowed at Jalna again, although he and Renny served in the war together and remained friends.
Renny had remained a bachelor, the head of the family, and a man with quite a reputation with women. Only his passions had been involved in these affairs, however, and thus it seemed that he would never marry. Renny accepted his power and his position but seemed not greatly to enjoy either.
The rest of the children were half brothers to these two. Eden was a poet and a dreamer. Farm life disgusted him, and since he had recently had a book of poetry accepted by a New York publisher, he hoped to get away from Jalna and make his way with his writing. However, work of any kind was so distasteful to Eden that it seemed unlikely he could ever break the ties which held him to Jalna.
Piers was a plodder, with no flights of fancy or dreams of grandeur. Doing most of the manual work on the farms, he took orders from Renny in a lethargic way. Renny, learning that Piers had been seen with Pheasant Vaughan, warned the boy that such an alliance could lead only to trouble for both.
Finch was the real problem. Still in school, he barely managed to return each term. Different from the rest, he had no ambition or drive of any kind. The family obviously considered him useless, but they stuck by him because he was family. Finch brooded. On his lonely walks through the woods and fields, he often saw through matters other members of the family tried to conceal.
Wakefield was just eight years old, and thus greatly spoiled. He had a heart condition which allowed him to get his own way without effort.
Grandma Whiteoak held a whip over them all. Her will had been made—and often changed—to be used as a weapon over the children and her two sons, who also lived at Jalna. She was ninety-nine and a despot. In many ways she was evil, using her power to force the children to obey her whims.
The first to cause a real stir at Jalna was Piers. He and Pheasant eloped. When they returned home, both Maurice and the Whiteoaks scorned them. Meg became hysterical and swore she would not have Maurice's daughter in her house. Grandma hit Piers over the head with her cane and would have hit Pheasant, but Renny quieted them and said that Pheasant was now part of the family and would be treated accordingly. Instantly everyone, even Meg, accepted his authority.
Eden went to New York to see his publisher and there met and married Alayne Archer, a reader for the publishing house. She felt she had discovered him through his poetry and could inspire him. An orphan, she looked forward to being part of such a large family. When they reached Jalna, however, she felt an unexplained coldness. She was warmly welcomed by all but Piers, who resented the difference between her reception and Pheasant's, but she could feel tensions that were just under the surface. Grandma was revolting to the gentle Alayne, who knew she must make the old tyrant like her if she was to know any peace at Jalna.
With Alayne, Finch found his first real happiness. Seeing the artistic need in the boy, she tried to encourage the others to help him. Only Renny listened to her and, because of her, arranged to have Finch take music lessons from a good teacher. The boy drove the rest of the family crazy with his practicing, but for the first time, he began to be less restless.
Eden, reluctant to get down to serious writing, began to accuse Alayne of nagging him when she tried to encourage him. She wanted to get away from Jalna, for the place was exerting an uneasy hold on her. Worse, she and Renny were unwillingly drawn to each other. He kissed her once, and although they both pretended it was only a brotherly kiss, each knew it was more. At last they confessed their love for each other, but both knew that they would never bow to it because Eden was Renny's brother.
Eden grew troublesome about working at his writing or anything else. When he was injured in a friendly family scuffle, Alayne nursed him tenderly, hoping to hurry him back to health so that they could leave Jalna and Renny. Pheasant also helped nurse Eden, spending hours in his room. When they fell in love, they too tried to fight it because Pheasant's husband was family. At last, Eden was able to be about again. Finch, during one of his wanderings, saw Pheasant in Eden's arms. He ran to Piers and told him about his wife and brother. Piers went prepared to kill them, but Pheasant escaped to her father's house. Renny and Piers followed her there. Piers, deciding that she was his wife and therefore his responsibility, took her back to Jalna, where he locked her in her room and allowed no one to see her for weeks. Eden fled, leaving Pheasant and Alayne to face disgrace alone.
When Piers took Pheasant back to Jalna, Meg, refusing to stay in the same house with Pheasant, moved into an abandoned hut on the farm. After a few weeks, Maurice Vaughan went to see her and persuaded her to forgive him for his old sin. Soon afterward, they were married, trying to make up quickly for all the years they had lost. Alayne prepared to return to New York alone. There would be no divorce and no marriage to Renny. The scandal would be too much for the family—whose pattern would never change.
JALNA and all the books of the Jalna series are unusual in that each stands alone on its own merits; the mass of exposition needed to set the stage for the events of the plot is deftly incorporated into the musings of the characters or their dinner-table conversation. Yet readers feel from the first that the characters have had a life prior to the novel, similarly as readers feel that their lives continue beyond the end of it. The characters, painted with a critical detachment, are extremely amusing. Mazo de la Roche has achieved an impressive balancing of the dozen portraits of hardy egoists going about their nagging, fighting, and loving. There is, however, too much material in the book—too many characters and a confusion of incident. Some descriptions and scenes are brisk and fresh, but other passages are weak and amateurish in execution. The characters never develop; they are born in full bloom, as it were. It is the sense of family, the cumulative effect of the group, that provides the real charm of the novel, despite its shortcomings. The elderly matriarch holds together both the family and the book.
The very quarrelsomeness of the family prohibits readers from taking any of the members solely at his own self-estimate. Finch is both a stupid, sulky young whelp and a person of almost clairvoyant sensitivity to the moods and motives of those about him, just as Eden is talented, sinned against, and at times a cad. Neither is readily likable, and the somewhat perverse claims they make upon the reader seem the very essence of their being Whiteoaks. The many-sidedness of these quarrelsome people and the sparks they strike from one another find their synthesis in the character of Grandma Adeline Whiteoak. The living symbol of the family's covenant with the land, she draws warmth from the friction of their communal life and strength from their vivid physicality.