Mazo de la Roche George Hendrick - Essay

George Hendrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)