George Hendrick

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1653

Jalna contains virtually everything which was included in [Miss de la Roche's] later novels…. (p. 60)

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[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 playwright—three artists idealized and exaggerated. The culturally hungry could feel they had partaken of some of the so-called glamor of the bohemian world. Philistines, on the other hand, could feel superior, but at the same time they could relish descriptions of Eden's troubled life, his affair with Pheasant, his losing his first wife to Renny, his illegitimate daughter. Philistines could cluck over Wakefield's incestuous attachment to Renny's natural daughter, and they could be properly aroused by Finch's sadistic son and by the horrible deaths of Finch's wives. (pp. 114-15)

In Morning at Jalna, her last and perhaps worst novel, she added the American Civil War to her saga, no small feat since even southern Ontario is a long way from the South…. [However], it was hard to burn Atlanta from Ontario. Her attempt to exploit the Civil War was a complete fiasco.

To those readers unable or unwilling to grapple with the subtleties of a Henry James, or a James Joyce, Miss de la Roche offered an easy-to-read story and strong characterizations. (p. 116)

Miss de la Roche was interested in telling a story, and her prose was a means to this end. She obviously did not labor over her style, did not experiment, did not strive for organic imagery. She concentrated on a lively narrative and concerned herself with characters and episodes which held the reader's attention. Her readers clearly approved of her approach to literature. Over twelve million copies of the Whiteoak volumes … have been sold; it is evident that Miss de la Roche found the key to popular success and that she fulfilled a public need. She entertained a huge audience. (p. 117)

Even after Jalna, Miss de la Roche's success with non-Whiteoak fiction and non-fiction was not what she hoped for. Her short stories and novels, children's stories and autobiographies were published; and some readers, no doubt out of loyalty, did buy and read them, reviewers did take notice of them, but the reception was generally cool. Miss de la Roche was fond of some of these failures, and thought they were quite well done, but none of them were artistic achievements; they were not the great works of art popular writers often say they really want to be producing, if only they were not forced to write what the public wanted. (p. 119)

In Lark Ascending the Whiteoaks were temporarily abandoned, but she continued the tradition of presenting passionate, strong-willed characters caught in various love poses. She obviously hoped that her romantic characters gamboling about romantic Sicily would also enthrall the legion of Whiteoak fans. (p. 120)

Miss de la Roche's primary concern [in Lark Ascending] was showing the clash of American and European cultures. She was trying to write an International Novel. To find that she failed is hardly surprising.

She was an expatriate for ten years; and, had she kept on working on serious themes instead of the hermetically sealed world of the Whiteoaks, she might have written an International Novel of value. The novel she did write, however, had several interesting themes, though they were never explored and were largely covered over with romantic claptrap. (p. 121)

As The New York Times reviewer noted on August 14, 1932, Lark Ascending is a "cheerful book" which lacks depth and craft. One must conclude that the characters are not motivated and that the many serious and frivolous themes are introduced and never really examined. Miss de la Roche could have moulded this material into an international comedy of manners, but the melodrama of the adolescent Play [her youthful fantasy game] made this impossible. In truth, Miss de la Roche had a sense of humor but rarely a sense of comedy. (p. 124)

[Lark Ascending] must be relegated to the merely ludicrous, and … much of the fiction that follows is of no higher quality…. (p. 125)

Unfortunately Miss de la Roche did not peer deeply into the world of early childhood [in her book about her adopted children, Beside a Norman Tower]. What she did write was an episodic account of certain scenes in which the children appear as rather pert actors. There is no controlling point of view; there is no entry into the minds of the children; there is, instead, a series of "cute" stories; as a result the book is an inane failure. (p. 130)

Ringing the Changes: An Autobiography (1957) was one of those peculiar Victorian-flavored documents which tell more and less than the author intended. The most intriguing sections of the memoirs dealt with the Play. (p. 133)

Except for the description of the Play and its meaning in her artistic life, the memoirs are extremely peculiar. Scenes are presented in such dramatic fashion that it is clear a novelist with a romantic imagination has improved upon them greatly. Most of the dramatized scenes are set in a timeless world, as if the author were perpetually fifteen; it is virtually impossible to date any happening described. In Victorian tradition, the description of the emotional bonds [between members of her family] are presented in a naïve, girlish fashion. Did Miss de la Roche deliberately reject modern psychology; and, in doing so, did she not reveal more than she intended?

The description of her creative life is most unsatisfactory. If Miss de la Roche had worked out esthetic concepts, she was not able to formulate them when writing her memoirs. Her greatest skill was in telling stories for romantically-inclined readers, and esthetic views would perhaps have ruined this ability of hers. (pp. 133-34)

[Her] fans wanted to read about the Whiteoaks and largely ignored her non-Jalna fiction. Her audience was perceptive: the Jalna stories (except for Delight) are certainly more entertaining than Miss de la Roche's other writings. She had no major themes, made no profound comments on the human condition. (p. 135)

She may not have written works as critically acclaimed as the Brontës, Dickens, and Galsworthy, but she clearly gave much pleasure to millions of readers. Such an achievement is, in itself, significant. (p. 136)

George Hendrick, in his Mazo de la Roche (copyright © 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1970, 149 p.

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