CanLit Canon Review #5: Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

No one talks about Mazo de la Roche anymore, but her 16-part series, which chronicled the doings of the Whiteoak family, was popular in its time. So popular, in fact, that a neighbourhood and school in Mississauga are named after the fictional family, a Newmarket school is named after de la Roche, and a house in which she lived in Oakville is now a heritage centre.

The series, which follows the Whiteoak family from 1854 to 1954, was written over a 30-year period and is, in a way, a Canadian Downton Abbey, minus the pomp.

The first book of the series is Jalna, published in 1927 and set in 1924 and 1925.

The book is labeled a romance novel, but most of the romance turns sour. It’s really a rural family drama. Nearly the entire story takes place at the Whiteoak estate, which is named Jalna because the couple that first arrived in Canada from Britain met and married at a military station in India named Jalna. By the time the novel begins, the wife of that couple has been widowed but still, at 99, rules Jalna and her eccentric family, comprised of her three unmarried and elderly children, and the five children (from two mothers) of one deceased son.

In all, there are about 30 characters to keep track of in Jalna (plus two cocker spaniels, a Yorkshire terrier, a cat, and the grandmother’s parrot, which throughout the book spouts “Hindu curses” taught to it by the old lady).

De la Roche defines the characters early and distinguishes each of them with her knack for character description. Of one: “She looks as though something had offended her very deeply in early infancy and she had never got over it.” And of another: “Lady Buckley was like a table set for an elaborate banquet at which the guests would never arrive.”

De la Roche also has a talent for constructing family dynamics, which adds richness to the centre of Jalna and helps readers follow the intertwined lives of the characters. The story is primarily about the love lives of three of the orphaned sons, Renny, the eldest and the authoritative head of the household; Piers, the rebellious bully; and Eden, the sensitive poet. Piers marries a bastard named Pheasant (whose father was scheduled to marry a Whiteoak before fathering the illegitimate child and tainting his reputation) and Eden, while in New York City to meet the publisher of his poems, marries the publisher’s assistant, Alayne.

After Alayne moves to Jalna to join Eden, she falls in love with Renny, and Renny falls for her. Eden, who has figured out that Alayne loves his poetry more than she loves him, turns to Pheasant, Piers’s wife, for comfort. All are hiding their newfound loves, which creates unbearable complications, especially since they live in a world in which they see nearly exclusively other members of the family.

As Renny says to Alayne, “I love you, and I am in hell because I love you. And there is no way out.”

Renny is, of course, wrong. There is a way out, just not without hurting people. And that’s what makes Jalna more than a simple romance novel, and it’s what makes this window into the early days of the Canadian upper class an interesting read.