Mazo de la Roche was one of Canada's most popular and prolific authors. Although she published about thirty-five books during her lifetime, she was best known as the author of the famous Jalna series: sixteen novels about four generations of the family of upper-class Englishman Captain Philip Whiteoak and his aristocratic Irish wife, Adeline Court. The Whiteoak family lives between 1854 and 1954 on a rural estate in Ontario, Canada. The first novel in the series, Jalna (1927), won an international novel competition and became a best seller. The sequels also sold extraordinarily well. The Jalna books inspired a Hollywood film, Jalna, screened in 1935. They also formed the basis of a play, Whiteoaks (1936), the first Canadian play mounted in the West End theatre district of London, England. Whiteoaks was a long-running hit in London, toured England, and went to Broadway.
Mazo de la Roche was born in Newmarket, Ontario, on 15 January 1879 in the home of her maternal grandparents. Her name was originally Mazo Louise Roche; in early adulthood she changed her surname to the original form used by her ancestors in Ireland and France. Mazo's mother, Alberta (Lundy) Roche, was ill with scarlet fever at the time of Mazo's birth, and she never fully recovered. Mazo's father, William Richmond Roche, worked from about 1876 to 1888 in the Newmarket, Aurora, and Toronto stores of his older brother. After that dry-goods empire collapsed, William drifted from job to job and place to place, reuniting with his wife and daughter only occasionally. Throughout most of her childhood and youth, Mazo lived with her maternal grandparents, Daniel and Louise Lundy, in Newmarket, Orillia, and then Toronto.
Daniel Lundy, a carpenter and millwright, held supervisory positions throughout most of his career, but his income was modest. Louise Lundy already had a full house when her first grandchild, Mazo, was born, for her youngest was only six and her four other children were still at home. The Lundy home was still crowded with adults eight years later when Louise took in a niece about Mazo's age: Caroline Ann Louise Clement, born in Innisfil Township on 4 April 1878. From January 1887 onward, due to her parents' financial difficulties, Caroline mostly remained in the Lundy household. Companionable from the start, Caroline and Mazo went on living together until they were parted by Mazo's death. One biographer, Joan Givner, speculated that the pair was a lesbian couple, but no concrete evidence or testimony exists to support this idea.
Mazo and Caroline both obtained their elementary education in private day schools. Mazo acquired a secondary education in public high schools in Orillia and Toronto; Caroline seems not to have finished high school due to ill health. Although Mazo took a few courses at the University of Toronto and the Ontario School of Art, she did not graduate from either institution. While Mazo and Caroline shared most of the normal interests of girls and young women of their time and place, the activity that set them apart was their devotion to an elaborate, imaginary world into which they retreated daily when they were alone. They began this practice as soon as they met and continued it for the rest of their lives.
Following the death of Daniel Lundy in 1900, his large household split up. De la Roche and Clement stayed with Roche's parents, William and Alberta Roche, and the four drifted from place to place in Toronto and vicinity. Except for several years around 1903 when de la Roche suffered a serious nervous breakdown, she was writing and occasionally publishing stories. Her first stories were entirely imaginative, set in a mythical French village called St. Loo, but her later stories were based on observed reality, especially the experiences she and her household shared from 1905 to 1910, running a hotel in Acton, and from 1911 to 1914, operating a fruit farm in Bronte (today part of Oakville). One of the best of the realistic stories was “Canadian Ida and English Nell”, about immigrant British workers in Ontario hotels and factories.
After the bankruptcy and death of William Roche in 1915, Clement supported de la Roche and her mother by working as a civil servant in the provincial parliament buildings in Toronto. Clement kept her government job until 1928, when the financial success of Jalna made the regular salary unnecessary. Thereafter, Clement acted as de la Roche's host, secretary, housekeeper, editor, and companion. The women enjoyed a remarkable literary partnership. Clement – a rational, practical person who was exquisitely attuned to the sensitive, artistic de la Roche – helped de la Roche shape her writing. Daily Clement would read what de la Roche had composed and offer critique.
De la Roche's first published book was a collection of stories, Explorers of the Dawn (1922). These humorous stories about three mischievous brothers who wear Eton collars and utter vaguely British-sounding expressions such as “bully fun” were compared to the work of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. De la Roche's first novel, Possession (1923), was hailed by Canadian reviewers as a distinguished and remarkable achievement, and was described in some quarters as the novel of the year. The book is about a disastrous interracial marriage between a naïve White landowner and a young itinerant First Nations fruit picker who is employed on his farm.
De la Roche's one-act play, “Low Life”, first produced in 1925, won first prize in competitions held by the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and the Montreal branch of the Canadian Authors Association. De la Roche's third novel, Delight (1926), was praised abroad but widely criticized in Canada. (Ironically, in 1961 Delight would be included in the prestigious New Canadian Library series published by McClelland and Stewart, the only novel by de la Roche to be so canonized.) Delight is an entertaining account of the trials and triumph of a beautiful lower-class Englishwoman who works as a waitress in an Ontario hotel.
De la Roche began writing Jalna about 1925 while she and Clement were living during the winters in cramped rented flats in Toronto and during the summers in a small cottage in Clarkson, about 40 kilometres west of Toronto. Some inspiration for the fictional house and estate called “Jalna” came from a real house in Clarkson called “Benares”, built by a Captain James Harris in the 1850s. But the main inspiration came from properties once owned by de la Roche's maternal great-great-grandfather near Newmarket and Clement's paternal grandfather in Innisfil Township. A third property owned by Clement's paternal great-grandfather in the Niagara Peninsula was also an important inspiration. The extended, blended families of de la Roche and Clement – ingeniously combined and charmingly embellished – became the Whiteoak family.
Jalna is set in 1925 and 1926. In a big, handsome red-brick house built by Grandfather Whiteoak long ago lives the ninety-nine-year-old widow, Adeline, alias Gran; her three ineffectual, elderly children; her unmarried, middle-aged granddaughter and grandson; and her four irrepressible younger grandsons. When egotistical poet Eden Whiteoak brings home his sophisticated bride from New York City, his much older half-brother Renny, a rough horse breeder, falls in love with her. When loutish, barely-grown Piers secretly marries the bastard girl from next door, his prim spinster half-sister, Meg, is outraged. Violent arguments rack the family, and a marriage is wrecked. Meanwhile, awkward teenager Finch longs to make beautiful music, and winsome wastrel Wakefield filches and fibs.
Jalna begins with these words:
Wakefield Whiteoak ran on and on, faster and faster, till he could run no farther. He did not know why he had suddenly increased his speed. He did not even know why he ran. When, out of breath, he threw himself face down on the new spring sod of the meadow, he completely forgot that he had been running at all, and lay, his cheek pressed against the tender grass, his heart thudding against his ribs, without a thought in his head. He was no more happy or unhappy than the April wind that raced across his body or the young grass that quivered with life beneath it. He was simply alive, young, and pressed by the need of violent exertion.
In April 1927, Jalna took the ten-thousand dollar prize in a competition for best novel jointly sponsored by the magazine Atlantic Monthly and the book publisher Little, Brown and Company. De la Roche was showered with congratulatory telegrams, flowers, letters and parties. At a gala banquet held for de la Roche by the Toronto branch of the Canadian Authors Association, Charles G. D. Roberts – later Sir Charles – toasted de la Roche and thanked her for having “proved beyond a doubt that there actually is something called Canadian literature.”
Already in 1927 de la Roche was working on Whiteoaks of Jalna (1929), which sees the death of the wealthy, indomitable Gran and the bitter family feud over her will. De la Roche experienced some difficulty in writing this first sequel. The block arose in part because partying and speech-making were undermining her health. Once the novel was finished, de la Roche and Clement travelled to Italy for a long holiday before moving to England.
The decade in England was pleasant and productive for de la Roche, who now lived in mansions and employed servants. One highlight of the period was the adoption in 1931 of a girl born in 1928 and a boy born in 1930, likely sister and brother. While the name of the girl's mother is now known (Sybil Andrews Tester), the name of the father is not. After de la Roche legally adopted the children, she renamed them Esmée and René. Another highlight was the production of the play Whiteoaks, which de la Roche wrote with the assistance of English actress Nancy Price. Price starred in the play during its three-year London run of nearly 800 performances, beginning 13 April 1936.
De la Roche wrote continuously while abroad. As well as the hit play and a number of stories and articles, she produced four Jalna novels (Finch's Fortune, Master of Jalna, Young Renny, and Whiteoak Harvest), three short autobiographical books (Portrait of a Dog, Beside a Norman Tower, and The Very House), and two non-Jalna novels (Lark Ascending and Growth of a Man). Growth of a Man (1938) was based mainly on the life of a first cousin of de la Roche and Clement: H. R. MacMillan, co-founder of MacMillan-Bloedel of British Columbia, the largest forest products company in Canada. The novel was nominated for a Governor General's Award, and although de la Roche did not win that award, in 1938 the Royal Society of Canada presented her with the Lorne Pierce Medal.
In 1939, de la Roche and Clement returned to Canada with the children. Ever after, the family lived near or in Toronto. De la Roche's next two decades saw ten more Jalna novels, the non-fiction Quebec: Historic Seaport (1945), the children's books Song of Lambert (1955) and Bill and Coo (1958), and the autobiography Ringing the Changes (1957). The quality of the Jalna novels remained fairly consistent. There is good writing even in the last and worst novel of the series, Morning at Jalna (1960), and the second-last, Centenary at Jalna (1958), is one of the best.
Until her death, de la Roche continued to receive voluminous fan mail and impressive royalty cheques. In 1951 she also received the first University National Award Medal from the University of Alberta for her career contribution to Canadian letters. In 1954 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Toronto.
Mazo de la Roche died on 12 July 1961 at home in bed with her family by her side. She was buried in the graveyard of St. George's Anglican Church, beside Lake Simcoe, at Sibbald Point. When Caroline Clement died on 3 August 1972, she was buried beside de la Roche. By the time de la Roche died, the Jalna series had sold eleven million copies in 193 English-language editions and 92 foreign-language editions. The year Clement died, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a television series loosely based on the Jalna books.
While the initial Jalna novels were regarded as distinguished literary achievements, subsequent sequels increasingly drew scorn from reviewers and academics. Not a single word about de la Roche was included in the 1955 Canadian Anthology edited by Klinck and Watters. For fifty years Canadian professors have been saying that the Jalna novels are flawed because the Whiteoaks and their way of life are not realistic. “Mazo de la Roche is a romantic artist,” explained Desmond Pacey (1960). “It is her romanticism, I believe, that has made her such an embarrassment to Canadian critics.” De la Roche created “larger-than-life characters with exaggerated passions”, said George Hendrick (1970). De la Roche created a “myth of a humane, harmless gentry – living in the Canadian Great Good Place”, said Dennis Duffy (1983).
Yet the Jalna chronicles always had defenders. “The creation of the Jalna books is the most protracted single feat of literary invention in the brief history of Canada's literature”, said literary critic and novelist Robertson Davies (1961). The Jalna series covered with “comprehensive detail” a century of enormous change in this country, said broadcaster and biographer Ronald Hambleton (1966). De la Roche forms the “transition” between the generation of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence and their nineteenth-century “foremothers”, Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, said professor and biographer Joan Givner (1989). “The world of Jalna is an integral part of the roots of Canada”, said novelist Scott Symons (1990). “To lose it would leave us groping for an abandoned identity.”
The Jalna series has been out of print for thirty years, but not entirely forgotten. Canadians occasionally publish useful scholarly articles about the Jalna novels and there are now six biographies of de la Roche. In 1994, France 2, a Paris-based television station, showcased a mini-series called Jalna. In 1995, Benares Historic House, a museum partly dedicated to commemorating de la Roche, opened in Mississauga, Ontario. In 1996, Sovereign House, a second museum with the same mandate, opened in Bronte, Ontario. In 2006, XYZ Publishing will issue a new edition of Jalna and Whiteoaks of Jalna.
Citation: Kirk, Heather Pearson. "Mazo De La Roche". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 June 2006 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1183, accessed 23 June 2021.]