When I first peeked into the Jalna books, I discovered that Mazo de la Roche’s biographers depended heavily upon Ringing the Changes, her autobiography, which I was pleased to find in the library.
It’s that kind of old book whose pages have been turned so often that they are softer near their edges, which means there are a lot of stains too, which I choose to interpret as chocolate or coffee spots and smears.
There are no footnotes or endnotes, but there are photographs, in which everyone – and everything – looks lovely.
At this point, the author is about to write her last Jalna books which “sold 9 million copies in 193 English- and 92 foreign-language editions” and she is writing this for her fans but also for herself.
“Thinking it over, I am convinced that I know little about the writing of an autobiography – that I am without skill in presenting my own life. But i have tried to see myself objectively, as a character in a book, my weakness and my – I hesitate to write the word strength, but will instead use the word resilience – my vacillations and my temerity. I realize that I have possibly given too much space to the telling of little things, but these had a way of pushing themselves in. They were important to me.”
She is preoccupied by her “record of books written…seeing her children grow up, of seeing a different sort of world rise into my astonished view”.
But the first third of the book is devoted to her younger years, especially to her growing friendship with her cousin, Caroline. They had a game of pretend, which reminds of the game “making up” that Edith Wharton played when she was young (but she did not have a Caroline), which they resumed whenever they could. This kind of scene plays out many times, here when the girls are in their later teens.
“When we were alone together I asked: ‘Have you forgotten our Play?’
‘Never.’ She gave her gay little laugh. ‘Never for a moment. Let’s do it now.’ And so we did.”
The style is anecdotal and informal, dialogue often imagined, as in the passage above. Nonetheless, certain patterns are shared comfortably in such a manner, as with the arrival of Bunty, who undoubtedly “worked” in such a fashion for the duration of her four-legged life.
“While we were passing through times of sorrow and preparing again to move, the Scottie, Bunty, was developing in her own sturdy carefree way. She busied herself in the grounds or explored the neighbouring cornfield. But when I wrote she would come and lie at my feet and this was the beginning of her share in my work.”
Many memories are untethered to dates. It doesn’t matter when a particular book was read aloud by a parent, for instance, only that it was read and shared.
“We were enthralled by old books. My mother read aloud Don Quixote, from a very old copy, with strange print and stranger illustrations. It had belonged to my grandfather de la Roche. There were nearly a thousand pages of it.”
Although of course publication naturally tethers some memories to specific dates.
“Before this removal was accomplished Knopf had published Explorers of the Dawn. It was highly praised by the critics and sold moderately well. Christopher Morley wrote of it: “There will be readers who will look through it, as through an open window, into a land of clear gusty winds and March sunshine and volleying church bells on Sunday mornings, into a land of terrible contradictions, a land whose émigrés look back to it tenderly, yet without too poignant regret — the almost forgotten land of childhood.”
Sometimes I surmise that readers glimpse some aspects of the author’s personality alongside such concrete details, as with the details of a particular publication’s success.
“For a time it was on the list of best sellers in America and I think it is not without interest to give the titles and names of the authors of the four books which preceded it on that list.
They were, and this was in 1922:
The Secret Places of the Heart, by H.G. Wells.
Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington.
Memoirs of a Midget, by Walter de la Mare.
Adrienne Toner, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.”
This is not a matter of capturing the zeitgeist, rather an exercise in recounting which of the books were more successful than Mazo de la Roche’s. (She does not include the books which fell below hers on the list.)
It’s clear, however, that she loves books. (The following passage resonated with me particularly, as I am reading my grandmother’s copies of the Jalna novels, slightly mildewed, but not – thankfully – falling apart.)
“Some of the most beautifully bound literally fell to pieces in our hands. Dozens upon dozens we were forced to throw away. It was heart-breaking to see them, and there were the bookmarks to show where my grandfather had left off reading, and there were passages he had marked! What charmed me most, and it was in good condition, was an ancient volume of natural history with fabulous pictured beasts. Almost all the books were in Latin, Greek or French, the poetry and drama of the classics. Did my grandfather, demanded Caroline, never relax with a thriller? Why, yes, there was a book by Edgar Allan Poe — and in English, too!”
Nonetheless, at this point in her career she was remarkably accomplished and her autobiography is of interest in this context. She was perhaps obliged to capture her connections and achievements in that particular light.
“Our nearest neighbours were the Livesays who had already spent several summers in the woodland. They had built a comfortable house and surrounded it with lovely gardens. J.F.B. Livesay was president of the Canadian Press. He had been a Canadian war correspondent and had written what was acknowledged to be the best book on Canada’s part in the First World War. […] He and his daughter Dorothy were cherished companions. Now one of Canada’s most interesting poets, she has written a Lament for him, than which I think I have read no more beautiful tribute to a father.”
It’s particularly interesting to read about the ways in which she acknowledges connections with her Jalna stories and her experience. (A book has been published, since, which suggests more direct and plentiful connections, but I haven’t read it yet, preferring to discover the stories on their own terms first.)
“Jalna was inspired by the traditions of that part of Southern Ontario on the fringe of which we had built Trail Cottage. The descendants of the retired military and naval officers who had settled there stoutly clung to British traditions. No house in particular was pictured; no family portrayed. From the very first the characters created themselves. They leaped from my imagination and from memories of my own family. The grandmother, Adeline Whiteoak, refused to remain a minor character but arrogantly, supported on either side by a son, marched to the centre of the stage.”
With more than sixteen volumes in the series, it’s strange to consider that she once chose the name rather randomly, unsuspecting of its later significance to so many readers and viewers.
“The name Jalna was suggested to me in this way: a member of the Civil Service, in the same department as Caroline, had spent many years in India. When she told him that I was in search of names of military stations there he sent me a list of quite a number. I pored over them and chose Jalna because it was the shortest; it was easy to remember and looked well in print. When I wrote it at the top of my first page of manuscript, it never entered my head that one day it would become well-known to quite a number of people.”
The joy of writing this story is fundamental for her, and I love the idea of Caroline reading the pages aloud in the summer evenings. I imagine them debating plot points and directing and redirecting romances and losses.
“That summer I lived with the Whiteoaks, completely absorbed by them. In fancy I opened the door of Jalna, passed inside, listened to what was going on. Except for Bunty I was isolated in my woodland till Caroline’s return in the evening. As the chapters were finished she read them aloud.
The months passed.”
[Naomi: this bit is for you, given your keen interest in another Canadian classic novelist. “Thomas Raddall, that fine Nova Scotian novelist, has written to me: ‘You cannot imagine what your winning of the Atlantic Monthly prize meant to us other Canadian writers. It was as though you opened a door that had been inexorably shut against us.’”]
The writing did not always come easily to her. “Only a writer who has suffered an attack of nerves, such as I had passed through, can quite understand the effort of beginning, the tremendous eagerness to put down the first words, the fear of defeat, of breakdown. I knew what I wanted to write. The words were at my hand. But could I write them?”
But it was worth the investment. “In Toronto, Whiteoaks with Ethel Barrymore had had a warm reception, even though on its opening night there was a blizzard. Traffic was blocked by cars and the First Night audience was a blaze of diamonds and ermine such as is seldom seen in the theatre nowadays, when people may look as dowdy as they choose.”
Mazo de la Roche inhabited a world of diamonds and ermine, although she wrote of a big house in a little woods in Ontario.