When I began to read this series, I worried – needlessly – about keeping the characters straight: actually, the main character is Jalna itself.
“Everything about the house had been put in perfect order. Workmen had been there to mend the roof, tighten the supports of the shutters, and give the woodwork a glossy coat of new paint. They had cut back the Virginia creeper which, in its exuberant growth, would have completely covered the windows and so excluded even the peering sun from the doings of the Whiteoaks in this early summer of nineteen hundred and six.”
The years pass, some characters pass and Jalna remains. Adeline, the matriarch, is growing old, but she is in nearly perfect order too.
“She had passed her eightieth birthday, but she moved strongly and her broad shoulders were just beginning to stoop. Although the May day was summerlike, she wore a heavy black cashmere dress with a much shirred and pleated bodice and a wide band of black velvet on the bottom of the long skirt.”
Which is a good thing, because someone needs to suggest a repair to the hayloft.
Does it get more risqué than a woman cocking her head in the direction of a man who is studying her from the other side of a hay-strewn floor?
Yes. Yes, it does.
Something truly scandalous is afoot. (Even more scandalous than the nanny setting up house!)
A young man has forgotten himself, forgotten his honour, broken a promise.
But it wasn’t Maurice’s fault.
It was Meg’s fault.
For wanting such a long engagement.
For expecting faithfulness out of wedlock.
“I’ve never stopped loving Meg. Meg would have a year’s engagement. She would scarcely let me kiss her. But every time I looked at Elvira I could see she wanted me to kiss her. Then one day last August I forgot myself. I took her in my arms…. I was lost then. It was just like a wild dream.””
And if it wasn’t Meg’s fault, it was Elvira’s fault.
For wanting to be kissed. Or something. (That’s supposed to be Elvira, in the hay. My mistake. Her family is from the wrong side of the barn; it only makes sense that the scenery is reckless over there.)
Meg is ashamed and hurt, but her father (who scandalously married the nanny in the third book of the series, with Meg being their youngest child) is impatient with her dramatics.
“You must not imagine that this sort of thing has never happened to an engaged girl before. It’s very rough on you, I’ll admit. But young men are often wild, you know. This will be a good lesson for Maurice. Far better have it happen before marriage than after. He’ll probably be a good husband to you all his days.”
Adeline is suitably horrified but happily preoccupied by the presence of a visiting Irish cousin. “She racked her brain to recall the history of his branch of the family, alternately stressing its disgracefulness and the impregnable grandeur of the main stock.”
Connections betweeen Canada and the settlers’ homelands vary. It’s worth discussing. And the novel ends with an Irish song, the image of morning on the Irish shore presumably a comfort and inspiration.
Although it seems too neat to suggest that young Maurice Vaughan’s morals have slipped so dramatically because he has overlooked his heritage. (The land they are settling is not viewed as anyone else’s homeland. They are entitled to this territory from their perspective, having built settlements in the community and on the land itself.)
“But the Whiteoaks never became absolutely of the country as the Vaughans had. The Vaughans had no further interest in the Old Land and never revisited it. But Nicholas, Ernest, and Philip had been sent to school in England, and many Atlantic crossings were made by the Whiteoaks.”
The Irish cousin is only entertaining for a short time, however. For the rest of family, that is. Regardless of their connection to the old country, Malahide becomes tiresome.
“His presence became like a hair shirt to their proud body. His attitude toward Adeline was slavish. When she made one of her shrewd and sometimes witty remarks he would shake with silent laughter. When she launched a stinging comment at one of the family he twisted his long legs together and writhed in appreciation. At whatever game he played with her she was invariably the winner, so that she was always pleased with him.”
And family is paramount, but Adeline is suspicious that the younger generation is only concerned with their inheritance. “Well, they were all tarred of the same brush, wanted everything for themselves, but she was equal to them.”
In fact, they seem so privileged that they don’t seem to understand that they will need to rely upon this inheritance in order to live as luxuriously as they have been living, with this estate backing all their needs and desires. But Adeline persists in her belief.
And she does continue to play quite an active role in this story. She is often advising. “Nothing that you enjoy is a bad habit,” she says, for instance.
More pertinent to this particular novel in the sequence, she has a warning to issue about love affairs. “You must not set your heart too strongly on that girl. You never know how things will end in these first love affairs. I’ve had ’em. They die a natural death. But when a great love comes you’ll know it. Let me tell you that!”
Presumably Philip was Adeline’s great love. (Or, was he?) But readers have the sense that Jalna readers are meant to look to the Whiteoak clan for another great love in the future. And, in contrast, those forward-looking Vaughans who spend too much time in haylofts, don’t know anything about great loves. Although the patriarch and matriarch are left to care for the product of young Maurice’s dalliance.
When Adeline visits the out-of-wedlock baby, she observes it in poetic terms: “Downy dark hair clung in moist rungs on its head, which, like the bud of a flower, pushed, tender and relentless, from its sheath. As they looked down on it, its lips widened in a secret smile that flickered a moment across its face and was gone.”
But when Mrs. Vaughan sees the “secret smile”, she whispers: “It hears the angels.” And Adeline says ““More likely it’s just wet itself.”
Adeline isn’t really much of a romantic then. Given how quickly she judged governess Mary Wakefield in the last book, one can only imagine how quickly she’d’ve sized up the hayloft harlot.
But her grandson, despite his apparent ties, is not as savvy. “‘Oh, damn that woman — damn her! I never want to see her face again!’ Her face mocked at him from among the leaves. Her eyes slanted up at him from the glancing river.”
Renny doesn’t partake in the kind of scandal that his father did (falling for the governess). Nor does he make a hayloft-related error (like Maurice).
But he does face a loss because he has been tempted. And, meanwhile, another waits for him. “The fine, glossy skin beneath her eyes had been tinged with violet. Her hands had been as cold as ice, but her lips were hot and ardent with love for him. She would write by mail and he would do the same.”
This. This is the great love. Slightly damaging. Fevrish and chilling. Not entirely pleasant by any means.