It’s no secret that Mazo de la Roche loved to read. So, we have sassy young Adeline pulling out a book on the ship which takes her from Ireland to the wilds of what-would-soon-be-Canada.
There’s at least one literary reference in each of the volumes, and sometimes these are endowed with particular significance.
In the last volume I read, for instance, Whiteoak Heritage, Mrs. Stroud explains to Renny how she and Eden connected: ““Perhaps you didn’t know that Eden and I are friends. We got friendly over books.”
For them, it’s not so much a matter of sharing particular favourites (although it is vitally important to Eden that Mrs. Stroud appreciates his own original verse).
It’s more a question of their both being readers and compelled by written narratives.
After Mrs. Stroud’s husband died (he was much older and she is now only 38 years old), she travelled for a time, exploring her independence and landscapes.
“The following summer she had ventured as far as Quebec, had taken long walks about the Citadel and had sat on the promenade reading The Golden Dog.”
But books alone are not a balm for Mrs. Stroud’s loneliness. “Still she was not satisfied. She felt a well of emotion and eloquence within herself. Yet she had no one on whom to spend her emotion or to move by her eloquence.”
Eden’s great-uncle Nicholas is lonely too. And he, also, finds comfort and distraction in literature, as another family member observes.
“She had a glimpse of Nicholas stretched on a chaise-longue, with Nip curled up on his middle. Bubbling snores came from under his drooping grey moustache. Sometimes he appeared to be dissatisfied with these noises and would substitute for them scornful hissing noises, like a locomotive getting up steam. The copy of Nicholas Nickleby which he had been reading hung from his handsome hand.”
Eden presses another book on Nicholas, who actually is the less bookish of the uncles (Ernest still hopes to have something of his own published someday) but he responds positively nonetheless.
“’Here’s a book I think you’d enjoy.’ Eden put South Wind into his uncle’s hand. ‘Are you busy? May I come in?’
‘Thanks for the book. Alluring title — on a night of north wind. Upon my word, I can’t remember a windier fall.”
The Norman Douglas novel focuses on a small cast of characters, eccentric but charming, which perhaps isn’t all that different from the Jalna cast.
“‘I love talking about us. I think we’re maddening but I love us. Don’t you think we’re lovable?'” asks Eden. (This is from Whiteoak Heritage, actually, but Eden’s love of them persists.)
Even the neighbour girl, Pheasant Vaughan (whose father Maurice had been engaged to Meg Whiteoak before his dalliance with the woman who became Pheasant’s mother) reads with some enthusiasm.
She even turns to books as a means by which to connect to her father, Maurice. She tried to talk to him about Rob Roy which she was reading. He answered politely but he was not interested. She thought it’s too old-fashioned, I must read what he is reading.”
Pheasant pulls out a war novel, loaned to Maurice by Nicholas Whiteoak, and although the desriptions horrify her, they are valuable in that they hint to her of the kinds of experiences that Maurice had at war and does not discuss.
So novels and stories can be instructive, but their mere presence can also be comforting and reassuring. “How good was the feel of home, thought Finch, to be in the warmth, to hear the sounds of home — his aunt’s voice, reading aloud to Wakefield — his grandmother’s laugh, as she defeated Ernest at backgammon — Meg and Rags having a heated discussion as to the relative merits of two brands of silver polish.”
Really, it’s just me noticing all the books, I think. Perhaps more what we are meant to notice are the changing ideas of womanhood in these stories. Which Pheasant actually observes directly in books. These stories contribute to her dreams, which remain traditional in many ways.
As with her romantic interest. He and Pheasant “still contrived their secret meetings. He had become the very lodestar of her life, by whose light all that she thought or did illumined. Yet, strangely, the idea of marrying him had never entered her head. Marriage to her was something remote and romantic which one read of in books but did not contemplate for oneself.”
But, not in all ways.
“The thought of a girl’s having a latchkey all her own was somehow fascinating to Pheasant. She pictured herself as coming home at midnight from some scene of revelry, inserting the latchkey in the large old lock, of which the actual key lay in a drawer of the hat rack, and entering the house on tiptoe, creeping past the room where Maurice slept and flinging off her velvet cloak in her own room, flinging it off with a weary gesture, sated with late hours and pleasure.”
And some of the women are more overtly ambitious, still pursuing a traditional goal but defining their own terms.
“During these winter months Dilly’s pursuit of Renny was …earnest…. Yet it was more difficult, because while he was more accessible to attack, he was, at the same time, even more shy, and decidedly fiercer. They were like two hunters, out after two different sorts of prey. They differed also in their motives, for Piers did not yet know whether he intended a direct kill or whether the pursuit itself was enough, but Dilly was quite sure of what she wanted. She wanted to see the red-haired master of Jalna lying mortally wounded at her feet.”
And, so, with the sixth book of the series read, one must now read on, to see if the “red-haired master” will lie mortally wounded at a woman’s feet after all.