The snow has melted from all but the most sheltered parts of the yards and the temperature has hovered above zero for so long that any fresh flakes that fall do not accumulate on the ground. The earth has warmed, the daylight lingers well past five o’clock, and sometimes it smells like spring.
But on the afternoon I began to read the first Jalna book, finally, great sprawling flakes were falling, fiercely for a spell, then a gap of nearly an hour, then another burst, and so on. And the idea of beginning to read a family saga seemed to fit perfectly with a winter’s afternoon.
Before I began The Building of Jalna in earnest, I peeked into two biographies of Mazo de la Roche. Heather Kirk’s Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer (2006) actually references the other volume I had gathered: Joan Givner’s Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (1989).
My ideas about Mazo de la Roche circle around her fame. I think of her in the same breath as L.M. Montgomery: so successful. But there’s more to it: Joan Givner identified Mazo de la Roche’s work as forming a transition betwen the 19th-century’s literary foremothers, like Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill and Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence.
She draws attention to the fact that she opted for a life for which there was no precedent and no pattern, forged outside the established tradition of women’s lives. Referring to feminist literary scholars like Carolyn Heilbrun as well as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, she remarks upon Mazo de la Roche’s “unparalleled individuality”.
But Heather Kirk adds that Mazo de la Roche wasn’t an isolated figure when she began to write the Jalna stories in 1925 and 1926; she was part of the literary community in Toronto, a member of the Canadian Authors’ Association, and acquainted with prominent writers like Morley Callaghan, Raymond Knister and Charles G.D. Roberts.
She also had support closer to home. In her autobiography, Mazo de la Roche paints an enchanting bookish picture of her and her young cousin Caroline: “”We sat together at a table close to the window to catch the last of the daylight and read aloud, page about. I remember how carefully we sounded the ‘g’ in gnat. Our heads – hers fair, mine curly and brown – touching. Our legs, in their long black cashmere stockings, dangling.”
Caroline’s support of Mazo’s writing was vitally important in the early years. “I had a small sum of money which I had inherited from my grandfather, but I felt like the man of the family then, I felt Mazo must go on with her writing,” she explains.
Mazo was also inspired by her reading, listing John Galsworthy among her favourite authors (with Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Sheila Kaye-Smith). The similarities between Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga and the Jalna saga are undeniable: “family solidarity and substance” are at the heart of both stories.
She was already a successful novelist when she began to write these stories. She wrote “Jalna” at the top of the page and worked chapter-by-chapter from beginning to end with little revision. In the evenings, Caroline read aloud what Mazo had written, and they discussed the work and future chapters together.
“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.”
I’ve just begun to open the door of Jalna myself. I like the idea of knowing a little more about my host before I settle in.
How are your reading projects for this year unfolding so far? Have you dipped into any writers’ biographies lately?
What’s the longest series of novels you’ve read? Do you have a favourite family saga?