This post is published to coincide with the anniversary of the author’s death.
She died in her home in Toronto on July 12, 1961, where she had written the final Jalna book, Centenary at Jalna.
Even though I deliberately chose a story-order reading, over a publication-order reading, of this series, I have been secretly hankering to get back to the writer’s beginning.
Jalna was the first of the novels in Mazo de la Roche’s famous series to be published, in 1927 (although it was the third novel she published, and two plays and a volume of stories preceded as well).
The first book won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly Award and the series would go on to sell more than 11 million copies in 193 English and 92 foreign editions.
Some of the characters were amalgamations of friends and family members and the house itself was believed to be based on a home in Clarkson, Ontario (pictured alongside).
“Benares” in Clarkson, Ontario (Photograph of a photo in Heather Kirk’s Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where Was Jalna Tecumseh Press, 2007)
In The Building of Jalna, the young Adeline is a force to be reckoned with; in Jalna, Adeline is an old woman, but Mazo de la Roche introduces another young woman, Alayne, who is just as strong and independent. (And Adeline may have pulled out a book to read on the crossing, but Alayne works in publishing, which instantly appeals.)
Alayne struggles to understand the pull of the family matriarch. “Gran—Gran,” thought Alayne. Every conversation in this family seemed to be punctuated by remarks about that dreadful old woman.”
Adeline barely registers Alayne, but Alayne’s presence impacts everyone else in the house, particularly the men. “Her presence in the house seemed to him a most lovely and disturbing thing, like a sudden strain of music.”
And that man speaking is not the man to whom she is engaged. To him, she had an immediate and undeniable pull. “She could scarcely speak, for the love now filling her heart that had been drained empty of love almost drowned her senses. ‘Yes—I will marry you if you want me. I want you with all my soul.’”
Love dragged her from New York to the Whiteoaks’ home, but, after arriving she is less sure of her decision. The Whiteoak family is unfamiliar and, in some ways, uncommon, to her experience anyway.
“She had been brought up in an atmosphere of a home peaceful as a nest of doves, and this sudden transplanting into the noisy raillery and hawklike dissensions of the Whiteoaks bewildered her. Up in her room she quaked at the thought of her oddness among these people. When [he] came up an hour later he seemed exhilarated rather than depressed by the squall.”
And not only does she feel herself to be apart from the family, but she begins to view them as strange, bizarre even. She does not feel as though she fits in, and as time passes, she begins to question whether she should want to.
“The Whiteoaks seemed to be able to endure an unconscionable amount of either heat or cold. Alayne began to be accustomed to these extremes of temperature, to an evening spent before the blistering heat of the drawing-room fire, and a retiring to a bedroom so chill that her fingers grew numb before she was undressed.”
They are unnatural, almost supernatural to her view. They are invigorated by encounters which should drain them, they crave extremes which cause discomfort to others.
And, yet, just as she seems to be questioning her suitability for the engagement she has embarked upon, she kisses one of the other men in the family. (To avoid spoilers, I have not said which man she wanted with all her soul, and now you see that she may have been reserving part of her soul to want one of the others anyhow.)
“I’m willing to take all the blame. After all, a kiss isn’t such a terrible thing, and I’m a relation. Men occasionally kiss their sisters-in-law. It will probably never happen again unless, as you say, you brazenly approach me when—what were you trying to say, Alayne? Now I come to think of it, I believe I have the right to know. It might save me some stabs of conscience.”
Because Alayne was immediately an intriguing and interesting character, her relationships are at the heart of my reading of this volume, but all the elements which characterize the later books are present in this volume as well, including Adeline’s sharp tongue (and her parrot’s sharper tongue), lengthy descriptive observations of landscape and weather, schoolboy lassitude and impertinence, love of letters (and the arts in general), elaborate country-cooked meals, proud neighbours and blossoming flirtations and romances.
Had it been my first, Jalna would have been even more likely to pull me into the Whiteoaks’ story than The Building of Jalna.