Although following Finch’s Fortune directly, the fortune only recently received and dispensed, Master of Jalna was actually published more than twenty years before Finch’s Fortune.
It’s easy to imagine why the author would have wanted to revisit the Whiteoaks before the events of Master of Jalna play out, to spend more time in the time period immediately preceding this sombre and sorrow-filled installment in the series.
Not only are we solidly in the Depression years, penury experienced even “at the top”, where the Whiteoaks are struggling to pay their household staff.
The Wragges haven’t been paid for six months (“Rags” was the fellow who came home from the war with Renny, needing work) although they are still bearing the brunt of the load. And this burden now includes regular arguments with Alayne, who is not happy with married life, with the Whiteoaks, with Jalna, let alone with the breakfast service and other mundane details.
Eden likely isn’t aware of this financial detail, but it’s still galling to hear him complain when Alayne suggests (and I am not often on Alayne’s “side”, not often very sympathetic towards her, despite her love of books and publishing) that he should have fetched his own copies of his favourite books, when lodging at the neighbour’s, rather than purchasing second copies of them: “Am I never to be out of hearing of the howl of the hard times?”
But this is not news: the Whiteoaks are a privileged bunch, even though now they must keep fewer horses and consider selling or leasing portions of the family acreage.
Some of their struggles are universal, however. Baby Adeline for instance (named for the legendary matriarch) is heading for the terrible two’s:
“If Renny reprimanded her or gave her a slap, as he sometimes did, she would fly into a tantrum, stiffen herself, pull his hair or bite him. This violence of hers charmed him. He would hug her to him, covering her distorted face with kisses, and, when the storm subsided, dandle her as though she were a model of infant propriety.”
(Yes, babies are slapped. Which is nothing compared to the last volume, in which a terrier was stabbed to death with a pitchfork by farmhands because he was believed to have been rabid. This is based on a traumatic loss which actually happened to one of Mazo de la Roche’s dogs, so it is doubly hard to read, with that knowledge.)
And young women love men they’d be better off not loving. “‘How many girls,’ she thought, ‘have sat looking out of their windows, just as I am, not knowing what to do, feeling wicked because they love someone they have no right to love….’ The night seemed to her to be full of an aching longing for an unattainable dawn.”
So…not only ALL of that. But there is an unexpected and lingering illness and death.
“Then the other reason: I’ve always tried to keep the family together. I’ve liked to feel that those gone on ahead knew I was doing it. It’s been my religion – all I’ve had – I guess. You boys – one of you is gone now – have been a part of my love for Jalna. I can’t bear to think that one of you could hate another so that he wouldn’t touch his dead body….” (There are so many Whiteoaks boys, that this isn’t much of a spoiler.)
Anyhow, the focus of the novel shifts to afford room for one more female character of interest. Mazo de la Roche often draws her characters to type, but for 1933, her female characters sometimes challenge type too, which Clara Lebaux does.
Clara presents feminine strength combined with passion; whereas readers have met other female characters who challenged on one or the other of those qualities previously, both her passion and her strength have a natural intensity.
“Clara Lebraux appeared from the stable, carrying on her back a sack filled with straw. She wore a man’s coveralls, and her cotton shift, open at the neck, showed her rounded throat and chest as brown as mahogany. Her hair was the colour of a straw that was caught in its short denseness. Her round eyes regarded her visitors with an expression of confident friendliness.”
She does not belong to Jalna proper, but she embodies many of the qualities that the Whiteoaks possess. Her efforts to establish and maintain a fox farm provide an interesting adjunct to the ways in which a young widow could attempt to provide for her daughter if willing to challenge traditional gender roles.
Throughout these volumes, there are glimmers of the kind of descriptive and romantic writing that characterized the writing of L.M. Montgomery; one can imagine that, if she were to have written for adults a couple of decades later (and not been bound by the expectations of being a minister’s wife) that she would have written stories like these, scenes like this winter day.
“Renny, followed by his spaniels, Piers’ terrier, and Jock, the sheep dog, was prowling through the snowy winter woods in search of a Christmas tree. Among the bare-limbed oaks and maples the vigorous green of the young spruces invited him. They thrust out their boughs, tier upon tier, their central peaks seeming designed to support a gilded star. The snow lay feathery on them and still fell in a sunlit mist. The sun, silver and rayless, showed himself less grand this morning, but gently cognizant of the earth’s approach.”
Master of Jalna is a tense and suspenseful volume in the context of this series; I hope for some relief in Whiteoak Harvest.