Mazo de la Roche’s Return to Jalna (1956)

It’s been sixteen years since the matriarch Adeline died and her namesake is both daring enough to strip down and swim in a pool and old enough to catch the eye of a male cousin (who is perhaps a little over-interested in her bathing).

But overall, Mazo de la Roche is better with matriarchs than with youth and childhood. Not only did she not have children herself but she must have spent very little time in their company. (Or, perhaps she did, and she simply did not enjoy their company, due to the “peculiar air of squalor which children are able to impart to the rooms they occupy”.)

Nevermind: verisimilitude regarding the children in the Jalna stories would not have been on the minds of many 1950s readers anyhow. They might have believed it appropriate for children to muse on the buds on a bush or the fashionableness of their clothing, and to make bizarre comparisons (like trees to Druids – as though Druids were on the minds of many children of the day – although de la Roche herself did have a thing for trees).

Sometimes this leads to nice little poetic bits – like when a boy returns to Jalna after a long absence, which included the war years, so there have been many injuries and losses – and observes: “It’s as though we were a coloured glass window that had been broken and then put together in a new pattern.”

Anyway, it also doesn’t matter because characters spend very little time being children: they are babies and then they are adults.

Some are inordinately concerned with love relationships:

“She was a figure in porcelain who somehow had managed to inspire passion in him, to devastate his life. But now he was free of her. Never again! The grip of those arms…those lips…but now he was free and in his own place! He was not the man he might have been if he had never known her. On the other hand he could look back on the poignant spasm of his desire for her as a thing conquered, outlived. Perhaps the great love of his life lay ahead.”

Some are openly dismissive of marriage and romantic love:

“The whole idea is repulsive to me… I am my own and I belong to no one.” (And no wonder, when marriage and desire are viewed as such destructive and devastating forces.)

Perhaps that’s why Adeline is content to skinnydip while a cousin observes, because she’s already determined to remain single: “‘Don’t worry…I’m never going to marry. I’m going to live always at Jalna with Daddy. I shall never find a man I’d love as well as I do him.”

But while Adeline wants everything to stay the same, there is a Downton-feel to this volume as social change results in a winnowing of household, stable and grounds staff.

On one hand, we have the Wragges doing “the greater part of the work in the house that was far from convenient to work in, where there were two old gentlemen who had, from infancy, been waited on and who expected summoning bells to be answered with celerity”.

On the other hand, we have Renny’s wife doing the tasks of “bed-making and dusting, of getting three children off to school in term-time, of mending, of darning, or making the little girls do some share of the work, of supervising their studies”.

And the story continues to expose the tension between tradition and modernity in other ways as well, in particular an ongoing and intense debate about the wallpaper in the upstairs hall (a familiar conversation by now). While the men were at war, Renny’s wife not only redecorated but she dared to install a radiator; you’d think a fellow would be happy to have survived, but no, he wanted that grimy wallpaper to welcome him home too.

“Did you ever feel the gold leaves and scrolls on that paper? They felt solid. I’ll bet the men had a time to get it off.”
“Yes. They did. But surely you must acknowledge that the hall looks larger, airier, more cheerful.”
“Not to me.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that some changes are easily undone, although the wallpaper is most assuredly lost. No matter, for there are broader canvases on which to paint this battle, as a newcomer to the neighbourhood plans to build an entire village on the edge of the Whiteoak property.

Perhaps even more disturbing, young Adeline sees a theatre production of “Othello”. With her cousin but also with another young man, all three having deceived Renny as to their plans.

This enrages Renny on so many levels, partly because there is a scene between Adeline and the young man which he interrupts before he completely understands their intentions (although they weren’t likely honourable):

“How do I know what encouragement she gave that man? You have seen Othello. You saw it with me – as a married woman. What do you think of the lines – of the scenes – for a young girl’s entertainment? She saw a Negro in the part! What do you think of that?”

Throughout, there is no place like home.

“He ran his hand caressingly over the glossy walnut grapes with their leaves that decorated the newel post. Tonight he had an especial love for the house, and through its weather-mellowed bricks and staunch timbers he felt as especial intimacy come out to him.”

Only three years have passed since Wakefield’s Course, but that’s enough time for the men of Jalna to return (most of them) and, in the wake of the war, there is even more appreciation of the home fires and traditional hierarchies and order (although the author was likely aiming for progressive when she had Renny and his wife attend “Othello”, even though it shocked their sensibility).

The next book is, as you will have guessed, all about Renny’s Daughter. Will she remain a devoted Daddy’s girl? Or will she transform into some kind of devastating crystal or porcelain entity?

2018-08-16T16:16:01+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Denise Duvall November 28, 2018 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    I bought a lot of these at a book sale in our community centre years ago. I have not read any yet. Time to get them out.

    • Buried In Print November 29, 2018 at 7:07 am - Reply

      Even though she published them all out-of-story-order, I would recommend beginning as near to the beginning as you can, to help keep the family straight in your mind: enjoy!

      • Denise Duvall November 29, 2018 at 8:16 pm - Reply

        Good idea. Since I do see a family tree in the front piece, this won’t be too difficult to figure out.

        • Buried In Print December 4, 2018 at 9:51 am - Reply

          You’d think so, but there are multiple characters with the same names and second marriages with mothers and step-mothers to track, so keep your finger in that page. 🙂

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife November 14, 2018 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Although I haven’t read any of these (and hadn’t even heard of them before you started posting about them!) they do sound appealing in that soap opera way. I used to watch soap operas, especially “General Hospital,” faithfully for years. And it’s true of them that the kids don’t do a whole lot between being born and their high school years – they tend to grow up overnight!

    • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 4:57 pm - Reply

      I do love the simple idea of a family/town saga. And reading this series over two years (16 books) has meant fairly regular contact with the family, so there was really only one gap in my reading where I had to spend time with the family tree (due to second marriages and too many Phillips), so it was mostly a comfortable sense of “oh, hello, there you all are, how have you been”. I watched about three different daytime soap operas with various family members, but I was much more about the nighttime soaps (“Dynasty”, “Falconcrest”, “Knotts Landing”, etc.) overall: exceedingly sassy!

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis November 14, 2018 at 10:31 am - Reply

    You know, Marcie, I read Jalna at the urging of a friend, and wasn’t real;l;y impressed. But your posts have slowly convinced me that I should try another in the series. My friend will be very happy. 😉

    • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      Oh, I dunno, Debbie. laughs Your instinct was likely correct. They are products of their time and I can see why you wouldn’t necessarily have connected with them, even that first one, which was one of the most popular!

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