The second book published in the series naturally focuses on Alayne, who was introduced as an independent young woman, who left her New York publishing career behind when she fell in love with one of the Whiteoak boys, in the series’ first volume, Jalna (published in 1927).
Viewing the Whiteoak family through Alayne’s eyes in that volume was informative, strengthening the family bonds (to each other and to the house itself) and intensifying the outsider’s sense of separateness.
Here, Alayne is at a distance (literally, for a time, emotionally also, while she sorts out the maelstrom of feelings she has had for oh-so-many of the Whiteoaks) but readers also view the Whiteoaks through Leigh’s eyes.
At first, Leigh is eager to meet the family. “Look here, Finch, you must ask me out. I’m eaten up with curiosity to meet this family of yours. You’re like a picture without its frame. I want to be able to see you in that frame.”
But, once he does meet the Whiteoaks, the frame begins to overshadow the picture. “A feeling of weakness stole over Leigh. His efforts seemed suddenly futile. The life of this place was too strong for him, the personalities of the Whiteoaks too vigorous. He could never penetrate the solid wall they presented to the world.”
Leigh, like Alayne, wonders if there is any place for him in this framed picture. “Never, never, he thought, could an outsider become one of them.”
No, the Whiteoaks, beginning with the matriarch are a closed-off bunch. And yes, Adeline, over a hundred now, is still on the scene, tormenting the lot of them, insiders (always) and outsiders (whenever given the opportunity). “Bosh! I’ve made people believe black was white before this.” She has great faith in her enduring capacity and all the household’s residents come whenever she beckons them.
Adeline has her favourites, and that matter is of primary importance, as the question of inheritance looms. Who has money and who does not (not all the Whiteoaks have access to ready cash) is a curious matter, for the future and it comes to the fore in Finch’s case in the present-day as well, for his friend, Leigh, has greater means and appetites and their differing status creates a quiet tension between the boys.
Renny is impatient with Finch (and with his friend, and, perhaps, with the bond between the boys as well, which de la Roche hints at, but neither names nor explores).
But he’s doing some soul-searching of his own and there is this matter of “an inexplicable magnetic current” and “a volcanic disturbance”. And there’s a young woman in the community whose “mind was fervently preoccupied with the young men at Jalna. Married or single, their doings filled her thoughts.”
It’s impossible to read these passages without giggling and, indeed, a good part of the pleasure resides in that giggling. But the bookish bits are of interest too. In this volume, we hear again about how many books Alayne reads, stacks and stacks of them. Which she has time for by “not getting time for anything else”. And we have Renny reminiscing about his mother (step-mother, technically), who was nearly always reading, in his memory. She was a poetry-loving bookworm in this novel published in 1929.
But years later, when readers meet her in Mary Wakefield, a novel published twenty years later, in 1949, she is presented as an upstart governess, who smokes and wears paint on her lips and scent, when she snares the man of the house, and the only book she reads is Lady Audley’s Secret, when she is supposed to be otherwise engaged. However, young Renny was the source of some scandal himself, so maybe he draws his line more generously than many.
Although he remains impatient with Eden and his writing projects. In fact, Eden has a new idea, which he shares, enthusiastically, with Finch:
“I have it in my mind to write a narrative poem of the early history of French Canada. There’s tremendous scope in it: Jacques Cartier. The perilous voyages in sailing vessels. The French Governors, and their mistresses. Crafty Intendants. Heroic Jesuits. The first Seigneurs. Voyageurs. The Canadien chansons. Those poor devils of Indians who were captured and taken to France, and put to work in the galleys. Think of the song of homesickness I could put into their mouths!”
(At this time, the residential school system was in full-swing in Canada, genocidal policies and practices flourishing, so it’s unsurprising that the only natives mentioned are those who were captured, enslaved but, at least, alive. But lest one suspect Mazo de la Roche of anachronistic sensitivity to indigenous people’s attachment to their homelands, there’s the mention of those heroic Jesuits too, so readers don’t forget where her true allegiance lies.)
Whiteoaks is one of the chunkiest of the Jalna books, and it really does feel like a busy and satisfying installment in the series.
When reading in story-order rather than publication-order, it marks the halfway point in the series, so obviously it’s too soon to make the kind of statement I am about to make, but so far this is the volume which I can imagine rereading.
Here, even the youngest Whiteoak (Wakefield) is old enough to have a personality and the oldest (Adeline) is still on the scene, parrot in tow.
Although Alayne feels like a key character to me, this volume affords all of the characters an opportunity to change (sometimes, even, grow), so it feels like more of an ensemble story than some of the earlier volumes.
Now I am curious, what’s in store with Finch’s Fortune.