In 1944, Mazo de la Roche published The Building of Jalna, nearly twenty years after she began to work with the Whiteoak family on the page. The beginning grew out of the middle, you might say.

Roche Building of Jalna SmallJalna was actually written first, begun in 1925 and published in 1927: the fifth in the sequence of the family chronicle.

On the back of that paperback, Adeline is described as the indomitable grandmother, but in The Building of Jalna she is a young bride.

Even as a young girl, pawing my grandmother’s copies of the novels, I knew you had to have the building of Jalna before you could have a Jalna; now, as an adult, I still agree, but I also want to see the history of the family unfold.

I think that I might know the indomitable grandmother better if I had a glimpse of her as a girl. And of my own grandmother’s copies, The Building of Jalna is the most well-read: so, here I begin.

Straight away, I realise that even though I had anticipated a traditional colonial romance, I was going to discover new layers of appropriation. For even the name ‘Jalna’ was taken from India, the name of the garrison town there where Adeline’s sister lived with her husband. (Later in the book, they explain that adopting the name was a romantic gesture from their perspective.)

In her sister’s home in India, Adeline met Philip, an officer in the Hussars and a descendant of a Warwickshire family, when she was 22 and he 32.

“The intimacy of their companionship never failed to exhilarate him. There was excitement in the thought that he could eventually control her, no matter what her defiance.”

And, so, they married. Because of couse that’s what one does when they meet someone they want to control.

They stay in India only long enough for Adeline to have a child – an unplanned and “unfortunate” event – because Philip quarrels with his colonel and Adeline is tired of the dust, the weakness induced by the climate, the gossip and the “swarming natives”.

Instead they plan to settle in the “New World”, where Philip has an uncle who is stationed as an officer in Quebec. (So many enticing conquered territories from which to choose.)

Adeline isn’t an Englishwoman, but the granddaughter of a marquis, born and raised in County Meath with Dublin the big city in her life.  Readers meet her as she emerges from a performance of The Bohemian Girl in London, enraptured, having glimpsed another world.

She is positively enchanted by the experience, and it was “not often one saw a face so arresting as Adeline’s,” husband Philip notes. (And, in turn, she observes that even among so many fine officers, Philip is the most dashing and most noble-looking man.)

Immersed in the overarching narrative of colonial “discovery”, the young couple follow what is now a familiar route, toting an ayah — who was terrified of crossing an ocean but also swept away by love, a “fierce possessive” and “selfish” love for baby Augusta — along with some beautiful pieces of furniture and beautiful carpets.

The ayah is valued, in part, because Adeline doesn’t wish to care for Gussie herself. (“She despised the too maternal woman.” Recall: her pregnancy was an ‘unfortunate’ event. Hardly the typical response for a story in this time.)

But the ayah is not a whole person; even infant Gussie is said to view her as a “slave”, and her illness during travel is viewed as an inconvenience rather than true hardship. (To be fair, in this volume, Gussie isn’t a whole person either; when questioned by a family member who is visiting the family with whom the Whiteoaks are living while Jalna is being built, neither Philip nor Adeline can remember how old Gussie is, and neither cares enough to try to figure it out.)

Along the way, Philip meets Adeline’s family, including Renny Court, her father, who isn’t an absentee landlord but knows every man, woman and child on his estate. (Too much steeplechasing for Philip’s liking, though: the visit is cut short. There’s a lot of judgment from one privileged person to another.)

During the journey, some steerage passengers learn that one of the gentleman travellers is an absentee landlord, whose mismanagement has resulted in loss and even death; Philip is embarrassed to see that Adeline joins the conflict, affronted by the irresponsible behaviour of a countryman.

In some ways, as in this instance, Adeline is a surprising heroine, capable of striking a blow or grasping a wheel out-of-turn. And she is sympathetic in situations when she has something to offer which someone else lacks (from coins to influence, from construction materials to a place to sleep). But she has also fully embraced the social hierarchy, so she is incapable of seeing those who occupy another rung of the ladder as full human beings.

Philip has an even more overt air of entitlement, as evidenced by the scene in which he has been left to care for Gussie unexpectedly and, instead, he follows the corridors into the ship’s steerage and hands Gussie to a Scottish mother of five, where he “commanded” her to care for his daughter.

But — he pays the poor woman. So, you see, he is not assuming that she is either willing or able to do the work for free, although he is assuming that she will want to do so. (And even though Mazo de la Roche does not slip into as many sloppy and short-handed racist and classist descriptions as some of her contemporaries, the stories remain rooted in the colonial gaze, so wordlessly the woman does care for Gussie, and so much so that she neglects her own children in the process, as though Gussie was the kind of child she had always dreamed of having.)

Mostly the “New World” is viewed in positive terms by the characters, with a hint of trepidation but mostly promise. It is acknowledged that other people are already inhabiting the land, though only in a cursory way.

One family member makes a joke about being able to offer a trade to the Indian Chief who will offer the Pipe of Peace (the presumption being that their arrival will be heralded and valued and rewarded).

But the natives are no joking matter for Patsy O’Flynn, the coachman who accompanies them to the New World; he thinks of them in the same breath as the wild animals who will also be prowling along the edges of the settlements in this uncivilised country (and when she becomes ill, Adeline, too, has feverish dreams of terror of “Red Indians”).

During the construction process, a neighbouring settler reinforces the idea that natives are trustworthy (perhaps an uncommon view amongst the privileged colonizers) but “half-breeds” are thieves. Adeline and Philip’s neighbour, Wilmott, recognizes value in unlikely places, however, and generously supports efforts toward civilization (financially and morally) when any individual shows potential. His intentions are good, but it’s patronizing all the same.

Adeline is a strong-willed woman, spirited and compassionate. There are many elements of her personality that I admire. (And her stubborn fondness for Wilmott – which veers sharply towards flirtation on occasion – is intriguing.)

Part of me thinks that we could be friends. Especially when I imagine her on the deck of the Alanna, travelling to the New World, wrapped in rugs so she can read the “much-discussed Pendennis”. (Not that I’m a huge Thackeray fan, but it’s not like I could’ve been reading Margaret Atwood or Alice Walker on deck back then.)

But then I realise that I wouldn’t even have been allowed on the deck, and I wouldn’t have had any time for reading. There is no place for me in this narrative, and there would have been no place for my grandmother either, even though there are soft crescent shapes in the back cover where her hands must have gripped as she read and reread.

There is something seductive about the story all the same. Or, perhaps, only about the idea of reading oneself backwards in time by falling into an ancestor’s reading.

Have you read from a grandparent’s bookshelves? Either as a child or as an adult? What did you discover there?