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Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961)


Canadian author, whose popular Jalna saga has been translated into many languages. Mazo de la Roche's first book in the series was published in 1927 – in total it consists of 16 volumes and made her one of the most popular novelists. The series, which covers 100 years of the wealthy Whiteoak family history, is partly based on de la Roche's own family and the family of her first cousin Caroline Clement.

"If you drink wine and dance about a fire like pagans, what will your grandchildren do when they set out to have a good time? They'll probably get drunk on gin and dance naked. Manners and morals are never at a standstill. Either they rise or they decline. Like Empires." (in The Building of Jalna, 1944 )

Mazo Roche (she later added the 'de la' to her name) was born in Newmarket, in rural Ontario, the setting for most of her fiction. She was the only child of William Roche, a salesman, and Alberta (Lundy) Roche, a carpenter. During her marriage, Alberta moved seventeen times, due to her husband's many jobs. From 1885 to 1991 the family lived in Toronto, and then moved to Galt and Orillia, and returned to Toronto in 1895. Until 1900, they lived at 157 Dunn Avenue and from 1900 to 1911 they resided in a house on Jarvis Street. De la Roche described the building in Ringing the Changes (1957): "It stood in what was at that time one of the most spacious and fashionable streets in Toronto. I do not remember when it began to degenerate but its downhill trend has been steady. In my youth it represented solid dignity and presceful permanence."

When de la Roche was seven, William and Alberta adopted her orphaned cousin, Caroline Clement, who became her lifelong companion. In her childhood, she spent for a period on a farm owned by a wealthy man who farmed as a hobby. There de la Roche began to develop her fantasy world of rural aristocracy, which she developed with Caroline. At the age of nine, she wrote her first story. H. (Rache) Lovat Dickson, de la Roche's close friend and editor later said, that the Whiteoaks were "idealized conceptions of ancestors whom she only just knew but had heard about, but if she hadn't had the sort of family background that she had, then she couldn't have written the sort of books that the Whiteoaks books are." On graduation from high school, de la Roche studied at the Ontario College of Art and English at the University of Toronto. From 1911 to 1915 the Roche family lived at Foxleigh Farm, Cudmore Road and Highway 2, near Bronte, Ontario.

In 1902 de la Roche published her first story in Munsey's Magazine, but it was not until recovering from a nervous breakdown, that she devoted herself to writing. Caroline Clement, who worked as a civil servant, was the bread winner of the household. De la Roche's father died in 1915 and mother in 1920; they never knew their daughter's successes as a writer. Her early works, such as Possession (1923) and Delight (1926), were romantic novels. At the age of 48, de la Roche published Jalna (1927), her third novel, which brought her success. It won Atlantic Monthly's $10,000 Book Award, and gained huge popularity. The story, set in the 1920s, introduces the family a year or so before the 100th birthday of its matriarch, an arrogant, crancy woman, Adeline. By the last chapter, all conflicts are resolved. Originally Jalna was intended to stand alone, but the critical acclaim inspired the author to produce at a steady rate sequels and prequels, which also caught the attention of film producers at the RKO Radio Pictures. However, John Cromwell's screen version of the book from 1935 was characterized in Variety as "a nice production of a not very good adaptation."

Prior becoming famous, de la Roche lived in her early 30s at the Sovereign House. Built between 1825 and 1846, it was saved from demolition by the Bronte Historical Society and the Town of Oakville, and moved to Town parkland in 1988. This house de la Roche incorporated in Possession, her first novel. With Caroline Clement, she acquired in the early twenties a small summer cottage at Clarkson, near Oakville, and became friends with the family of the young poet Dorothy Livesay. Between the years 1930 and 1940, she spent longer and shorter periods in England, where she occupied for some years Vale House, Windsor. In 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, de la Roche returned to Toronto.

In the 1920s, when Jalna series was launched, the family saga was a well-established formula. But few authors have focused on the same characters for 30 years, like de la Roche did. The Whiteoak family include Adeline Whiteoak, her grandson Renny, his half-brother Eden, who nearly bankrupts the family, and Eden's wife Alayne, an American woman who loves Renny. And there are a number of spouses, ex-spouses, and spouses-to-be. Archer, Alayne's son, summarizes the theme: "The family has been the structure of all our lives. We don't think about it. It's like the air we breathe. It is sacred to us." The family history begins in the 1850s when a British soldier, Philip Whiteoak and his wife Adeline build a family residence in Clarkson, Ontario, and give it the Indian name Jalna. During the story Adeline becomes a 100 year old matriarch, who sees generations come and go. Renny, the master of Jalna, is not always particularly likeable. Although Renny himself shows scant tolerance of artistic pursuits, one of his half-brothers is a poet, one becomes a concert pianist, and one a monk and then later an actor.

De la Roche lived with Caroline Clement a fairly reclusive life; their relationship was not discussed widely in the press. In 1931 they adopted two English children, a boy and a girl. The children were raised primarily by servants and attended private schools. Growth of a Man (1938) was based on the life of another cousin, the Vancouver lumber magnate H.R. MacMillan. De la Roche also wrote travel books, children's stories, drama, and her autobiography Ringing the Changes, which was published four years before her death. "It seems to me that even to biographers can make an enigma," de la Roche said, "a mystery of any man, no matter how open his life."

When not writing, de la Roche traveled extensively. She journeyed to the United States and western Canada and made nearly twenty sea voyages, from the Caribbean to North Africa to Europe. De la Roche died in Toronto on July 12, 1961. She was buried in St. George's churchyard, Jackson's Point, Ontario. By the end of her life, eleven million copies of the Jalna books had been sold in English and more than a dozen other languages.

De la Roche's play Whiteoaks (1936) ran in London over 800 performances, and was also produced on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre. In the original cast, Ethel Barrymore played Grandma Adeline, the central character of the play. Nancy Price, an actress, painter, and author, had the role of Adeline in the BBC TV production Whiteoaks (1951). Before acting in films, Nancy Price had a successful career in theater; she had also been in the stage version of Whiteoaks in the London Little Theatre. A thirteen-hour-long CBS television series, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, adapted by Timothy Findley, Claude Harz, and Grahame Woods, was aired in 1972. The cast included Kate Reid, Paul Harding, and Amelia Hall. In addition to these productions, a French television production, starring Danielle Darrieux as Adeline, appeared in 1994.

De la Roche's melodrama about the intrigues, loyalties, and sexual irregularities of an upper-class family anticipated the modern soap-opera. Today her work is admired for its strong, optimistic characters and sense of place. With the Jalna saga de la Roche created a rich fantasy world which has ensured its place in the Hall of Fame of popular fiction. In 1976, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized Mazo de la Roche as a national historic person.

For further reading: Mazo de la Roche of Jalna by R. Hambleton (1966); Mazo de la Roche by G. Hendrick (1970); Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life by J. Givner (1989); Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo De La Roche by Daniel L. Bratton (1996); Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where Was Jalna? by Heather Kirk (2007) - Other family sagas: Niskavuori saga by Hella Wuolijoki, Winston Graham's Poldark series, R.F. Delderfield's saga about the Swann family, Catherine Cookson's Mary Ann Shaughnessy series, the Mallen family series

Selected works:

  • Explorers of the Dawn, 1922
  • Possession, 1923
  • Low Life: A Comedy in One Act, 1925 (play)
  • Delight, 1926
  • Come True, 1927 (play)
  • Jalna, 1927 (first volume in the Jalna series)
    - Jalna (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1937)
    - Film 1935, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. John Cromwell, starring Kay Johnson (Alayne Archer Whiteoaks) , Ian Hunter (Renny Whiteoaks), C. Aubrey Smith (Uncle Nicholas Whiteoaks), screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Garrett Fort, Larry Bachmann.
  • The Return of the Emigrant, 1928 (play)
  • Low Life and Other Plays, 1929
  • Whiteoaks of Jalna, 1929
    - Jalnan perhe (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1938)
  • Portrait of a Dog, 1930
  • Finch's Fortune, 1932
    - Jalnan perintö (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1939)
  • The Thunder of the New Wings, 1932
  • Lark Ascending, 1932
  • The Master of Jalna, 1933
    - Jalnan isäntä (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1939)
  • Beside a Norman Tower, 1934
  • Young Renny, 1935
    - Jalnan nuori Renny (suomentanut Helka Varho, 1945)
  • Whiteoaks, 1936 (play)
  • Whiteoak Harvest, 1936
    - Jalnan kukoistus (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1941)
  • The Very Little House, 1937
  • Growth of a Man, 1938
  • The Sacred Bullock, 1939
  • Whiteoak Heritage, 1940
    - Jalnan kevät (suom. Helka Varho, 1947)
  • Wakefield's Course, 1941
    - Näkemiin Jalna (suom. Kai Kaila, 1949)
  • The Two Saplings, 1941
  • Building of Jalna, 1944
    - Jalnan synty (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1960)
  • Quebec: Historic Seaport, 1944
  • Return to Jalna, 1946
    - Jalnan miehet palaavat (suom. Kai Kaila, 1950)
  • Mary Wakefield, 1949
    - Jalnan kotiopettajatar (suom. Laine Järventaus-Aav, 1950)
  • Mistress of Jalna, 1951 (play)
  • Renny's Daughter, 1951
    - Rennyn tytär (suom. Helka Varho, 1952)
  • A Boy in the House, 1952
  • Whiteoak Brothers, 1954
    - Jalnan veljekset (suom. Irmeli Niemi, 1954)
  • Variable Winds at Jalna, 1954
    - Kosijoita Jalnassa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1955)
  • The Song of Lambert, 1955
  • Ringing the Changes: An Autobiography, 1957
  • Bill and Coo, 1958
  • Centenary at Jalna, 1958
    - Juhlat Jalnassa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1958)
  • Morning at Jalna, 1960 (last volume in Jalna series)
    - Jalnan aamu (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1962)
  • Selected Stories of Mazo de la Roche, 1979 (edited and introduced by Douglas Daymond)

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