By Joyce Wayne
From the late 1920s until her death in 1961 Mazo de la Roche was Canada’s most successful author. Her 1927 novel Jalna — the first in the series of 16 family sagas about the Whiteoaks family of Southern Ontario– won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 fiction competition. No other Canadian had ever won a literary award of that stature. Jalna hit the bestseller fiction lists in Canada and the U.S. Her Jalna novels have sold 9 million copies in 193 English editions and were translated and published in 92 foreign-language formats.
About Mazo de la Roche
Although we remember little about de la Roche today, she was the celebrity writer of her time who travelled to Britain and America to promote her work and to represent Canada. She was also a single woman who lived with her cousin Caroline from the time they were children to the author’s death. Mazo experienced poverty and indifference in her younger years, and she experienced wealth and notoriety, as she grew older. She was prone to mental breakdowns and terribly sensitive. Although never married, Mazo and Caroline adopted two children and while living in the U.K., she became the only Canadian author received with open arms in Europe. During World War II, her novels about love and familial tradition in rural Canada appealed to a European readership tormented by war and upheaval.
This month I re-read her novel Jalna and the biography by Heather Kirk entitled Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer. I discovered that RKO made a Hollywood movie based on Jalna in 1935. Three years later, a Broadway production based on her Whiteoaks family, starred Ethel Barrymore.
When I studied Canadian literature in the 1970’s and worked in book publishing during the 1980’s no one spoke of the Jalna novels or de la Roche without smirking. Among the literary community of that time, she was considered a throwback to the Victorian era, a country bumpkin and an embarrassment, who wrote idealized and romantic tales about a wealthy, eccentric family who lived in a strange bubble of their own making.
That view was misguided. In many regards, de la Roche was the Margaret Atwood of her time: internationally regarded, highly decorated with literary prizes and honorary degrees, well-travelled and sophisticated. The Whiteoaks of Jalna became a CBC television series in the 1972.
My own interest in de la Roche originates from where I live, in the former village of Bronte, now a part of Oakville. At the bottom of West Street and abutting Lake Ontario sits Sovereign House, the home where the author spent five years as a child. Many believe that the Bronte location is the same as the one portrayed in the original Jalna books and when I read her work, I can see the close resemblance.
Since moving to Oakville in 1994, Sovereign House, said to be the oldest home in the township, has become my favourite spot. When I moved to Toronto for a few short years, I missed walking by the house and along the path beside the water. Upon returning to live in Bronte, Sovereign House was the first place I visited. The old house is perched beside Lake Ontario, which de la Roche called “a great inland sea.” It’s small and tidy with vintage collections of furniture and kitchen implements that Mazo’s mother might have used.
One winter I enrolled in a yoga and meditation class held in Sovereign House and it was the best class of its sort that I’ve taken. I believe all the participants, who were looking for a break from their daily routine, enjoyed not only the classes, but also the loveliness of the house, it’s spectacular situation above the lake and the historical and literary significance we were able to absorb.
And it’s more than that to me. It’s my connection to the community, the past and to a writer of great renown who described our beautiful and powerful landscape as no other has. When I’m visiting Sovereign House, I feel a connection to the talented, eccentric woman who Mazo was and also how independent she remained throughout her life, striving to spend her days as she wished without interference from onlookers.
Mazo de la Roche was a Canadian original. She and Caroline made their own way during a time when women rarely dared to be as independent as they. Before Mazo became famous, Caroline worked for the Ontario government, supporting them both so Mazo could write. Eventually Caroline became a chief statistician and after Mazo’s literary success, she became her editor, host and emotional protector.
As for the novels, they are not unlike the stories and characters of the Downtown Abbey television series or the Australian Colleen McCullough’s family saga The Thorn Birds. Along with the multitude of British family sagas, there are many set in Australia and India, but almost none in Canada. Strangely enough the only famous one is her Jalna series and I suspect that’s why I hold it in such high regard. Not only is it filled with accurate descriptions of the early inhabitants of where I live, it helps to make my neighbourhood and my home more meaningful to me.
If there is a local museum, gallery or monument in your community, I hope you’ll explore it. Where we choose to make our home is almost as important as who we live with and it’s worth knowing all you can about your unique place on this earth.