Next is a series of reviews of the Jalna novels by Canadian Mazo de la Roche. There are 16 novels in the Jalna series, published from 1927 to 1960, which follow the fortunes of the Whiteoak family and their eponymous rural Ontario estate over a 100-year period.
de la Roche won the prestigious $10,000 Atlantic Monthly prize for fiction in 1927 for Jalna, the first novel of the series, and became a literary celebrity. In later years, as she continued to write Jalna novels, her reviews became more and more dismissive, her sales diminished, until even her publisher tried to persuade her to move on to something else! However, de la Roche, wanted to write more novels, she said, for her loyal fans.
Review by Helen N:
This book marks the beginning of what came to be known as the Whiteoak Chronicles, although in order of writing it comes about half way through the series. In it the main characters, Adeline and Philip are introduced and we travel with them from India to Canada, via Galway. There they decide to settle and build the house, Whiteoaks, which gives its name to the series of books. Various characters are introduced some whose lives are immediately bound up with the main family, others who may return in later books. The book ends with a christening looking forward to the future.
Quite by accident I chose the book which comes chronologically first in the saga. I wonder how readers felt finding that their journey was a zig-zag through time (though C.S. Forrester did the same with his Hornblower books) Apparently De La Roche had the whole narrative so clearly in her head that she was able to pick and chose which one she wrote. I do notice that the first written was “Jalna” and in date time it was much closer to the date of composition. The first being set back in the 1850s needed far more research and I wondered if this was partly what governed her choice of where to start.
I started to read this too soon after the previous author, Elizabeth Taylor and I quickly abandoned it – the contrast was indigestible. The book opens with Philip Whiteoaks and his wife Adeline attending a performance of “The Bohemian Girl” at Drury Lane in London and describes in detail the appearance of the couple:
”She pressed his arm and his lips parted in a smile. Surely no man in all the throng had so fine, so manly a profile as Philip! “
“It was not often one saw a face as arresting as Adeline’s. Was there another anywhere to equal it, he wondered? Her colouring alone made people turn their heads to look after her; the hair thick and waving, of the deepest auburn theat could, in sunlight, flame to red; the skin of marble and roses, the changeful brown eyes with black lashes. Etc, etc”
Luckily there turns out to be a great deal more to Philip and Adeline than good looks. Having met in India, where Philip was an officer in the Hussars, and where Adeline had been sent by her Irish family to make a better marriage than she can make at home, they return to England and then visiting both sets of parents in England and Ireland they decide to emigrate to Canada. The sea voyage is eventful, they make friends and also lose the Ayah who has come from India to look after Adeline’s daughter Gussie (Adeline is not a good mother!). After spending the winter in Quebec they move south to the shores of Lake Ontario and Philip sets about building a grand house for them to live in. The house is named Jalna after the town where they first met. This name appears in many of the titles of what is usually called The Whiteoaks Chronicles.
The story now deals with the neighbours and visitors who come to their house. One of these is a fellow passenger, Mr Willmott, who settles in a log cabin nearby and who has a secret – Adeline is resourceful and helps him to solve his problem.
There is also an episode when a dangerous young girl called Daisy Vaughan makes a set at Philip and Adeline has a fight with her. Daisy mysteriously disappears and after she is found returns to Montreal, later marrying and disappearing from the narrative. Adeline also has two more children, both sons, Nicholas and Ernest. The book ends with their relatives coming over from Ireland and England for Ernest’s Christening.
The narrative carries the book along at a good pace, I became more interested, both in the characters and in the setting which is unusual after the many stories set in England. There are parties and outings and enough description to bring to place alive but not to hold up the narrative.
I think I would like to read more of the books, to find out what becomes of the Whiteoaks family and of the other, less well-developed characters who are waiting in the wings.
(Source: Candida Rifkind, ‘The Returning Reader: Canadian Serial Fiction and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna Novels’, in Brown and Grover (eds) Middlebrow Literary Cultures (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), 171-186.)