Mary Wakefield by Mazo de la Roche (1949)

Review by Sylvia D:

Mary Wakefield (1949) couldn’t fail to appeal to moony 1950s and 60s teenagers dreaming of a handsome young man who will sweep them off their feet and carry them off to live happily ever after! It has all the requisites; a penniless, pretty and inexperienced Mary hired to be governess to the two high-spirited children of handsome, young widower Philip, owner of Jalna in Canada; his housekeeper, a shadow of Mrs Danvers, who is jealous and continually seeks to undermine her; Philip’s mother, Adeline, the matriarch of the family who of course does everything in her power to prevent Philip marrying Mary and the Scottish family doctor who is Philip’s father-in-law and rather tediously punctuates his conversation with quotes from Robert Burns. Mary, needless to say, is conveniently familiar with the poems of Robert Burns, thereby earning the doctor’s favour.

It goes without saying that all the local girls are madly in love with Philip but after a number of twists and turns, subterfuges and misunderstandings, Philip finally defies his family. There’s a very dramatic scene when all the family are at church and he has the banns read without telling them beforehand; all eyes were on his mother,

‘From her black figure radiated the very essence of dissent. No envelopment of black stuff could hide its angry brightness. She rose majestically to her feet . . . Looking neither to right nor to left she walked slowly and firmly to the door’ – (pp 144-5).

Adeline finally bows to the inevitable and the story ends with a grand wedding.

De la Roche is very successful at portraying Mary’s loneliness. There must have been many women like her with no family who found themselves in ‘a strange house, among strange people, in a strange land’ – (p 1) and who might not have wanted to be a governess, ‘If she could have thought of any other way of earning her living she would have turned to it, but there were few openings for women in the nineties’ – (p 2). Her loneliness is enhanced by her status in the household. She is neither family, nor servant and there is no-one she can confide in. Her character is interesting in that to the modern reader she is just an inexperienced girl who loves pretty dresses, frills and flounces but to the family at Jalna and to the surrounding neighbourhood she is seen as racey as she comes from a, to them, Bohemian background, smokes in secret and reads Tennyson, Rhoda Broughton and Ouida. She even has ‘copies of the Yellow Book, with quite crazy illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, and a magazine with an article by Oscar Wilde, called ‘The Decay of Lying’’ – (p 92).   The word ‘immorality’ crops up frequently when people are talking about her.   So she can’t possibly be suitable for Philip . . .

The secondary characters are of particular interest, especially Philip’s two elder brothers and his sister who have chosen to live in England and only visit Jalna on occasions. They are quite wittily drawn and have an almost effete air to them alongside the hearty Philip with his farming and his horses.   The other strengths of the novel are de la Roche’s very detailed descriptions of decor and furnishings and of her female characters’ dress. Some critics have argued that she creates a strong sense of place and certainly it is not difficult to imagine Jalna and the surrounding countryside in one’s mind’s eye.

However, whilst I devoured all the Jalna novels of which this is chronologically the third in the history of the Whiteoak family when I was in my teens, I find that today any appeal Mary Wakefield may have is more as social history document than gripping romance!

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