Finch’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche (1931)

Review by Mary P:

The Jalna series brought Mazo de la Roche fame and fortune with the publication of Jalna in 1927. Eleven million copies were sold, and 92 foreign editions published as well as a film and a TV series.

Finch’s Fortune was the third book to be published in the series about the Whiteoak family living on their country estate at Jalna. (Though in the chronology of the narrative Finch’s Fortune comes ninth in a series of sixteen books.) The book covers a calendar year in the life of the family from the coming of age of Finch. We see Finch inherit his grandmother’s fortune much to the surprise of his family, and we see how he responds to his new position in the family.

He travels to England with his two uncles to stay with his aunt in Devon. Here he meets his cousin Sarah. He is attracted to her but fails to take the initiative in the relationship, and she marries his friend Arthur. Back at Jalna we learn of the lives of the Whiteoaks and particularly the relationship between the head of the family, Finch’s brother Renny, and his wife Alayne.

How Finch uses his fortune is at the heart of the novel and when he returns to Jalna his aunt writes to the family accusing them of pressurising Finch into spending money on them and investing his money unwisely. The book ends with the birth of another Whiteoak on Finch’s birthday who is named after his uncle.

Finch’s Fortune, as the third book in a series, sees the characters well-established. One can imagine that those reading it at the time of its publication would know the characters well and be eager to see how the plot unfolded. Particularly during the 1930s, at a time of great uncertainty and after global upheavals, such a novel must have provided a place of security and escapism. Its setting in Canada providing an exotic location for European readers, whilst the family roots in England and Ireland provide familiarity.

Family sagas like this are of course popular in the same way that TV and radio soap operas are. They provide a comfortable world in which the reader is not asked to make any great effort, simply sit back and let the story unfold, new characters introduced and old favourites dispatched. The fact that the novel is set in Canada, in the 1920s, amongst a wealthy landed family adds to the attraction for the reader who wants to escape into a world quite different from their own, not unlike the current attraction of Downton Abbey for the TV viewing public.

The author does use Finch’s unexpected inheritance to create some tension between family members. Whilst wealthy the family have little ready cash and all seem only too willing to use Finch’s money to further their pet projects or simply allow his generosity to provide them with an expensive gift.

The conflict between the family over money serves to offset the rather bland and predictable unfolding of the story. However, we are led by the author into viewing Jalna as a secure haven, and the Whiteoaks with ways of conducting themselves which whilst eccentric, provide love and stability. Characters like Alayne who are critical of the ways of the family are given a choice – remain a critical outsider and leave, or become absorbed into the chaotic ways of the Whiteoaks. This includes characters who are attracted to a more intellectual or artistic life away from the Whiteoaks’ preoccupation with farming and keeping horses. Eden, a poet, is in exile from the family in England, and Finch’s interest in being a concert pianist is not entirely encouraged. When his younger brother also shows an interest in poetry it is not seen as a good thing by his older brother.

Whilst an accomplished piece of writing within the family saga genre it can feel too saccharine, and made this reader eager for a sharper taste. There is little context apart from an oblique mention of the stock market crash to illustrate the financial misfortunes of some of the characters. We are thus confined to the very small world of the Whiteoak family, and this has to be completely absorbing for the novel to be totally satisfactory.

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