The lives and loves of the Jalna Whiteoaks make table talk in 15 languages, but their Canadian creator remains a mystery woman

EVA-LIS WUORIO February 1 1949


The lives and loves of the Jalna Whiteoaks make table talk in 15 languages, but their Canadian creator remains a mystery woman

EVA-LIS WUORIO February 1 1949


The lives and loves of the Jalna Whiteoaks make table talk in 15 languages, but their Canadian creator remains a mystery woman


TWENTY-TWO years ago this spring, a quiet, rather timid Toronto girl created a fiction family whom she named the Whiteoaks. For habitation she gave its lusty, fractious members a red brick mansion called Jalna, locating it vaguely in the Southern Ontario farm country. The Whiteoaks of Jalna are familiar to fiction readers everywhere now, and Mazo de la Roche has traced their loves and deaths, quarrels and peregrinations, through eleven novels.

The Whiteoaks—notably a handsome redhead called Renny and an iron-willed matriarch known to her family as “Gran”—have done very well by their creator since “Jalna” brought Miss De la Roche renown overnight by winning the $10,000 Atlantic Fiction Prize in 1927.

They’ve earned her an estimated half million dollars in royalties, movie rights and fees.

They’ve won her millions of readers in 15 languages, high praise from English and American reviewers, and even a shadowy recognition in her native Canada. Toronto, her present home and the city of her birth, once gave her a silver tea service, although she has never won the nation’s

official badge of literary merit, the GovernorGeneral’s award.

But the fabulously reserved Miss De la Roche probably doesn’t mind that. She’d rather not be talked about anyway. Accompanied by her domineering poodle, Christopher, she can walk down the tree-lined streets of Toronto’s swank Forest Hill Village with no fear of being recognized. Although she never misses a good play, she’s seldom seen in stores or restaurants or at concerts. Her telephone number is privately listed, her circle of acquaintances much smaller, by choice, than her wit, personality and success would warrant.

Miss De la Roche’s publishers dare not insist on autographing parties or public appearances. She will put off meeting a stranger or attending a party at the last moment, as though her resolution to emerge was unequal to the test. One Canadian magazine once got a photographic layout of the Ontario country place where she lived for two years

after returning from England in 1939, hut no interview. She likes the right of veto on what is written about hcr, once commended a book jacket because it lacked “those intimacies which make you wince,”

By guesswork and deduction, her age can be placed in the middle 50’s. Tall and slender, she walks with a swaying motion which suggests that* a strong wind could whisk her away. She falls naturally into graceful poses, her long narrow hands shaping words as she talks. Though her manner is elegantly vague, her brown eyes, large in a long, thin face, are direct and aware. A conversation, however meandering, never gets out of her control. She directs it, at first gently sidetracking it if she doesn’t like its trend, or abruptly terminating it if her hints are disregarded.

She was recently asked by the publicity depart-

ment of Little, Brown, her American publishers,

“Is there something

Continued on page 39

Mazo of Jalna

Continued from page 19

you think your public should know in order to understand you, and this brook, better?”

“I think,” retorted Miss De la Roche, “they already know more than they have any business to!”

She insists, however, that she isn’t shy. “My hobby just happens to be privacy. It isn’t that I don’t like people. I love people.”

Miss De la Roche spent twelve years in England—from 1927 to the outbreak off war—and the influences of those years are immediately apparent in her accent, the appointments of her home, the tea table drawn up by the hearth. At times she has described her period ini England as “my happiest years.” She loves England, the behavior of English children, the English theatre, English reserve, and points out sharply: “The English authors don’t have to be written about, after all.”

Her house has taken on her personality. The decor of the interior does not appear to aim at any period, but rather hints of many. There are icons from the collection of a White Russian grand duchess, golden triptych panels from a Sicilian church, and sweet old samplers sewn by a patient Devon child hundreds of years ago. There is an oak chair carved with the family crest, and another chair, marked and lopsided, which belongs to Christopher the poodle.

In the library the bookcases are heavy with Jalna series volumes in 15 languages. Some of these are handsomely bound volumes with tooled leather covers and gilt-edged leaves, presented by her grateful publishers. Even the silver paper knife, the handle a magnificently carved nude, is a collector’s item. There is not, as in most houses, the casual clutter of odds and ends that seems to accumulate with the years. Every piece obviously holds a memory.

A cousin, Miss Caroline Clement, shares the home. During the summer holidays so do two adopted children, Esmee at school in Switzerland at the moment and Rene at a Canadian private school. After the death of the last of a long line of dearly loved canines Mazo de la Roche decided she wasn’t going to give her heart to another dog. Just about that time, friends pleaded pitifully for her to give Christopher a home for a couple of weeks. That’s years ago. The poodle rules the house, announces every visitor, stuffs himself at tea, and takes part in the conversation. His mistress gazes at him adoringly and sighs, “Isn’t he sweet!”

Doesn’t Write to Plan

Considering the fact that Mazo de la Roche has written 21 books in the past 26 years, as well as plays, short stories and some poetry, it is not surprising to learn that she writes to a rigid schedule. The 11th book in the Whiteoak story will be out as the Literary Guild choice for February, but the author is hard at work again.

She writes in her library or in a little study upstairs, a drawing board on her knees. She has never learned to use the typewriter and has written all her millions of words longhand, pausing to draw pleasant grotesques on the margins of the manuscript pages, to sharpen a sheaf of wooden pencils or fret over the lead problems of her self-feeding pencil. Inspiration, she feels, wouldn’t flow as freely with ink.

“I don’t see how people can write with a typewriter,” she puzzles. “I should think you would entirely lose

the personal touch. And the noise!”

Her manuscript pages show lines of cramped, strong handwriting, wellspaced but obviously speedily written. When she has a book on the go she writes some 600 or 900 words a morning, and no more for the rest of the day. She doesn’t map out the story beforehand, seldom makes notes or references. When she does it’s on backs of envelopes or odd scraps of paper which, she says, “I either lose or can’t decipher afterward.”

Though her books are amazingly detailed in plot, Miss De la Roche says, “I never have had a cut-and-dried plan.

I feel my way through the story, continually turning aside and changing my original idea as my characters urge me. Scenes, dialogues sometimes come to me in great detail, complete. Occasionally they come quite inconveniently, while I’m supposed to be paying attention to a conversation or conducting one myself.”

After eleven volumes about them, the members of her Whiteoaks family are intensely real to her.

“Adeline Whiteoaks,” Miss De la Roche says, “appeals to me partly because she has qualities which I lack; Finch because we have certain qualities in common; Renny because he resembles someone for whom I had understanding and sympathy.”

“Jalna,” the novel which launched the saga—and Mazo de la Roche—was responsible for at least one headache on Toronto’s book row. The author’s Canadian publisher, then as now, was Macmillan’s, and Miss De la Roche informed the late Hugh Eayrs of Macmillan’s that she had an entry in the Atlantic contest. Canadian publisher for Atlantic and Little, Brown books was Oxford Press, a fact which was not lost on the astute Mr. Eayrs.

The Readers Wanted More

One day, during a friendly conversation, he mentioned to the late S. B. Gundy, then head of Oxford Press, that a Macmillan author had a story in the contest, and would Gundy mind if Macmillan’s continued to handle Miss De la Roche’s account should she chance to win. It was, he pointed out, a remote chance. Gundy generously agreed. Meanwhile, Miss De la Roche had tired of waiting for the judges’ decision, and decided to withdraw her entry.

Before she could call the manuscript home, however, the results were out. S. B. Gundy walked into the jubilant Oxford Press offices to tell his men they were not to have the handling of the prize-winning novel after all. Happy Hugh Eayrs entertained Miss De la Roche ata Hunt Club dinner. Toronto presented her favorite daughter-of-themoment with a handsome silver tea service. Miss De la Roche herself packed her bags and headed for England, not to return for 12 years.

She expected that first book about her Whiteoaks to be the last; but her readers had other ideas. They wanted to know what happened next. Her publishers agreed. Miss De la Roche baffled them all, but pleasantly, by not only writing of what happened next, but, in subsequent volumes, of what had befallen earlier in the purlieus of Jalna.

Taking the Whiteoak saga chronologically, their story starts with the emigration of fiery, beautiful Irishwoman Adeline Court Whiteoak and her handsome husband Philip, exofficer of hussars in India, to Canada in 1859. Their voyage, their life in Quebec, the building of Jalna (named after Captain Philip’s post in India) and the family church, which takes up at least a chapter in every one of the

11 books, completes the first episode.

“Mary Wakefield,” the Literary Guild selection which will bring Americans up-to-date on Jalna in February, Canadians in March, skips some years to centre on Adeline’s youngest son’s second wife. Peculiarly enough, this last serving of Whiteoak family history is one of the lightest, happiest and most contrivance-free in the series.

In all the books the Whiteoaks eat, drink, shout, wench, quarrel, marry their brothers’ wives, keep trysts in birch copses or on wet sand shores and in haylofts, and attend church religiously each Sunday, all this on such Herculean proportions that the reader gets a little breathless turning the pages. Mostly the scene is Jalna although at times one or another of the clan takes the reader to Ireland, London, Devon or New York. When they go to Toronto, the city isn’t named.

The Jalna books have been called everything from soap opera to international classics. They are unique in Canadian letters in that they beat no national drums, feature no Mounties, sleigh dogs, Indians or lumberjacks, yet have inspired any amount of good feeling toward this country. As one German wrote Miss De la Roche lately, “These books work toward peace for they help us to understand how alike people are, how all of us think, feel, act, and react the same way . . .”

Of them Hugh Walpole said, “I defy any reader to turn the pages without an eager, almost trembling, excitement as to what comes next.” The American critic, Sterling North, says, “Stylistically, Galsworthy is still Mazo de la Roche’s superior. But if you ask which of these two masters of the novel has come closest to the vital and throbbing stuff of life itself, one must say Mazo de la Roche.” And again, “The Whiteoaks are among the most real human beings in modern literature.”

The Jalna Country

West of Toronto, the restful towns of Bronte, Clarkson and Bríndale are dubbed “The Jalna Country,” and off and on throughout the years vigorous arguments have raged as to the probable real-life equivalents of house, family, and family church. At swanky Toronto cocktail parties, handsome redheaded men have been pointed out while the whisper went about that there, actually, my dear, was the real Renny Whiteoak. One prominent family was for years in the shadow of the fictional one, everybody was so certain its members were the prototypes. Miss De la Roche says firmly and without qualification that outside of the fact that her great grandmother sailed out of Dublin and brought a painting of herself with her—which is precisely what Adeline Whiteoak did—all characters and incidents are fictitious.

“Of course,” she’ll add, “one observes life.”

The house which Adeline and Philip Whiteoak built is so real to readers that some have sought to photograph it. Indeed, when you talk to Miss De la Roche about it, that particular product of her imagination takes on solidity. She says of her Toronto home, “Of course I know Jalna better than this house. I’ve lived here only two years, but I’ve known Jalna for over 21 years.”

Miss De la Roche’s daily fan mail takes an amazingly familiar tone with this family of hers. Correspondents have ranged from prime ministers to Dutch housewives. Shortly after the publication of one Jalna book, Sir Walter Lawrence, a friend of Miss De la Roche, started out to pay his respects to King George V at Buckingham Palace. As a token of his loyal

regard he tucked his fresh copy of the new book by the Canadian author under his arm. “How nice of you,” Sir Walter reports the King as saying, “but I’ve read it already. Not only that, but the Queen has too.”

One Aberdeen Scot wrote after the war to tell how the Whiteoaks had kept him company in a prison camp. It appears he was in a particularly vile camp, which functioned as a manning pool for salt mines the Germans had taken from the Russians. Wounded and mentally ill, the Scot stumbled on a ragged copy of Jalna in the prison library. He wolfed it and wrote the Red Cross in England for more. After that it was a race between the salt mines and the mail. On one horrific day, some 50 prisoners were lined up and the commandant began to count the doomed. Twenty-eight were sent that time, with the Jalna fan sweating 29th in the line. Two days before he was transferred to another camp, the requested Jalna books arrived. He stayed up nights to read them.

Baffled by Money

Then there is a Dutch woman doctor who has read six of the books. She read them “in the last years of the war when we had no light, no gas, no water, and hardly any food, when everything of culture which were passed from friend to friend.” She describes Miss De la Roche’s fictional characters as “our dear friends of the Whiteoak family.”

Also, recently, a package reached Miss De la Roche from Germany. It contained a small carved cigarette box made of white oak, to resemble the American Whiteoak Edition of the Jalna stories. On the inside cover it carried the signatures of a group of displaced persons in a camp in the American zone.

At a Toronto tea party the conversation turned to the placing of DP’s and the influx of immigrants. “Why do you suppose they choose Canada?” Miss De la Roche asked.

“Because they’ve read your books,” another visitor returned quickly.

“Did they stay?” Miss De la Roche asked.

Another time she was asked why she had not named Toronto as “the large city” close to Jalna.

“In the first place,” she said, “I had just intended to write that one book about the Whiteoaks, and it hadn’t occurred to me to name any actual places. I might now, if I were doing

it all over again. Secondly, I suppose it’s because Toronto has never quite figured as a world-known cosmopolitan centre.”

“It might have been,” the questioner said, “if you’d only named it in your books!”

Jalna was filmed by RKO Radio in the early 1930’s. It was, however, the play, “Whiteoaks,” which Miss De la Roche adapted from the book “The Whiteoaks Heritage,” that proved most popular. It had a record run for a serious play in London of nearly three years, and it is still regularly reviewed in the provinces.

Miss De la Roche says in her wistfully vague manner, “I’ve made a good deal in royalties out of it, you know.” About any other monetary matters she professes complete ignorance. “I’m frightfully sorry, but figures absolutely baffle me. I can’t make them out at all.”

She recalls how on her return from England with her cousin, the two children, the children’s nurse and a canary, she found herself temporarily penniless. Her American publisher, who had already rented a furnished house for her, loaned her $200 on the spot. For convenient handling she threw the bills on the top shelf of her clothes cupboard. She drew on this makeshift bank “until,” she says with an an air of bafflement, “one day there was no more.”

Occasionally Miss De la Roche receives posters of play bills from Budapest, Antwerp or Paris and sits staring fascinated at photographs of the various interpretations of her brain children —most particularly of “Gran,” who seems to be sweeping stages globally.

Nancy Price, the renowned English actress who played the first Little Lord Fauntleroy, switched to the other extreme to play a magnificent, hot-tempered, Adeline Whiteoak, the “Gran” of the play. One of “Gran’s” foibles is the parrot she brought back from India when she and her handsome husband set out on their pioneering trek to Canada. This parrot is one of the major characters of the play. During the London performances the parrot decided that Nancy Price was a very fine type, and moped when she wasn’t around. So the actress began taking the bird on walks, to dinner at night clubs, and so on. After a while, between the parrot and the domineering, charming, but powerful character of Adeline Whiteoak, the actress began to feel that she was losing her own personality. With somewhat grim

amusement she told Mazo de la Roche, “I feel more like ‘Gran’ than myself. I’m even getting her characteristics.”

In U. S. editions alone the Jalna books have sold about 1,600,000 copies. In England, where the Jalna series has been termed “a more robust Forsythe saga,” they are perennially popular. The books have been translated into Italian, Spanish, Romanian, French, German, Finnish, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, Czech, Swedish, Portuguese, Dutch and Hungarian. They’ve also come out in Braille and in Tauchnitz editions.

Miss De la Roche heard about the Romanian edition from a visitor who had seen Jalna books in a Bucharest library. When the Romanian publisher was tracked down by Miss De la Roche’s English publisher, he pointed out he had banked all the royalties but could not deliver them because of currency regulations. This proved to be correct. The royalties amounted to several million lei (Romanian currency), which caused the Canadian author to remark somewhat demurely, “In Romania, at least, I’m a multimillionaire.”

While born in Toronto, Mazo de la Roche spent her childhood mostly on a fruit and stock farm on the shore of Lake Ontario. She recalls it as “a very picturesque spot, with the great expanse of the lake at our very door, and the gulls walking over the plowed fields. Indians came to huts on the farm each season to pick strawberries raspberries and cherries. This was the scene of my first novel, ‘Possession,’ published in 1923.”

Author at Nine

But even before that, she had started writing. As an intense, brown-eyed, brown-haired, thin child, in love with the woods, gardens, dogs and horses, she submitted a short story in a competition for boys and girls under 16 and, though not winning it, got an enthusiastic note from the contest editor saying that if she fulfilled this early promise her career as a writer was assured. She was then at the ripe age of nine.

Her father, William Richmond de la Roche, called her Mazo for a Spanish friend, assuring his wife that if he could name their first-born she could name all subsequent offspring. There were no others. However, Cousin Caroline Clement moved in to become an adopted sister. After Mazo’s father died, her mother, Alberta de la Roche, and the family had to move to Toronto. The t.vo small girls found endless amusement in putting on the plays Mazo wrote.

There was one incident which was so near to heartbreak it remains unforgotten. Mazo was about 12 when she wrote a play which she felt privately was the masterpiece of all time. She had cast herself as a cavalier of Charles II’s court and decked herself out in red woolen underdrawers belonging to her grandfather, a handsome jacket, a sword and a feathered hat. The performance was to be at the home of a matriarchal Victorian friend of the family. This grand dame took one startled glance at the actress-playwright and declared the costume improper. Mazo strode up and down the hall outside the drawingroom, her boots squeaking and the sword clanking to a tune of enraged sobs. Finally the stormy grief melted the old lady’s heart and the show went on.

Miss Clement recalls, “It was quite a good play, too.” She had been its heroine.

In later years Miss De la Roche once entered two one-act plays in separate competitions, won both prizes.

Mazo de la Roche was educated at home. She studied art, but the only thing remaining of that period is the drawing board she uses to write her books on. After her mother’s death, Caroline took a job while Mazo continued writing. Her first book of short stories, “Explorers of the Dawn,” was published by Alfred Knopf in 1922 Her second book, “Possession,” came out the following year, the third, “Delight,” in 1926.

Immediately after “Jalna,” the girls sailed for England, which somehow had always seemed to them their spiritual home. There Miss De la Roche acquired three houses, one in Devonshire on the edge of the moors, which was destroyed by the Nazi bombers later. Here “Finch’s Fortune” was written. Another was a Georgian house in the Malvern Hills, and she remembers the Black Mountains of Wales looming beyond her study windows. Then lier play was being produced in London and she bought a house in Windsor, just 25 minutes by train from town. This was the old Elizabethan house after which she had a wing modeled in her Canadian country place at Thornhill, near Toronto, on her return.

When one thinks of Mazo de la Roche and the Whiteoaks, her imaginary people with their violence, vitality and feeling seem the more real. They are, in fact, so robust and full-blooded that I cannot help but state a small fear. It is that before Miss De la Roche gets down to writing her next Jalna books the Whiteoaks may write a story about her. And they certainly won’t have any truck with her hobby of privacy. ★