Friday, 20 July 2018

Book Review: Jalna by Mazo de la Roche
To the outsider, the life of a gentleman farmer on a country estate somewhere not too far from town may look pretty agreeable, if not splendid, and yet, it doesn’t warrant prosperity and happiness. Gentleman farmers aren’t spared the usual sorrows and worries of human existence. They too need to make a living which may be quite a challenge with prices for agricultural products constantly falling on the world market while costs keep rising and regulations getting stricter. They too have families and maybe some of its members give them a hard time. In the classical Canadian novel Jalna by Mazo de la Roche three generations of Whiteoaks live together in the old family mansion of a country estate. The spirited grandmother does her best to live to celebrate her one hundredth birthday, while two of her grandsons bring into the house young wives along with the imponderables of love.

Mazo de la Roche was born in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, in January 1879. Her family moved often in her childhood which meant that she had few play mates except her adopted sister and resorted to a fantasy world writing her first (unpublished) short-story at the age of nine. After high school and studies at the Metropolitan School of Music, the University of Toronto and the Ontario School of Art, she made her literary debut with a short-story in 1902. A nervous breakdown followed, but she continued to write between bouts of depression and insomnia. Only in 1922, she brought out her first book titled Explorers of the Dawn, a novel patched-up from previous writings. Also her novels Possession (1923) and Delight (1926) preceded award-winning as well as best-selling Jalna (1927) that made her fame. Along with various other, less widely-read novels, short stories, a few plays and some non-fiction, the author wrote between 1929 and 1960 altogether fifteen (independent) prequels and sequels to Jalna that – read in the right order which is not that of publication – combine to the Whiteoak family saga spanning a whole century from 1854 to 1954. Mazo de la Roche died in Toronto, Ontario, in July 1961.

The Whiteoak family lives in a red-brick mansion on a country estate in Southern Ontario, Canada, called Jalna after the place in India where its founder Philipp Whiteoak was stationed as a captain of the British army when he met his wife in the 1840s. In 1924, his widow is 99 years old and the adored centre of family life. Despite her age, her mind is still lucid and she has lost none of her willfulness. So she insists on the family members gathering about the table for dinner every day, the youngest of them her nine-year-old grandson Wakefield “Wake”.
“[…] Phrases flew over his head, words clashed. Probably it was just one of the old discussions provocative of endless talk: […] which of Grandmother’s three sons had made the worst mess of his life—Nicholas, who sat on her left, and who had squandered his patrimony on fast living in his youth; Ernest, who sat on her right, and who had ruined himself by nebulous speculations and the backing of notes for his brothers and his friends; or Philip, who lay in the churchyard, who had made a second marriage (and that beneath him!) which had produced Eden, Piers, Finch, and Wakefield, […]
When their father followed his wives into the grave, the children from his first marriage, Meg and Renny, took charge of their half-siblings. 40-year-old Meg is like a mother to them, notably to Finch who still goes to high school and to frail Wake who is tutored in the village. Piers runs one of the farms belonging to the estate, while the eldest of the four, Eden, just dropped out of law school to write poetry and is about to see his first book published – to the great annoyance of Renny who is 38 years old and master of Jalna.
“Renny stood looking from one excited face to another, feeling irritated by their noise, their ineffectuality, yet, in spite of all, bathed in an immense satisfaction. This was his family. His tribe. He was head of his family. Chieftain of his tribe. He took a very primitive, direct, and simple pleasure in lording it over them, caring for them, being badgered, harried, and importuned by them. They were all of them dependent on him except Gran, and she was dependent, too, for she would have died away from Jalna. […]”
Also Piers worries Renny because the twenty-year-old sees the illegitimate daughter of their neighbour and Meg’s unfaithful ex-fiancé rather too often. As feared, they elope and the Whiteoaks give the newly-weds a harsh welcome before putting up with the situation. Then Eden falls in love with Alayne who read his manuscript for his New York publisher. They get married in a rush and the family is pleased, not least because everybody believes the American girl to be rich. Alayne has a hard time adapting to life at Jalna and soon begins to feel attracted to Renny… and he to her.

In twenty-six chapters Jalna tells the story of a closely-knit Canadian family of gentlemen farmers like those that the author still knew in her childhood. Although clearly conceived as a family saga, the novel shows many characteristics of the romance genre thanks to the complicated love stories of altogether four of the siblings. The chronological plot is well constructed and action-driven even though rather predictable on the whole because the author thoroughly prepared her twists and turns. Nothing really extraordinary ever happens, but the descriptions of family life and of the peculiarities of the characters, notably of the grandmother, are gorgeous and so true to life that the scenes ran off like a film before my eyes. The characters may be a bit eccentric (especially from today’s point of view), this didn’t prevent them, however, from feeling extremely realistic to me. I found it slightly confusing that the grandmother is 99 years old already in the opening chapter although it is set in April and the old lady celebrates her long-awaited one hundredth birthday only in June the following year. But then, it’s an inconsistency of no consequence. The author’s unpretentious language makes the novel a light and easy read.

Although I must admit that Jalna by Mazo de la Roche has been an unusually light novel compared to most of my other reads, I still passed a rather enjoyable and entertaining time with it. It’s true that ever again I came across passages that were either too clichéd or too sentimental to my taste, but they definitely weren’t enough to spoil my pleasure altogether. What I particularly liked about the book is that it took me to a setting – big family, gentlemen farmers, country mansion, Canada in the 1920s – that could hardly be farther from my own experience. On second thoughts, it even felt a bit like a modern fairy-tale to me… and not disagreeably so. The novel may not be the best that world literature has to offer, it’s a nice read, though, one to relax with after a long and exhausting day. It certainly deserves my recommendation.

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