Born in Newmarket, on January 15th, 1879, Mazo was the only child of William and Alberta Roche. The first three years of ‘Masie’ Roche’s life were spent in Newmarket at her grandparent’s and were followed by as many as seventeen moves. Her father’s many careers including running a grocery store, hotel and farming led to this constant upheaval and change. He was often absent and Mazo and her mother lived with her grandparents on various occasions.
Another contributing factor in forming Mazo’s early life was the constant poor health of her mother. Mazo’s autobiography is filled with many examples of sacrifice in order to please her mother, including an incident where Mazo was planning to go skating with friends but when she went to say goodbye to her mother, Mazo saw the “longing, the fear in her eyes” and stayed behind.
Joan Givner (The Hidden Life) describes her life: “Her father was absent most of the time. Her mother lay in bed, suffering agonies and causing herself and Mazo to be a burden on the household- which itself, with the stern moral tone inculcated by the grandfather as well as the atmosphere of sickness, was a place of deep gloom. She felt trapped in the house and trapped in her girl’s body, a strange creature who belonged nowhere. She felt, in sum, like a freak”.
Mazo cultivated a sense of secrecy about her life in later years sometimes deliberately giving misinformation. She gave different birth dates, denied being born in Newmarket and even changed her name, among a few of the examples. Many instances of unhappy and painful childhood memories fill her writings. “In her fiction she never stopped trying to come to terms with that earliest period in her life” (The Hidden Life).
Mazo revealed her elaborate ‘play’ in her autobiography, Ringing in the Changes. From the time she was a young girl she would create a fantasy world that she described as “an extraordinary vivid dream”. This seems to have become more important after her cousin, Caroline Clement, became part of her family. Mazo describes in detail how she let her young cousin, then around age nine, into her secret world of ‘play’, “Caroline seemed not in the least surprised when I told her of these characters. She sat there in the wintry twilight, tiny, fragile, receptive as a crystal goblet held beneath a tap.” This play-acting would continue for both women well into their fifties and perhaps for their whole lives. Joan Givner in her book, Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life, states “ She (Mazo) clearly placed a high value on The Play - she may even have seen it as the key to her art - and when , in her last years, she felt the need to record her life, the most important part of it had to be included.”
Role-playing and fantasy lives also play prominently in Mazo’s books. In Jalna, Wakefield murmurs to his brother Renny that he felt he could fall asleep easier if they pretended to be somebody else. In Morning at Jalna Nicholas’ siblings watch him in his ‘secret game’ and in Explorers of the Dawn three boys invent a game of pretending to be pirates.
Mazo de la Roche writes in her autobiography (Ringing the Changes) of her youth in a chapter entitled “Adolescent Pleasure and Pain”. Filled with many memories, she describes how “sex was scarcely a reality” for Caroline and her other friends although they were “captivated” by romance novels and theatre. In this chapter she details her early male friendships and Caroline’s admirers. Mazo poignantly describes her feelings after seeing Caroline holding hands with Roderigo, a next door neighbour, “I had a new feeling towards her - a feeling of hurt anger, as though she had broken some unspoken pact”. When he moved back to South America ending the romance, Mazo relented and used “Play” to help soothe Caroline. Joan Givner (The Hidden Life) felt one of the out comes of this was that “Caroline never again tried to break away from the Roches. She had suffered too much to risk her heart again - either physically or emotionally.”
Later in her autobiography Mazo details her romance with Pierre Mansbendel, a young French engineer. “I wanted him to give me freedom to be myself without hindrance. He craved freedom to be moody or gay as he chose, without regard for me.” Mazo also stated how “It was not in me to be the sort of female who knows no boredom, no fatigue, so long as she can trail after the man she fancies”. The romance ended with Pierre marrying her Aunt Eva.
Neither Caroline or Mazo ever married and they remained life-long companions.
Caroline Clement was Mazo’s cousin but also her best friend and life-long companion. In Mazo’s autobiography, Ringing the Changes, she starts the book saying “Although I did not realize it at the time, or for many years afterward, that January day in my maternal grandfather’s house, was the most important day of my life”. It was the day Caroline came to live with her family. Mazo related that she was seven at the time although it has been estimated that she was really around the age of sixteen and Caroline around the age of nine. Daniel Bratton (Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche) suggests that Mazo’s account of Caroline’s arrival “is best read as fiction” and notes that “Ringing the Changes is notorious for its failure to provide the reader with actual dates…” so no dates are given before 1927 when Mazo’s life came under scrutiny from her adoring fans. Perhaps as Daniel Bratton notes (Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche) “Since Mazo was about to describe activities of two cousins more appropriate to childhood, she may have chosen to present herself as preadolescent…”
Caroline may have participated in the fabricated history that brought their ages closer together. In an interview done in 1964 as noted in Ronald Hambleton’s The Secret of Jalna, “We were not even first cousins, we were first cousins once removed; and so I was out of my generation altogether, and it was that that made me a lonely child, and when we met as very small children we just fitted together. We were very different in many ways but we got along perfectly and made a very interesting life for ourselves.” Heather Kirk in her article Caroline Clement: The Hidden Life of Mazo de la Roche’s Collaborator feels strongly that Caroline and Mazo were actually born only nine months apart, were raised together and had a “symbiotic” relationship. She casts Caroline in a dark light: “Exiled from her extended and immediate families, Clement was an outsider who wanted in. Humiliated by the failures of her father and brother, she was a low-life who wanted up. Like her mother, she was an invisible partner. Like her father, she was an audacious entrepreneur. Caroline Clement was the ingenious person who developed and maintained an amazing writing machine that got her what she wanted.”
Regardless of these discrepancies, they remained life-long companions. Caroline was integral to Mazo’s writing either typing or writing out Mazo’s books. She assisted with the running of their daily lives and the care of the two children Mazo adopted and she was a constant source of support and companionship. Whether the tale of Caroline’s arrival is falsified or not, it was really was the most important day in their lives.
In 1902 Mazo’s first story The Thief of St. Loo was printed by Munsey Magazine. Set in Quebec, the story tells the tale of Antoine O’Neil, a French Canadian man of Irish descent, who gambles to get a necklace for Margot Paulin for her confirmation. Sent secretly, Mazo was delighted when she received her first fifty dollar payment. She used the money to buy her mother a lamp, and recalls her father reading the short story to her grandparents. She could not wait to see her name in print!
Mazo details a second story submitted to Munsey which she thought had not been accepted and this may have lead to a nervous breakdown. When Mazo recovered, she devoted herself to writing, submitting a number of short stories to various magazines with great success.
Her first book Explorers of the Dawn was a collection of short stories five of which had previously been published. Joan Givner (The Hidden Life) describes it as “A curious book about three children, it seemed poised mid-way between children’s literature and adult fiction.”
Possession her first novel was completed in 1923, the same year Explorers of the Dawn appeared in print, and was published the following year. Mazo’s style had changed more to realism, leaving her Gothic fairy tale and surreal effects behind.
At this time, Mazo met Hugh Eayrs, the President of Macmillan Canada, at the Heliconian Club. They struck up an instant friendship and he convinced her to leave Knopf for Macmillan. He became a life-long friend as well as a mentor and editor. He convinced Mazo that her second novel The Thunder of New Wings was “an unworthy successor” to Possession because she had moved away from describing places she knew to places she didn’t know or only knew slightly. It was “thrown in a drawer” by Mazo but was eventually reworked and published in 1932.
When not working on her fiction, Mazo took on other writing projects to help with the household costs. In the summer of 1922, Caroline went on a holiday to Clarkson while Mazo was in Nova Scotia writing brochures on the provinces’ attractions. Caroline stayed at the Blue Dragon Inn and while there she met the Livesays and became acquainted with Annie and Beverly Sayers. The Sayers had received a portion of the Benares estate when she married and they were selling off select parcels of land in the hopes of creating an “agreeable neighbourhood”. Caroline had the “stupendous” idea of buying a lot where they could create a “small cabin in the woods” to spend their summers. Mazo relays in Ringing the Changes that “Eagerly I caught the fever (what a place for writing!) and before long we had visited the Sayers and arranged to buy enough land to insure us privacy”.
A great deal of detail about Trail Cottage and the summers living there is discussed in Mazo’s autobiography, especially the first years. The cottage was ready by the summer of 1923 and was used by them for six years although it was not sold until 1946.
Trail Cottage was pivotal in providing “the perfect combination of solitude and company so hard for a writer to achieve without loneliness” details Joan Givner (The Hidden Life). Neighbour and poet, Dorothy Livesay noted in The Making of Jalna: A Reminiscence noted “Mazo, left free to write, did so quite furiously and prodigiously. Indeed I have never seen such self discipline in a writer, such commitment.” It was this discipline and solitude that resulted in Delight and eventually Jalna.
It was while staying at Trail Cottage that Mazo wrote her third book, Delight, which she dedicated “ To my dear Carolyn, The Story of Delight is Lovingly Inscribed, Christmas 1925”. Joan Givner states in Mazo de la Roche: A Hidden Life “The work she did at this time reflected her happiness. Delight may not have been her best work (though some would always claim it was) but few would dispute that it was her most exuberant, that it radiated her delight, that word she associated with Trail Cottage and which is synonymous with ‘joy’ “.
Delight received mixed reviews with some strong criticism in Canada and “unanimously good” reviews abroad. The Canadian Bookman review states “The author has created a captivating heroine in Delight Mainprize. Some of the chapters in the story strike one as unconvincing and the character of Kirke is far from being consistent but the tale moves with a swing and the reader of fiction will be able to pass away a pleasant hour or so in its reading”. Desmond Pacey of the University of New Brunswick contends in his introduction to the book in 1960 that the merits of Delight are the “varied, interesting and unforgettable characters” and “the pace and variety of its episodes”. He also notes that it has a strong structure, uses thematics well and has the “great merit of giving delight.” (Ringing the Changes)
Mazo recalls, “The reviews of Possession and Delight meant a great deal to me. At that time reviews had the power to depress me or to give me confidence. They helped to bring out the mettle in me - to give me heart of grace in the writing of my next novel”.
Mazo began formulating the characters and storyline of Jalna prior to the publication of Delight. She started with Meg and Renny Whiteoaks but details how “They leaped from my imagination and from memories of my own family. The grandmother, Adeline Whiteoaks, refused to remain a minor character but arrogantly, supported on either side by a son, marched to the centre of the stage.” (Ringing the Changes)
The plot for Jalna was quite edgy and racy for 1927. The focus of the family is Adeline Court Whiteoaks, the family matriarch who is quickly approaching 100 years of age. She has a quick temper, a parrot that swears in Hindi, an excellent appetite and takes instantaneous catnaps. She rules the family using her fortune as leverage to make them bend to her rule. She has declared that she will leave the fortune in its entirety to one family member but doesn’t disclose who, which keeps everyone hopeful and biddable. The family, who all live at the ancestral home, named Jalna, include her two sons, Nicholas and Ernest, and her grandchildren: Meg, Renny, Piers, Eden, Finch and Wakefield.
The story begins with Eden going to New York where he has a book of poetry published. While in New York he meets and marries Alayne Archer, a manuscript reader at the publisher that prints his poetry. They return to Jalna where they receive a better reception than Eden’s brother, Piers, who had married a neighbouring woman, Pheasant. Pheasant was the illegitimate daughter of Meg’s former flame, Maurice Vaughan. Their engagement had been called off when a romantic fling brought Pheasant into the world. Meg and Maurice had both never married and remained bitter and sad over their lost love.
As Pheasant and Alayne start their new married lives they bring a new spark to Jalna. They both begin to realize that they are with the wrong men when Alayne falls in love with Renny and Eden falls in love with Pheasant. Alayne and Renny struggle to stay apart while Eden and Pheasant give into their mutual attraction. Finch finds the lovers together and tells Renny. Eden runs away and Pheasant returns to her home with Maurice until Piers bring her back to Jalna. This causes Meg to leave Jalna to go to a nearby hut. She is found by Maurice who begs her to marry him and she agrees. Alayne decides to return to New York but decides to wait until after Adeline’s 100th birthday where the story ends.
When Jalna was completed it was sent to Macmillans of New York. Hugh Earys of Macmillan Canada had expressed “great hopes for it” but on a whim, Mazo also sent it to the Atlantic Monthly although bound by contract to Macmillan. Another version of the story has Hugh Earys counselling her to enter the contest when Macmillan didn’t show the interest it deserved. Regardless, the manuscript was entered into a competition for ‘the most interesting novel’. As time went by Mazo began to worry about submitting it twice and asked Atlantic Monthly to return Jalna to her. She was informed that they were holding it in consideration with two other manuscripts. Feeling guilty and worried she wrote to Macmillan explain the situation and asked if they would release her from the contract if she won and they agreed (Mazo felt this was because they assumed it was not a possibility).
After a long and stressful wait Mazo was finally informed that she had won the contest and the $10,000 prize. Caroline and Mazo had to keep the news a secret for about ten days until it was released to the press. They decided to take Bunty, their Scottish terrier, and stay in Niagara Falls. Two days before it was to be announced, on April 12th, the news had been leaked to press and their lives were never the same again.
The announcement of Jalna winning the Atlantic Monthly contest led to a time of great excitement for Mazo and Caroline. Mazo did many interviews and articles and basked in the attention. “The warmth, the feeling of good will towards me was, as I remember, universal. Even critics who had not been very kind to my books joined in the praise. The general feeling seemed to be that of rejoicing that a Canadian (not this Canadian in particular) had archived distinction in the United States, a country which heretofore could scarcely have shown less interest in Canadian letters.” (Ringing the Changes)
Gertrude Pringle’s article about Mazo is one example of the type of coverage and interest in her life sparked by her award-winning novel. This article is particularly interesting as Mrs. Pringle had been her landlady during the period from the end of the writing of Jalna to the announcement of her win. During the winters, Mazo and Carline would move from Trail Cottage to Toronto to be closer to Caroline’s work. They rented a modest room described as a “bed-sitting room” or a “studio apartment”.
Joan Givner in The Hidden Life writes “Gertrude Pringle herself was to become an indispensable ally in the months ahead, acting as social secretary and guardian of Mazo’s privacy - roles for which she was well-suited. She had had ten years’ experience writing an information column in leading Canadian magazines and a daily newspaper, and five years later published a definitive work on Canadian Rules of Etiquette: Etiquette in Canada: the Blue Book of Canadian Social Useage,…”
Gertrude wrote more than one article about Mazo and it is interesting to note that her family history was adapted again perhaps as Givner suggests “to meet the desired social standards”. Mazo’s grandfather was described as being born in France with a career as a classics professor in the United States, and his wife was said to be the daughter of a great Irish beauty. Mazo’s furnishings had come from “the old home” in Ireland. None of this was in fact true.
Gertrude’s article also details the response to Mazo’s win, her recent writings, her writing habits and her love of the country.
Mazo de la Roche wrote her award-winning novel, Jalna, while living in Trail Cottage, built on part of the original Benares estate. She and Caroline Clement lived in Clarkson for four years and became life-long friends of the Harrises. But was the Harrises’ home Benares the real inspiration for the fictional Jalna?
In a letter she wrote to her publisher, Alfred McIntyre, in April 1927, Mazo stated, “There is an old house which partly suggested Jalna. It too was built by a retired officer of the British Army in India and is named ‘Benares’.” She continued: “I expect to see (Benares) in a few weeks. Then I will take some snapshots of it which might help you plan the (cover).”
Further evidence comes from this picture of Benares, now a part of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books and Special Collections Library in Toronto. The picture has inscribed on the back “‘Benares’ Clarkson, Ontario, Jalna of the Whiteoaks, by Mazo de la Roche, about 1900, Captain Harris, India”.
Kathleen Sayers, Geoffrey Harris Sayers’ wife, wrote in a letter to Ronald Hambleton, a biographer of Mazo, “She used our family home and background for her book – and for years we have wished she selected some other residence on which to base it. It has been a damned nuisance.” Kathleen also stated that her husband’s aunt, Naomi Harris, “takes a dim view of the Whiteoaks as a clan – ‘such disreputable people!’ – and strongly resents the general impression that they are based on HER family”.
After 1927, Mazo and her life-long companion, Caroline, blatantly denied any claims that Benares was Jalna. In an 1994 interview, Barbara Sayers Larson, said that she felt that Caroline and Mazo denied the connection between Jalna and Benares because of all the problems it caused for her grandparents and aunt when curious fans came peering through windows to see the “real Jalna”.
Benares Historic House, now a part of the Museums of Mississauga, may have provided some architectural inspiration for Jalna but were the respectable and real Harrises the basis for the ‘disreputable’ and fictional Whiteoaks?
There are some obvious parallels that cannot be denied:
Captain Harris of the British army sold his commission in 1836 and moved to Benares, his 285 acre estate, with his Irish wife, Elizabeth Molony (image shown).
The Whiteoaks patriarch, Philip, sold his military commission to buy a 1,000 acre estate which he and his Irish bride, Adeline Court, moved into in 1854.
The youngest son of each family, Arthur Harris and Phillip Whiteoaks Jr., inherited their respective estates and each was the only one of their generation to marry and have children.
Naomi Harris and Meg Whiteoaks were both unmarried women of similar age, lived with their parents during World War I, and belonged to the Women’s Institute.
Four generations of each family lived and fought to preserve their homes.
While these examples help to strengthen the link between the two families, the similarities “begin to weaken, and Mazo’s plot to thicken” (Paula Jansen, The Mazo Mystery Program) when one digs deeper. The Whiteoaks’ saga continues in an exciting downward spiral, with illegitimate children, hints of homosexuality, fighting brothers, taboo marriages, and fourth generation cousins forced to marry.
There have been dozens of suggestions as to who was the inspiration for the Whiteoaks was. We may never know; but as Annemarie Hagan, Museums Manager, eloquently wrote in her Historic Sites and Monuments Board – Parks Canada Plaque Unveiling Address (2008), “I truly do believe that the REAL Jalna and the REAL Whiteoaks families do exist. They do. They aren’t even that hard to find. Mazo handed them to us on a silver platter – or perhaps I should say -- between the covers of the sixteen books she wrote about the Whiteoaks. She chronicled the daily life, passions, joys, frustrations, accomplishments, and failures of matriarch Adeline Whiteoaks, her husband Captain Phillip Whiteoaks and their 4 children, 6 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and 1 great-great-grandchild. And one mustn’t forgot their many and varied spouses and lovers -- and the always dominant and steady presence of their home estate JALNA, and all it represented about ‘the mythical old days’ of landed gentry in Upper Canada.”
Mazo and Caroline struck up a friendship with their neighbours including the Livesays and the Harrises of Benares Historic House. One might think it unlikely that a family who lived in such a grand house would befriend a barely-known writer living in a small rustic cottage in the woods. But in fact, they became life-long friends. New neighbours were always invited for tea, and so shortly after their arrival at Trail Cottage, Mazo and Caroline walked the well-worn paths through the woods, up to Benares and its welcoming verandah, and into the elegant drawing room. Quite a contrast to Trail Cottage, but not necessarily to the many family homes that both women had known through their lives. They were not out of their element here, but in it. Artists, writers – even those whose works others might consider risqué – had always been welcomed at Benares.
The friendship that developed between various Harris women and Mazo and Caroline is reflected in a lifetime of letters, photographs, inscribed books, small gifts and many memories. Barbara Larson, the daughter of Annie Harris Sayers from whom Mazo bought the property for Trail Cottage, recalls being allowed the privilege of walking Bunty, their Scottish terrier. In an interview with Daniel Bratton, Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche, Barbara recalls “(Bunty was) Getting blind, but I used to take her for a walk, and then take her back. I never stayed long because Mazo was busy, always writing, and you knew that they didn’t want children bothering them for any length of time. That was when I was six or seven.”
In Mazo’s diary she notes a number of visits to Clarkson for lunch with Mrs. Livesay and “Friends from Cottage” as well as Oct. 3, 1940, “The Benares friends to tea”. In 1946, Mazo and Caroline sold Trail Cottage so there may have been fewer visits Clarkson but by all accounts a fond and warm friendship continued.
The year after the success of Jalna was a whirlwind for Caroline and Mazo. They attended many literary parties and speaking engagements, spent the summer in Rockport on the Massachusetts coast and visited Boston and New York. After returning to Toronto the strain of these social and work functions began to take a toll on Mazo’s health and her writing. Bunty, Mazo and Caroline’s blind Scottish terrier, became ill and after a short recovery died the day after Christmas. This loss may have compounded the decline in Mazo’s health. She states in Ringing the Changes that the winter was a disappointment, “I had expected to do much work on my new novel Whiteoaks. Instead I spent six weeks or more in acute suffering from pain in the head. I had an engagement to speak in Montreal when the attack came on. Crawling, insidious pains moved with dreadful regularity over my temples, down the back of my neck. To write a postcard was beyond me.” Mazo did not recover with the prescribed rest and nightcap of Scotch and water, so she undertook some shock therapy treatments. These treatments didn’t work, and on the advice of a nurse, she stopped taking them.
Caroline gave up her career at this time and they moved back to Trail Cottage where Mazo convalesced. With the assistance of Caroline, Mazo’s health recovered although she was still constantly bombarded with “invitations, requests to speak, letters, letters.” They briefly took a respite in Niagara Peninsula to gain some much needed privacy. After returning to Trail Cottage again, Mazo began dictating her books to Caroline and she made great progress, “Not only did this working together help me to accomplish much more but it gave me confidence in myself. No longer did I think, ‘How much shall I be able to write to-day? Shall I suffer for it? No – I wrote what I could, then hastened to where Caroline was waiting, eager to put on paper what was in my mind.”
Joan Givner (The Hidden Life) suggests that Mazo’s health problems were the result of “reopening old wounds” from her past. Finch Whiteoaks becomes the dominant character in this book, a character that Mazo most identified with. “Through Finch she began to tell the story of her own early life, including her first breakdown, her estrangement from her family, and her flight from them.” Givner also suggests that Caroline entering into Mazo’s creative process was an easy transition from their ‘Play’ where Caroline had always been the “willing partner and muse”. Mazo’s struggle and stimulus of working with Caroline resulted in what is thought by many to be the strongest novel in the Jalna series, Whiteoaks of Jalna.