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.
Mazo and Caroline decided to take a round-the-world cruise after the struggles of Mazo’s breakdown and the triumph of completing Whiteoaks of Jalna. This was revised to a trip to Europe “but Mazo and Caroline were not ordinary people, and they embarked on their first long journey in a different spirit from most tourists. In fact, they thought of this less as their first journey than as a revisiting of familiar places, since long before they had the means to travel, their imaginations had conjured up very adequate substitutes.” (Givner, The Hidden Life). Mazo was known to be nervous of practical details and prone to bronchial cough especially when stressed so their trip was marred by health complications. However, Mazo was inspired by unusual surroundings and had a burst of creativity sparked by their arrival in Taormina, Sicily where her health improved dramatically. Mazo wrote three profitable short stories while there that paid for their travel expenses. Taormina also inspired Lark Ascending a novel that was published three years later.
Joan Givner describes the stories as “showing a preoccupation with comparing, in durability and vitality, unorthodox relationships with those condoned by society and formalized marriage”. She also notes that “All these stories are highly complex fictions in which the subversive subtexts, full of covert meanings, are completely at odds with the bland surface.” Daniel Bratton in Thirty -Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche feels that perhaps Mazo was “drawing upon, while subverting, the conventions of international fiction, inscribing her own feelings of social and sexual marginality into the text, and emphasising the instinctive life over the manners that are so critical to the genre.”
While both Caroline and Mazo loved Taormina and had planned to return each year, they never did. This was just one of many trips that they took together. From Italy they sailed onto England where the climate, both weather and social, was more to their liking. Here they started another chapter in their lives.
In 1931, Mazo and Caroline adopted two children; a girl and boy. The circumstances of the adoption were kept secret and were never fully explained to friends or the children themselves. The official story was that siblings Patty and Michael (their names were later changed to Esmée and René) were the orphaned children of English friends they had met in Italy. When both parents died, Mazo and Caroline decided to adopt them enlisting the help of Daniel Macmillan, her English publisher.
Joan Givner (The Hidden Life) writes, “Not only was it totally unorthodox for two middle-aged women (Mazo was fifty-two) to adopt children, but both the motivation and the means by which the transaction took place appeared inexplicable.” She also notes that possibly the biggest obstacle was the daily taking care of the children. She speculates that Mazo and Caroline, having been exposed to upper-class English life, must have accepted the idea of the children being reared by servants.
The children were drawn upon in Mazo’s writings. Many of the Whiteoaks characters adopted children after Mazo’s children came into her life such; as Renny Whiteoaks adopting his brother, Eden’s illegitimate child. Her children were also the inspiration for Beside a Norman Tower and This Very House.
In 1939 the family moved back to Canada because of Mazo’s health and the threats of War. Esmée and René were enrolled in a variety of local private day and boarding schools and spent much of their summers in camps. The end of summer holidays and Christmas were usually the only time they saw Mazo and Caroline. A continual problem for the children was money. Givner (The Hidden Life) suggests this may have to do with Mazo not understanding the value of money as Caroline did all the shopping. Mazo in a response to René in a letter dated March 18, 1950 states “At the end of this letter I am going to put down just what money I have sent you lately. I am terribly sorry that what I send you is always too little and always too late. I appreciate the clear way in which you put down what your expenses are. They are much greater than I had expected.” A number of letters from Mazo to René have recently been donated to the Fisher Rare Book Library from his widow, Bianca. The letters dating from 1949 to 1951 clearly show a loving relationship but with little contact, and continual discussions about money.
Mazo and Caroline both loved and admired everything English. Mazo thought of it as her spiritual home, especially the southwest where her Lundy relatives originally came from. Caroline “claimed she was not really Canadian at heart, even though she was a sixth-generation native…” (Givner, The Hidden Life). They spent a great deal of time travelling around England exploring the countryside as well as London. Caroline and Mazo rented a house, Seckington, in Warwickshire, England. It was here that she wrote Portrait of a Dog about Bunty their pet Scottish terrier and Finch’s Fortune. Their experiences in England were relived by Finch Whiteoak, and as Ron Hambleton writes in The Secret of Jalna, ”there is ample evidence that she was writing virtually a spiritual autobiography.”
Mazo and Caroline would live in many houses over the 8 ½ years they lived in England. Their first move was necessary to accommodate their new children in 1931. These homes included The Rectory, The Winnings and Vale House - the first home they bought in England.
The time in England was one of great creativity for Mazo. From 1929 until 1938 she wrote ten novels, a book of short stories, seven short stories for various magazines and periodicals, and created two plays (never published), two articles, a poem and her version of the play Whiteoaks. In March 1939, with the fears of imminent war, Mazo, Caroline and the children left England for Canada. In her diary, Mazo writes on March 31st, “We left Malvern -said goodbye to poor Paxton - we all four wept as the train steamed away..”.
Interestingly Mazo finishes her autobiography, Ringing the Changes at this time. Ronald Hambleton (The Secret of Jalna) felt that she ended her autobiography after her return to Canada “because in every real sense, her life as an out going-novelist ended then. As a person, she remained intellectually curious and vigorous; as a creative novelist, she chose to remain with characters she knew intimately, safe inside her study, which, though in Canada, was as English as she could make it.” In her own words “I feel no urge to write of my life during the years of the War or after. Each of us lives through several lives in his time. This latest period of mine is mostly a record of books written, of seeing my children grow up, of seeing a different sort of world rise into my astonished view.” (Ringing the Changes)
Requests for Jalna to be adapted into a play and movie had been discussed since its success in 1927. In 1933, at the encouragement of Raymond Massey and St. John Ervine, Mazo attempted writing her own stage version of Whiteoaks (not Jalna) after coming to an understanding with Nancy Price, who would produce and act in the play. The technical demands of a stage production were beyond Mazo’s experience and there were many disagreements and rewrites before it actually was performed in 1936. Mazo wrote in her autobiography “The play went well. There were many curtain calls and even one for the author. Afterwards we had a large party in Stafford Place.” The play, despite the excitement of the opening night had a slow start and was transferred to a smaller playhouse where it became an instant success and ran for over three years.
After the run in London it opened in Canada with great reviews and sold out shows in Montreal, Toronto and other Ontario locations. Nancy Price declined performing the part in North America and Gran was replaced by Ethel Barrymore. Mazo’s diary, a part of the Museums of Mississauga collections, is filled with notes on the reviews of the play. On March 24th the play opening in New York and these three entries in her diary follow: “March 24 - Now hear that there was a “mixed press for Whiteoaks - run probable”, March 25 - “Splendid notices of Whiteoaks from Washington - the best by Nelson B. Bell” and “March 27 - Cablegram from Victor Payne-Jennings ‘ Barrymore tremendous success Adeline at Hudson Theatre urge you come America you will never forgive yourself failing to see Gran Whiteoaks so magnificently realized’ - Still reluctant to go”. Joan Givner writes in The Hidden Life, “When Whiteoaks went to New York, Mazo and Caroline sailed over to be present at some of the performances, although they missed the opening night. Mazo’s delight in her play never waned. She attended rehearsals, stood in line among crowds waiting for tickets, and especially loved knowing that the Royal family enjoyed it.” Eventually, after a successful run, Whiteoaks closed in 1939.
Mazo wrote other plays including the Mistress of Jalna an adaptation of Mary Wakefield but gave up on writing for the theatre in 1955. Lovat Dickson, in a letter to Mazo dated November 11th, 1955, writes, “How happy I am to see that you are done with the theatre…. I believe that novelists handicap themselves dreadfully when they start to write plays…”
In between working on Whiteoaks the play and writing Young Renny, Jalna was filmed by R.K.O. in Hollywood and was released in 1935. The movie was directed by John Cromwell and was produced at the R.K.O. Palace with an all-star cast. Little is said about the movie in the books about Mazo. Daniel Bratton in Thirty Two Views of Mazo de la Roche writes, “… Mazo’s response to the result was predictably ambivalent. She and Caroline had seen their first film only shortly before this time, and while, according to her friends, Mazo demonstrated a surprising interest in television in her later years, she clearly regarded the cinema as a lowbrow threat to imaginative life.” Joan Givner and Ronald Hambleton briefly touch on the film but it is clear that Mazo’s main interests were with theatre and not film.
Mazo herself writes of the movie in Ringing the Changes, “My novel Jalna was being filmed in Hollywood by R.K.O. with a cast including C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Ian Hunter, Peggy Wood and Kay Johnson. These were excellent but the part of the grandmother could scarcely have been more ill-cast. Not one of the attributes that made old Adeline Whietoaks notable belonged to the actress who played the part. Readers of the book wrote to tell me of their dissatisfaction with the film. “
The New York Times review of the film published on September 14, 1935 states “The feudal Whiteoaks of Jalna, whose robust lives provided Mazo de la Roche with material for five novels during the last eight years, have been transferred to the screen with remarkable fidelity in RKO Radio's film, "Jalna," based roughly on the first of Miss de la Roche's quintology. The inevitable telescoping of the novel into screen play uses has been achieved without too great a disregard for the original and the few deviations may be pardoned on the ground of filmic license. It was more important that the rich individuality of the Whiteoaks be preserved and it is in the generally splendid characterizations by an excellent cast that the new photoplay at the Palace achieves its measure of distinction.”
After moving back to Canada, life settled into a pattern for the de la Roche family. Mazo continued to be prolific and in the twenty year span from 1939 to 1958 she wrote an autobiography, two children’s books, the play Mary Wakefield, three articles, one novella, a book about Quebec, a novel about transplanted children and ten Whiteoaks chronicles.
Mazo in an article for McLeans’ Magazine, Feb.1, 1949 stated when discussing the plots for her Whiteoaks series that, “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.”
Her first novel published after her return to Canada, Whiteoaks Heritage, was met with great enthusiasm by Mazo’s publishers, fans and critics. “Writing in the Peterborough Examiner, Robertson Davies, a self-proclaimed admirer of the Whiteoaks novels, thought Adeline and Renny the most vivid characters in a book which ’fills in a few gaps which the previous books have left in our knowledge of this odd tribe.’ “ (Givner, The Hidden Life)
Unfortunately, as time went on, her books were not always met with such enthusiasm,
“It is by no means unusual to see artists going on long after their powers have diminished, goaded by their agents, by financial necessity and often, like Mazo, by some inner imperative…. Such was Mazo’s last book - ridiculous in its scope, full of historical absurdities and unlikely coincidences, and yet with flashes of the old skill- original new characters, familiar ones re-imagined, all pull together into great dramatic scenes.” (Givner, The Hidden Life). Ted Weeks knew the valiant effort Mazo had made in creating this last book, Morning at Jalna, and had asked critics to comment on the work in view of the series as a whole. Newsweek wrote in their article Whiteoaks Saga, September 19, 1960, “Full of the old hustle-bustle narrative energy that Jalna fans expect, the book gives no hint that a truly grave danger to the Whiteoaks clan exists in real life. At 75, Mazo de la Roche - the slender aquiline lady whose serial saga has entrapped readers in fifteen languages lies bedridden with a complication of illnesses which has left her too weak to write.”
Mazo, as with all writers, had to learn to cope with criticism of her works. From her earliest writings on, some of her most harsh critics were Canadians. In The Hidden Life, Givner states “Although it was well received in England (Possession), Michael Sadleir wondered if ‘the exotic foreign elements’ were not making him respond to it more eagerly than was quite justified. Canadian critics, setting a pattern that was to dog Mazo for the rest of her life, focused on whether or not the novel was ‘truly Canadian’.” Its successor, Delight, also received harsh criticism in Canada giving Mazo the impression she would always be more appreciated elsewhere.
Mazo also had to contend with criticism from her publishers. Many letters survived from her editors and publishers, most of whom were also her close friends. On October 3rd, 1934, Edward (Ted) Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly Press writes, “Your novels were the first and are the best to come to the Press under my editorship. I have taken a zealous interest in the career of each book rejoicing when the critics were on our side, condemning those I thought unfair …. From this friendliness with you and your books there developed an atmosphere in which I felt free - perhaps freer than my associates - to discuss the longcomings and if necessary, the shortcomings of your writing. Generally I have been quick to appreciate but slow to find fault with your Mss (manuscripts).” While critics abounded, the sales of her books were still great and her publishers were loath for her to leave.
After Mazo’s death in 1961, Ron Dart in his essay Mazo de la Roche and Dorothy Livesay: High Tory meets Radical states it was ”hunting season on de la Roche”. He also notes how it became “trendy” to mock or ignore Mazo de la Roche as a serious writer. One person who came to her defense was former Clarkson neighbour and poet, Dorothy Livesay. In Getting it Straight, she states that “the time has come when we must cease being literary snobs in Canada and look seriously at the work of our popular writers.” Douglas M. Daymond, taking Dorothy’s advice wrote Whiteoaks Chronicles: A Reassessment and found “…the extent of the Whiteoaks history and the gradual expansion of that history without sacrificing unity and continuity; the creation of a large cast of clearly delineated characters;….and the successful expression of sincere feeling for individual freedom and tradition, represent a considerable achievement and therefore the chronicles merits attention, both as an extensive single work on an imaginary family and as individual novels which reveal the preoccupations of de la Roche and her readers.”
Mazo and Caroline always had each other, but they also had many interesting friends and acquaintances that they kept over the years. Many of these friends were mentors for Mazo especially in her early years.
One of Mazo’s best friends and mentors was fellow writer and poet, Katherine Hale (Mrs. John Garvin). Their friendship started after Katherine wrote an article on Mazo in 1914 for the Toronto Star Weekly entitled ‘Joan of the Barnyard - A Young Poetess Who Loves Chickens’. Katherine at this time was a successful writer and critic and Mazo looked up to her. Eventually Mazo’s own success would eclipse Katherine’s but they would remain great friends. Mazo often referred to her as Méme in letters and notes, many of which still survive.
Mazo often made friends and had mentors in the publishers of her works. One example is Ellery Sedgwick the Editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Starting as friendly correspondences, after Mazo cleared up the misunderstanding that she was a teenage boy, their friendship grew and he often gave sound criticism of her early works. It has been suggested that her early relationship with him may have influenced the decision to select Jalna as the winner of the prize she won in 1927.
Other mentors and friends included Hugh Eayrs who became her publisher and literary advisor, Ted Weeks, the successor of Ellery Sedgwick at Atlantic Monthly and Lovat Dickson her “cherished friend” and also publisher with Macmillan.
Mazo and Caroline both maintained many acquaintances with other writers including Clarkson’s own Fred Livesay and his daughter, writer and poet, Dorothy Livesay. Dorothy wrote a few articles in defense of Mazo’s writings after her death in 1961 including The Making of Jalna: A Reminiscence, which recalls the early days in Clarkson and how they all “lamented together the old days in Ontario when people did live as English landed gentry”.
Mazo died peacefully on the early morning of July 12, 1961, surrounded by her family. She had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years and according to family had been suffering from hardening of the arteries and rheumatoid arthritis. In the fall of 1959 she took a turn for the worse and never recovered. Caroline, her faithful companion, never gave up hope that she would recover. Writing to Ted Weeks she says, “…I have watched that bright and lively spirit being quenched bit by bit and will it ever recover I ask myself a thousand times.” (The Hidden Life)
A service was held at the Anglican Cathedral of St. James and she was buried at St. George’s Sibbald’s Point on Lake Simcoe in a pioneer cemetery that reminded Mazo of England. The headstone is described by Daniel Bratton (Thirty-Two Short Views on Mazo de la Roche),” Its shaft bears a handsomely carved circle containing an apocryphal family motto: ‘MON DIEU EST MA ROCHE’. Its base, like the memorial window, gives the wrong date of birth, 1888 - even today, the church guide lists Mazo’s birthplace as Toronto. It is engraved, ‘Death interrupts all that is mortal’, however, there is a phoenix rising within the circle on the shaft: the bird is Mazo’s totem; it makes me think of her staging another comeback.”
The window referred to by Bratton is a memorial window in St. George’s Sibbald Memorial Church. The window was dedicated by her family in her memory and depicts St. Francis surrounded by birds and animals and at the bottom is the inscription “He prayeth best who loveth best, all things both great and small”. The window was installed in the porch as there was no room left in the sanctuary. Givner (The Hidden Life) suggests that this was indicative of Mazo’s life - wishing to belong she had positioned herself in such a way to reinforce her status as an outsider,
“….a fact brought home when the family tried to place a window in the church in her memory. The congregation was split over whether to allow such a memorial for one who had never been a member of the church. When the deciding vote was cast by a local bookseller, the window was created and placed in the church porch.”
“In a way, the disposal of her remains exemplifies the convoluted and irrational path that Mazo travelled throughout her life in her self-defeating search to find her own people and place in the world. In fact, the only secure place she ever found was the private space that she created with Caroline.” (Givner, The Hidden Life)
After Mazo died in 1961 there was renewed interest in the television rights to Jalna and Mazo’s other books. Rights that she had refused to sign away while she was alive. In fact, in her will, it states that “it is my wish that no sale be made by my Trustees of radio or television rights to any of my books for use on any commercially sponsored program”. After more than ten years, the Trustees, Mazo’s children and Caroline Clement, finally agreed to a sale of such rights.
TheWhiteoaks of Jalna was a 1972 CBC mini-series based on Mazo de la Roche’s Whiteoaks series. Produced at a cost of two million dollars, it set a record for the most expensive Canadian television miniseries at the time. The script writing, led by Timothy Findley, was confusing to many as it jumped back and forth between the 1850s and 1970s with characters playing in both the past and present. Despite a detailed family tree and a cast of talented actors including Kate Reid, Paul Harding, Amelia Hall and Blair Brown, most viewers could not follow the story line and it “bombed” in the ratings. It was exported internationally to the United Kingdom and France but plans to syndicate the series and sell it to an American network never materialized. In 1974 the miniseries was rebroadcast after being re-edited to delete most of the modern scenes.
Mary Jane Miller, in her book Turn Up the Contrast, a history of CBC television drama only dedicated two paragraphs to perhaps one of CBC’s biggest flops: “The problem was that Jalna readers, who wanted their old familiar story, were treated to an ill-conceived experiment in narrative structure complete with flashbacks, multiple plot strands, and intercut time frames, all edited in haste as the air date approached. Of course they were frustrated by this. Viewers unfamiliar with the novels were simply confused.”
A modern review of the mini-series on the Internet Movie Database by Mark L. Kahnt in 2002 states “It took a generation for CBC drama to live down the memories of The Whiteoaks of Jalna and bring back a willingness among the audience to give Canadian television drama a chance.” Another review in 2003 by Rosabel was even harsher “In the end, the whole show was an unwatchable dog's breakfast, lurching back and forth to different time periods, telling no story consecutively, but shoving everything into flashbacks.” Surprisingly on the Internet Movie Database it rated 8.7 out of 10!
The story of the Whiteoaks and Jalna still had the power to draw audiences 65 years after its release. In June 1994, a 16-part French miniseries that aired in France and Canada revived the Whiteoaks and made them popular once again. Jim Bawden noted in Starweek Magazine, that “the French have a strange veneration for the original Whiteoaks novels and have transferred the material to TV with loving care.” He also noted some of the changes to the original including characters speaking Parisian French, a home that looked like a 19th century French chateau, and “naughty” sex scenes.
French actress Danielle Darrieux played Gran although at a younger age than in Jalna, Serge Dupire played Renny and Grégoire Colin played Finch. La Chaine-Francaise , unfortunately, didn’t add English titles which would have increased its audience appeal. Produced at an estimated cost of sixteen million, this series brought Jalna to ten million viewers. In later years, it was dubbed into English and aired on Global TV in Ontario.
It is interesting to note that the Whiteoaks chronicles never went out of print in France and that Mazo de la Roche was better known in France than any French-Canadian writers. In fact, her books continued to be popular there even after they had ceased to be popular in English-speaking countries. Virginia Careless on the Canadian Collections website notes that a survey of books read by French children in 1960 found Mazo, along with A.J. Cronin, to be their favourite authors.
Caroline Clement may have destroyed some of Mazo’s personal diaries, but she did not destroy them all. In 2005, Bianca de la Roche, the daughter-in-law of Mazo donated two small diaries to the Museums of Mississauga. The diaries cover the periods 1938-1945 and 1959. The diaries are filled with quick short entries with a line or two on each day of the year. The earlier diary is especially interesting as it covers the period of time when her play Whiteaoks was being performed, and it notes the books she was working on. The diary is also peppered with information on the war’s progress such as “March 15, 1940 - Finland has capitulated” and “May 7, 1945 - At long last I write the War is over. It is also filled with the small joys and the disappointments of life; flowers blooming, visits from her children, illnesses and lunch and dinner parties. The second diary, written only two years before her death, is less detailed and sporadic in the entries. Written in a shaky hand, some of the entries include “March 8th, 1959 - Dr. McR to see C. I work all morning on the play.” and “Dec. 1st, 1959 - Alixe is six today. Called her on the telephone last evening.”
The diaries were showcased at the tenth anniversary celebrations of the opening of Benares Historic House. The donor, Bianca de la Roche, who had previously donated many personal items, magazines and books belonging to Mazo and Caroline, attended as well as Mazo’s daughter, Esmée Rees. Both were also in attendance at the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Plaque Unveiling held on April 12, 2008. The plaque notes Mazo as a person of significance in “…the rich tapestry of our country’s cultural heritage.” The plaque was installed at the front of Benares property.
The Museums of Mississauga are proud of the connection of Benares and the Harris families with Mazo de la Roche and her Whiteoaks chronicles. A number of letters, images and gifts given by Mazo and Caroline in their lifetime are also treasured artifacts in the collection.
Bianca de la Roche continues to be a strong supporter of the Museums of Mississauga and a generous donor to our institution and others as well. In 2012 plans are underway to donate a number of Mazo’s first edition books, inscribed books from other authors to Mazo and a number of personal letters including many to her son René and her editor, Ted Weeks, to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book and Special Collections Library in Toronto. She also hopes to donate her original Fredrick Varley drawing of Mazo to a major art gallery.
Mazo de la Roche still continues to hold our attention even fifty years after her death. In 2011 a documentary, The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, was filmed at Benares Historic House by Red Queen Productions. To be released in 2012, the film features Severn Thompson as Mazo and Laura Hay as Caroline Clement. The film includes interviews with her daughter Esmée Rees, biographers such as Daniel Bratton and Heather Kirk and author Marie Claire Blais.
The Mazo de la Roche Society, a small but dedicated group, was formed in 2007 in her honour. Founder Fran Goddu when asked why he is such a fan states “When I bought a house on Whiteoaks Avenue in Mississauga over 30 years ago, my Mother-in-law (after being given our new address) asked: ‘does that have anything to do with Mazo de la Roche?’ That was my introduction to Mazo de la Roche. I read her books and like my mother-in-law found them very entertaining. That led me to find the connection between Whiteoaks Ave. and Mazo. Trail Cottage, where Mazo wrote Jalna, is just around the corner from my house. I also found that my house was on what had been the Benares Estate - to some people, the model Mazo used as her Jalna. Over the years, the question about Whiteoaks Ave. has been repeated numerous times. Given Mazo's enduring popularity and the long dormant need on the part of Parks Canada to find a location for a commemorative plaque, I was led to found the Mazo de la Roche Society to provide a means of promoting Mazo de la Roche.”
One of its members, May-Lis Thorsson, hailing from Olso, Norway writes “I have always been fascinated by the strong colourful characters, the family values and the strong bonds between each of the family members. Being an only child myself and starting to read the book as at a very young age, I think I found a kind of substitute family in the Whiteoaks – although only in my own mind. I have never stopped reading the books although it sometimes goes years in between. Still, somehow I always sought back to them. I have read the books both in Norwegian and in English.”
While Benares Historic House may only slightly be the inspiration for Jalna, the Museums of Mississauga are happy to have this connection to a writer that continues to enthral and delight readers.