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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Building of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche

Once Mr E and I had become an item in 1967 he took me to meet his maternal grandparents and it was lovely. His granny, Alice Hyne, was a very bright former grammar school girl whose promising career in the Civil Service was aborted by her marriage in 1917. She knocked off the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword every day and had completed it, as usual, the day before she died (COPD with complications) in 1974. Of course she was an avid reader and liked and approved of me immediately because I was (am) too. She also liked my being a teacher because that’s what her mother had been before marriage. Granny Hyne willed me her well thumbed complete works of Shakespeare which not only had she read but used frequently to find crossword clue answers. I treasure it.

One day she asked me if I’d read Mazo de la Roche. I hadn’t so I did. Roche (1879-1961) was a Canadian whose most famous work is the Whiteoak Chronicles – a 16 book series about a British family who settled in Ontario in the mid-19th century. It spans a hundred years. Well I’ve always been a sucker for a family saga and I lapped it up – borrowing the books from the library. Gradually I became aware that some people are snooty about Roche possibly because she’s Canadian and maybe because she’s a story teller without literary pretensions. In the end I moved on to something else and didn’t mention her in “polite society”. In fact I suspect she’s far more highly regarded in Canada than she is in snobby Britain: her home in Toronto is now a “Heritage Property.” In Ontario there are schools and streets named after her and her characters. She’s been serialised on Canadian TV.

Coming back to Roche now in my mature years – with decades of serious academic study and teaching behind me – I opened The Building of Jalna on my Kindle, very curiously. It was published in 1944, by the way, and is the chronological first book but she didn’t write them in order. The first was published back in 1927 but actually falls in the middle of the sequence. The last title was Centenary at Jalna which was published in 1958, three years before Roche’s death. Did she have the whole thing mapped out in her head, I wonder, or did it simply evolve?

The Building of Jalna tells the story of Adeline Court and Captain Philip Whiteoak who meet in India, fall in love, marry and eventually decide to go to Canada to build a house on Lake Ontario. They’ve inherited the money to enable them to do this. The characterisation is strong. Adeline is a feisty, convention-defying impulsive redhead who doesn’t suffer fools and usually gets her own way. He is a competent, tolerant, attractive man also determined to make everything work well. The sexual attraction between them is vibrant but Roche (almost certainly gay herself) doesn’t do sex scenes and that’s rather refreshing. We get the message without them. There are other interesting characters too: the troubled Wilmott, whom they met at sea en route from Britain. Then there’s Robert, the son of the couple who put the Whiteoaks (and their two children) up while Jalna is built. Both are clearly entranced by Adeline but this is no soppy romance.

We get a vivid picture of the unspoilt mid-nineteeth century Ontario landscape and weather although Roche also makes sure we don’t miss the sadness of cutting down virgin forest for building. The other thing I really admired was Roche’s depiction of the voyage out – the storms, the damage to the boat, the seasickness and the death of their Indian ayah at sea. It is all pretty awful as many such voyages must have been.

In short, I enjoyed it and at my advanced age I am not remotely ashamed of that. I believe passionately in eclectic reading. If it grabs you, then go for it.  A good storyteller is worth celebrating and that’s what Mazo de la Roche is.  She sits somewhere between RF Delderfield and Daphne du Maurier in style. I have downloaded  Morning at Jalna which is the second title in the series. And, a little bonus, I’ve thought a lot about Granny Hyne in recent days and have been chatting to her in my head.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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