Mazo de la Roche was one of the most successful and prolific women writers of the 20th century. Her novel, Jalna, the dramatic story of a family dynasty, skyrocketed to international fame and fortune in 1927. By the time she died, 11 million copies of her books had been sold in 93 languages—she remains one of the country’s bestselling authors to date.
The most important thing is her (Mazo de la Roche’s) work. -- Marie-Claire Blais
The task of discussing a fine writer can go in two directions or a combination of these directions: 1) faithfully reflect upon the novels, poems, short stories, dramas of the author--healthy literary criticism or 2) delve into the life of the author--C.S. Lewis calls this the personal heresy. The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche is a fine film in some ways, but it tends to veer in the direction of the latter approach (the personal heresy).
De La Roche had written and published some probing and insightful literary works before the success of Jalna in 1927. Most who have heard of De La Roche know about her because of the many novels she wrote about the Whiteoak’s family of Jalna (16 to be precise). Needless to say, De La Roche distinguished herself by writing and publishing many other books of equal or greater worth and note than the Jalna series.
The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche lands lightly but not long on Jalna and Whiteoaks of Jalna. The rest of the books are merely glanced over with no real comment or commentary (other than the fact critics began to grow weary of the ongoing tale of the Whiteoaks clan. There is a variety of film clips from different movies of the Jalna series-- they are brief yet poignant. Texts and films are chosen judiciously to illustrate De La Roche’s literary significance. The film is enhanced and enriched by illuminating insights by such worthies as Daniel Bratton, Heather Kirk, Susan Swan, Kildare Dobbs, Loraine York, Marie-Claire Blais and a couple of members of the extended adopted family, Esmee Rees and Kim de la Roche ( it would have valuable if Joan Givner had been interviewed, being the De La Roche specialist she is).
The few comments on the content of the actual initial Jalna novels by De La Roche tend to focus on the romance of Renny-Alayne (and an interpretation of it) and the soul affinity between De La Roche and Finch. Needless to say, there is much more to Jalna and Whiteoaks of Jalna than these limited, speculative and suggestive leads.000
There is tendency in The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche to overplay and overdo the relationship between Mazo De La Roche and Caroline Clement--such an approach is trendy and focusses on different ways of interpreting their relationship. It would have been much wiser to zero in on, as Blais has suggested, “her work”. There is a depth, charm and fullness in the multiple writings of De La Roche that is missed when an excessive amount of time is spent on probing and speculating about the personal life of any author—being too committed to the personal heresy can become tedious. The genius of De La Roche is the way she combined shallowness and depth, melodrama and substance, thin and complex characters, bland and complicated plots--De La Roche also had a tremendous ability to describe the nuances of the inner life, a unique gift as a wordsmith in highlighting ample and vivid images of nature and her many religious probes are more than worthy of attention. When undue attention is given to De La Roche’s personal journey, much is missed about her literary fullness and brilliance.
The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche makes it appear as if Jalna and Whiteoaks of Jalna were Canadian breakthrough novels into the larger American and English literary markets---this is simply not the case. Stephen Leacock (who is buried quite close to Mazo De La Roche and Caroline Clement at St. George’s parish) had a become a significant and well published Canadian literary writer (he was well known before that as a Canadian political economist and historian) in the Anglo-American ethos and literary world by 1910. It might have been interesting to note, also, that when De La Roche-Clement moved to Trail Cottage in Clarkson in 1928, they encountered the young Dorothy Livesay (who wrote a few fine articles about De La Roche in her later years). The link between Leacock-De La Roche-Livesay could have been explored in a variety of subtle ways.
The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche is a fine primer on the life of De La Roche but rather weak on the deeper and more perennial literary significance of De La Roche for both Canadian and global literature.
De La Roche is a goldmine and mother lode in many ways, and she still awaits a gifted and sympathetic reader of her 37 books to demonstrate why and how this is the case. We do need, in short, more attention paid to the mystery of “her work” and less to the mystery of her life.