Mazo Louise de la Roche (1879-1961) was a Canadian author whose masterful and dramatic description of a family of Canadian country squires gained her international recognition.
Mazo de la Roche was born on Jan. 15, 1879, in the town of Newmarket near Toronto into a middle-class family. She was educated in suburban schools in and near Toronto and had firsthand experience with farm life when her family rented a homestead outside the town of Bronte, Ontario. Here the author, who had been writing stories for a number of years with little success, underwent formative experiences which helped to crystallize important ideas of a country squirearchy which would be central to her best-known work.
Beginning her career as a writer of short stories, Mazo de la Roche published her first novel, Possession, in 1923 and had several plays produced in the 1920s. International popularity came with the publication of Jalna (1927), which won the $10,000 Atlantic-Little Brown Award that year and which launched the Whiteoak family and the story of its dynastic ups and downs through a series of widely published and much-translated novels.
Mazo de la Roche spent all of her creative life in Canada except for the years 1929-1939, when she lived abroad, mainly in England. Her published work includes 22 novels written between 1923 and 1960; a novella, A Boy in the House (1952); four works with an autobiographical background, of which Ringing the Changes (1957) is an important if misleading autobiography; five produced plays, from Low Life (1925) to The Mistress of Jalna (1951), and an adaptation of Whiteoaks of Jalna which was created for the stage in London and New York; short stories, many of which have been anthologized; a history of Quebec; and two books for children. She died in Toronto on July 13, 1961.
The story of the Whiteoak family and of its ancestral seat of Jalna spans a period of a century; it is a masterful and imaginative portrayal of a large family of characters—often seen as a rich gallery of eccentrics—allowed to work out their lives against the backdrop of a genteel and idealized Ontario countryside. While the personages of the Whiteoak family are romantically conceived, they are, in the main, compelling characterizations of individuals, whose carefully constructed roles and situations are evoked by means of meticulous stage setting, psychological manipulation, and skillful and accurate description. Several of these in the Jalna gallery are real and memorable figures, and even the less significant characters benefit from the author's skill at allowing the nature of each individual to develop and grow while retaining a set of identifiable and basic qualities.
The major thrust of the Jalna series was to stave off the all-embracing sweep of a vulgar, democratized, and materialistic way of North American life and to celebrate and advance a set of low-key, aristocratic, but practical values. The sense of a spiritual connection with England is a strong and profoundly significant, if latent, motif.
There is some indication that while the novels of Mazo de la Roche enjoyed a favorable review press well into the 1930s, she was ultimately disappointed by what has been described as a lack of serious critical response to her writing. Another source of annoyance was that whenever an extended appraisal of the Jalna novels was attempted, it was usually developed in terms of a comparison with John Galswrothy's saga of the Forsyte family, an approach not borne out by the profound but readily apparent differences in the intentions, backgrounds, personalities, and social attitudes of the two writers.
The most satisfying study is Ronald Hambleton, Mazo de laRoche of Jalna (1966), a sympathetic and balanced assessment.
Givner, Joan, Mazo de la Roche: the hidden life, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.