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Mazo de la Roche, the Canadian creator of the sixteen novels about the Whiteoaks of Jalna, was once an immensely popular writer. After her death in 1961, her publishers estimated that nine million copies of her works had sold world-wide, and the Pan paperback editions by 1964 had sold two million copies. Her novels are now little read, but from 1927 to 1960, the years she published her popular series, her readers included Queen Mary and Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and millions of commoners. Although the Jalna novels (especially the later ones) [End Page 264] were generally scorned by the critics, fans were intrigued by the Whiteoak family: "Brothers seducing each other's wives in the early volumes," as Giver notes, "gave way to incest, sadism, and demonic possession. Mazo's publishers had problems with her disregard for the incest taboo: half-siblings, for instance, fell in love with each other and decided to live together in defiance of social convention and family disapproval. Jalna fans . . . wrote to Mazo and her publishers protesting the laws and suggesting that they be changed."
Who was this writer who came to overnight fame in 1927 with the publication of the first Jalna novel? In a masterful biography, Joan Givner has given us glimpses of the outer and inner lives of Mazo Roche, her tempestuous creative world, and her relationships with her cousin Caroline Clement—her life companion—and her two adopted children.
Central to understanding de la Roche (she gave herself an aristocratic background and name) and her fiction is the play and Caroline Clement. In her autobiography, de la Roche revealed the beginning of the secret world when Mazo and Caroline were children: "'It was a dream,' I said. 'First it was a dream—then I played it—all by myself. I play it every day. But now you [Caroline] are here, I'll tell you and we'll play it together.'"
And they did. They created secret plays together—plays with large casts of characters—until their middle age at least, perhaps until Mazo died. de la Roche's fiction flows from the Play, with its Brontë-like realistic-Gothic overtones, filled with the innocence and perversity of adolescent dreams. Her tormented inner world, expressed in the Play and finally in her fiction, appealed to readers who bonded with the Whiteoaks and their eroticism.
Givner brings us into the private world of de la Roche, a life of forbidden desires, a life with some superficial similarities to that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Givner had Ronald Hambleton's factual Mazo de la Roche of Jalna to build on, but Givner, while not ignoring the outer world of de la Roche, is more interested in the inner world and its connection with the fiction that cascaded from it. Givner shows us how to read the plots of Mazo, finding meaning, as Elaine Showalter has said, "in what has previously been empty space."
Givner gives distinctive and distinguished readings of de al Roche's early writings, the short stories, the nonfiction, and the Jalna series. Her psychological probings are sophisticated, provocative, and convincing, showing us important ways to uncover the buried lives and the art of male and female writers too often ignored. [End Page 265]