One year after I watched the DVD Discover Benares Historic House I finally read a novel inspired by this house: Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche. The first in the aptly named Jalna series, it was written in 1927, yet with de la Roche’s subsequent works which involved prequels, Jalna ends up ranking seventh in the entire series of sixteen. I did not feel as if I was missing out on plot or character backgrounds by reading this novel first; after all, de la Roche’s audience would have read it first as well. To show how the author’s succession of novels plays havoc with their order within the series, the sixteenth and final novel, Morning at Jalna from 1960, is an ur-prequel, where it ranks second in the series. I believe that with a chronology like this, the narrator in the Discover Benares documentary got it right by saying readers could pick up any of the Jalna novels and not feel lost or in need of playing catch-up. Each novel was its own encapsulated Jalna entity.
For a novel nearing one hundred years old Jalna read with alarming speed. I could not put this book down as its dialogue seemed most contemporary and its plot twists–involving family infidelities–could have come right out of a 21st century soap opera. Centenarian matriarch Adeline Whiteoak lords over her family, all of whom are housed within Jalna (as depicted on the book’s cover). I always enjoyed–as well as was a little repulsed by–Adeline’s constant demands for a peppermint. Family members would have to dig around in her purse to find them, and not only that, but feed them to her. I never understood why Adeline needed her helper to put the mint into her mouth. It made an unsightly picture, though, of a centenarian contorting her face into a grotesque pucker as she awaited the refreshing sweet. A family tree at the start of the novel was most helpful and I referred to it throughout my reading. Oldest grandson Renny is the master of Jalna and is known to be a ladies’ man. Renny and Eden, his brother, find the proximity of gorgeous new sisters-in-law who have come to live at Jalna to be irresistible. The two Whiteoak brides realize their new lives within Jalna are boring and ordinary and not what they had hoped. The wooded grounds around Jalna make for perfect secret rendezvous between brother and sister-in-law–and also for accidental interlopers.
Among the dramas of marriages and breakups are the antics of young “Wake” ( = Wakefield), the ten-year-old who milks his heart condition to do and get anything he wants. He exploits others with his ability to cry at the drop of a hat and doesn’t seem to be so weak that he has to sit out sports activities and horseplay, yet he uses his condition to avoid his lessons with his private tutor, whom the family employs because he is “too weak for school”. You will either love Wake or hate him. I just want to throttle him.
De la Roche, who lived in the Clarkson area of what is now known as Mississauga, described the village as she knew it a hundred years ago. Horseback, phaetons or early automobiles transported the Whiteoaks from Jalna to the village or along the shore of Lake Ontario. Although I did not take many notes while I read Jalna, I was nonetheless impressed with her gift of imagery. Three passages I enjoyed are:
“‘I shall write a poem about Americans,’ laughed Eden, and the glance that flashed from his eyes into Alayne’s was like a sunbeam that flashes into clear water and is held there.”
“The rain was now descending tumultuously. How such a rain would bounce again from the pavement in New York! Here it drove in unbroken shining strands like the quivering strings of an instrument.”
“Although they lived in the house together, they were separated by a wall, a relentless wall of ice, through which each was visible to the other, though distorted by its glacial diffusions. Now on the cliff, in the sunshine, the wall seemed likely to melt, and with it the barrier of her intellectual self-control.”
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this work by Mississauga’s most famous author was such a passionate read. My initial impression was that I would be reading the novel purely out of historical interest–and that I wouldn’t be particularly fond of it. But, de la Roche was a local author and I like local history, so I should read it anyway. Yet she has given me such an inspiration to read more by and about her. The edition of the book I read was from 2006 and thus after eighty years is still in print. I want to watch the Benares DVD again and finally, this spring or summer, bike on over to take a look at the house that inspired the Jalna series. I mean after all the place is practically next door.