In my teens one of my greatest treats was finding an unread volume of the Whiteoaks saga on the shelves on the library. I knew that family tree by heart, who married whom, and when, how many children they had, whether they liked horses...they felt like an extension of my own family, the Irish-Canadian branch, as it were (the English branch, of course, included the Eliots of Damerosehay, my other favourite family saga). My mother had devoured them equally enthusiastically, and we discussed our favourite events and characters. Predictably, she had been in love with Renny (she was much more seriously horse-mad than me, the result, no doubt, of having a dashing cousin who ran a racing stable and with whom she spent many horsy hours), while Finch, sensitive and musical, was much more my type.
Wakefield's Course comes comparatively late in the saga, taking place in the shadow of impending war. Events in Europe are perhaps more immediate for the Whiteoaks than for some Canadians, as the younger members of the family, Finch and Wakefield, are both working in London, and Renny travels to Ireland with his young daughter Adeline, to visit his cousins Dermot and Malahide Court, who want him to buy a racehorse. Despite the undercurrent of tension, the Whiteoaks are as supremely self-centred as they have been in the previous eleven books, from the 4-year-old Archer up to the elderly uncles Nicholas and Ernest - I found the description of a family languishing for want of news much more movingly dealt with in the Green Gables books, where you actually felt as if there was suffering amongst the jingoism. Perhaps the battle for supremacy over Jalna (the family home) that takes place betweeh Renny's wife Alayne and his sister Meg is fractionally ameliorated by their concern for their menfolk, but I did feel that the war took second place.
Earlier, there is a lovely interlude in Wales, when Wakefield visits the family of his theatrical colleague Molly - although Molly's family is decidedly eccentric, there's a delightful calm before the storm feel to the description. I'd have liked more of that and less of the histrionics between Finch and his estranged wife Sarah. I found myself wondering if it was more acceptable for emotions to run high in the days before we became accustomed to the kitchen-sink drama of television soaps? Anyway, it's hard to imagine a marriage as brittle as Finch and Sarah's ever beginning these days, not least because they would have lived togather for a couple of months, realised what a disaster it was and split up - much as happens in an earlier episode, but without the angst, because it wouldn't have been formalised. (Incidentally, the Whiteoaks look pretty unusual themselves, in this regard, having a high divorce rate, rather singular for the period.) Such goings on as living in sin wouldn't have been entirely out of place at Jalna, either, Finch's brother Eden having produced a child out of wedlock, but at least he had the decency to expire shortly afterwards. The matriarch Adeline would have deplored such behaviour outwardedly, of course, but she always encouraged Renny's wildness, so perhaps she has much to answer for.
For a 14-year-old that was hectic stuff, and I'm afraid it influenced me far more than was desirable - well, I have to blame something for my own adolescent histrionics! It was fun to dip a toe back into such heady pages, but I'm afraid I've rather grown out of so much drama and, where once I suffered with Alayne, I now want to shake her and tell her to stop spoiling her children so dreadfully. All in all, the Whiteoaks are a noisy, undisciplined bunch, and I think I prefer the more ascetic Eliots. Next stop Damerosehay, I think.
For those who might be amused, this is supposed to be the house that Jalna is based on, now a museum. Sorry it's such a tiny image, it's the only one I could find.