Monday, 28 June 2010

Wakefield's Course by Mazo de la Roche

This was a read for the Canadian Book Challenge, which is rapidly approaching its denouement. Warning - plot spoilers in the third paragraph!

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.


  1. I can't say that I remember this book, but I can say that I loved the Jalna books when I was a teenager and read as many as I could find in the library. I thought they were wonderful.

    I've since looked for them in various libraries/bookshops and never come across one. It's interesting that you found you'd grown out of them. That's one reason I'm wary of re-reading old favourites.

    Elizabeth Goudge was another great favourite too - fantastic books. I'd love to recapture that magic, but would I still find it?

  2. I've now checked and Northumberland Libraries have some - better than other libraries I've belonged too!

  3. I also read these books in my teens but strangely, never thought of them as Canadian! I wonder if I would still enjoy them now? I'll pick up the next one I see.

  4. BooksPlease, maybe I came down a bit hard, I still enjoyed it! I do find them from time to time - there used to be a wonderful bookshop in Berwick which had all its secondhand books in a basement. I found Jalna books and several Dornford Yates in there. Sadly, it's no more, but the replacement, Berrydin Books, isn't bad (I don't know why I'm telling you this, you will be direct competition!) I hadn't looked for them in the library.

    Elizabeth Goudge, as far as I'm concerned, is every bit as good as when I first read her. That goes for both children's and adults books - the Eliot ones have a wonderful spiritulity. Have you read her autobiography, The Joy of Snow?

    Callmemadam, they really aren't terribly Canadian, much more preoccupied with "the old country" and keeping up Anglo-Irish niceties, but I do think that maybe they were a bit racier than their equivalent here - what do you think?

  5. No, I haven't read The Joy of Snow. I'll be looking out for that now. I'm glad you find Elizabeth Goudge's books as good now as when you first read them. I own just two - The Herb of Grace and The Dean's Watch - I think it's time for a re-read.

    I found Berrydin Books - it's a good little shop and I like the way they've packed in so many books.

  6. I read most of the Wakefield books when we lived abroad years ago, but they never 'took' with me, but
    I'm another Elizabeth Goudge fan and never tire of reading the books. Oddly enough, I was in Keyhaven last week - the presumed site of the Eliot books. Sadly, EG said the house that was the model for Damerosehay was pulled down, but it's an atmospheric village.

    If you love family sagas, Geranium Cat, are you familiar with Charlotte Yonge's victorian ones? All time favourite for me is Pillars of the House, which is the book I'd take on a desert island!

  7. When we were teenagers, my sister read ALL of the Jalna books and I read maybe two or three, on her recommendation, but never quite got into them the way she did.
    Still, we agreed on Finch being our favourite character. My sister once made a watercolour painting of a house she said was, to her, Jalna, the way she imagined it from the books. I think my mum still has that somewhere :-)

  8. Oh I loved the Jalna books when I was a teenager! For some reason a few of them were in the school library but after the first three, the others were not in sequence and I got a bit lost.
    The only Elizabeth Goudge I have read is the wonderful Little White Horse which is one of my all time favourite books and has been re-read so many times that my elderly copy is on the verge of collapse.

  9. Nicola, I love Keyhaven, it's a wonderful place. My aunt says she can imagine Meg running to meet David... I haven't really read Yonge (one only, I think) and keep meaning to do so. Thanks for the prompt!

    Librarian, I'd love to know what the house looked like - my youthful imaginings weren't at all like I discovered Canadian architecture to be!

    Lz, you absolutely must read Linnets and Valerians at least! But I should think you might like some of her other books, like Gentian Hill. Or Towers in the Mist, which is about Elizabethan Oxford, and is glorious!

  10. Dear Geranium Cat and other readers
    I am a Canadian filmmaker making a documentary film about Mazo de la Roche, author of the Jalna books. I am looking to speak with fans and avid readers of Mazo de la Roche's work. Please do contact me c/o
    Maya - Director/Producer