Mazo de la Roche and Dorothy Livesay
November 22nd, 2009
Mazo de la Roche and Dorothy Livesay: High Tory Meets Radical
“I am sure, she (de la Roche) was yearning to be known for her other-than-Jalna writing.” —
Dorothy Livesay (1979) ‘Foreward’: Mazo de la Roche: Selected Stories of Mazo de la Roche
The publication of Daniel Bratton’s Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche: A Biographical Essay (1996) did much to revive and, Phoenix like, resurrect the waning and almost forgotten image and vision of the important Canadian novelist, Mazo de la Roche. It is important to note that Mazo de la Roche is buried at St. George’s Anglican parish at Sibbald Point just a few feet from where Stephen Leacock, another Canadian High Tory writer, is buried. Timothy Findley pondered this fact and the affectionate affinities that Leacock and de la Roche might have had in his humorous and speculative essay, ‘Riding Off in All Directions: A Few Wild Words in Search of Stephen Leacock’. But, these are the amusements for another day.
The recent publications by Heather Kirk have further aroused interest in Mazo de la Roche. Kirk has dared to raise some interpretive and challenging questions about de la Roche in both Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous (2006) and Who were the Whiteoaks and Where was Jalna? (2007).The points raised by Kirk deserve an ample hearing. But, what has this to do with Dorothy Livesay and Mazo de la Roche?
Dorothy Livesay was known most of her literary life as a radical and often associated with various forms of socialism and communism, although, in fact, she was more of a social democrat or a soft left liberal. Livesay’s brief, vivid and incomplete autobiography, Journey with My Selves: A Memoir (1991) tells, in graphic and not to be forgotten detail, much about her personal, literary and political journey. What does de la Roche, the author of the classical Jalna series (that embodies a form of lingering Canadian High Toryism) have to do with the more modern and radical Livesay? Is such a meeting common within the Canadian soul and society? The answer to the latter question is an obstinate Yes. Livesay went out of her way many times to defend de la Roche when all the emerging liberal literary critics attempted to curtly dismiss her as a relic of the past.
When Mazo de le Roche and Caroline Clement lived at Trail Cottage for varied periods of time in Clarkson, Ontario (between 1926-1932), Dorothy’s Livesay’s parents (Fred and Florence) lived quite close to them-they were perched atop a ravine in a well forested area. Dorothy Livesay was born in 1909, so she was in her late teens-early twenties, and a budding poet, when she met Mazo de la Roche. In fact, Livesay was 18 when de la Roche was catapulted to North American literary fame in 1927 with the $10,000:00 Atlantic Monthly award for Jalna. The Livesay home in Clarkson was a bustling place in which many of the up and coming Canadian literati tested their mettle and wares. Both of Livesay’s parents were front and centre in the literary and media ethos, and the Livesay home was a literary salon of sorts. De la Roche was a relatively unknown Canadian novelist at the time (she had published a few books), and she spent many an hour and day bent over paper with creative pen in hand, and she often visited the Livesay home when she was writing Jalna-her daily path walk to Clarkson for milk and mail meant she passed the nearby Livesay home. All this changed, though, with the award in 1927. The Jalna tradition and novels had been launched. They were only completed in 1960 with the publication of the 16th novel in the series. The Jalna tale of the Whiteoaks family is, probably, the finest and fullest epic written in Canada, and it is rather sad that so few Canadians know about Mazo de la Roche or have read the Jalna novels.
I mentioned above that it became rather trendy for many self styled intellectuals to mock or ignore Mazo de la Roche, but Dorothy Livesay was always there to come to her defense. In the Winter edition of Canadian Literature (1965), Livesay wrote a lengthy article on de la Roche. De la Roche died in 1961, and it was hunting season on de la Roche. Livesay’s article, ‘The Making of Jalna: A Reminiscence’, walks the reader into and through a more positive read of Mazo de la Roche and the inspiration and setting of the Jalna tradition. Many is the personal story and tale told by Livesay, and many is the warm and affectionate memory. There are no hard or mean spirited things said about de la Roche, and Livesay highlighted the good in the vision that de la Roche was trying to portray in her many novels, plays and short stories.
Livesay came to the defence of de la Roche again in the Spring edition of Canadian Literature (1967). Ronald Hambleton’s biography of de a Roche, Mazo de la Roche of Jalna had left the publishing press in 1966, and Livesay did a critical book review of it. ‘Mazo Explored’ both applauds the fact a biography is in the hands of interested readers, but questions how seriously Hambleton’s approach should be taken. There was much missing in this initial biography, and there were some serious errors, and Livesay thought this should be noted and known for posterity. In short, Hambleton and future de la Roche scholars, Livesay made clear, had much more work yet to do before a finer and subtler understanding of de la Roche would appear.
The 20th century witnessed the rise of a form of literary criticism that was more concerned with the author than the creative work of the artist. Works of literature were read and interpreted through the lens of the artist’s life, dispositions, faults and failings of personality. A classic discussion of this highly charged debate is the missive by E.M. Tillyard and C.S. Lewis: The Personal Heresy (1939). Mazo de la Roche suffered from this approach by some critics, and again it was Dorothy Livesay who came to the aid and assistance of de la Roche. Livesay’s article in Impulse (1973), ‘Getting it Straight’, goes after those who abused and misread the Jalna tradition and de la Roche’s other novels. Livesay defended the importance of female authors (of which de la Roche was a successful pioneer) as much as she defended good literature and the worldview and ethos that fine literature evokes. Most literary critics are quite unaware of ‘Getting it Straight’, and the essay speaks much about de la Roche, Livesay, Canadian literature and the state of Canadian literary criticism in the early 1970s.
De la Roche became so identified with the Jalna series that many were quite unaware that she wrote many other novels, short stories and plays. There was an attempt to correct this failing with the publication of de la Roche: Selected Stories of Mazo de la Roche (1979). Dorothy Livesay penned the ‘Foreward’ to de la Roche. Many are the incisive comments made in the ‘Foreward’ by Livesay about de la Roche. There is a sense in the essay in which Livesay attempted to clarify how her approach to literature was different from de la Roche’s, how de la Roche’s larger literary vision has become distorted by reducing it to the Jalna series, and the need to read de la Roche from a fuller perspective. Livesay made this telling comment:
Yet all the while, I am sure, she was yearning to be known
for her other-than-Jalna writing….Hardy and Dickens remained
Livesay suggested that de la Roche became, to some degree, a victim of her successful Jalna writings, but there was much more to de la Roche (before and throughout the decades of the many Jalna novels) than the life and times of the Whiteoaks of Jalna. De la Roche did publish twenty-one other books other than the Jalna series, and if an honest and fair read of de la Roche is ever going to be done, it is to these short stories, novels, plays and biographies the reader must turn.
Livesay ended her article, ‘The Making of Jalna: Reminiscences’, with these telling reflections:
My last talk with Mazo la Roche was a gentle one, on the personal
family level of the early days. The war was over and I had a little
girl of my own whom Mazo and her half sister wanted to see. Miss
Clement, alas, was nearly blind by then, and Mazo was the one who
must read to her. We were invited to tea in their charming house,
glittering throughout with coloured glass. They spoke with particular
affection of my father, the erratic ‘Squire of Woodlot’, and of the
thousands of daffodils and narcissi he had planted under the white
birches at Clarkson. But by now our beloved woodland had been cut
up, paved, made into suburbia: and we lamented the old days in
Ontario when people did live as English landed gentry
My family lives near Clarkson where Benares (a source of the Jalna novels) and the Livesay home still stands. It is quite possible to walk, as Mazo de la Roche would have done in the 1920s, milk pail in hand and dog Bunty by her side, along the forested ravine trail, past the Livesay home, to the small village of Clarkson. Such a stroll takes the curious into a period of Canadian culture and literary life that Mazo de la Roche and Dorothy Livesay knew well.
It is rare these days to see a radical poet come to the aid of a High Tory, but Dorothy Livesay did this for Mazo de la Roche in four articles published between 1965-1979. Canada has a civic and civil tradition that transcends the tribalism of political ideology, and in many ways de la Roche and Livesay embodied such a sane and civilized way. May we learn much from such grace and graciousness.
University of the Fraser Valley
Department of Political Science/Philosophy/Religious Studies
Essay Date: 2009