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culture

Historicist: Revealing Fictions

Bestselling author Mazo de la Roche's private life with Caroline Clement.

Mazo De La Roche and her dog Bunty, no date  From the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (LC B2  4239 17)

Mazo De La Roche and her dog Bunty, no date. From the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (LC-B2- 4239-17).

Mazo de la Roche was among the bestselling Canadian authors of the first half of the 20th century, surpassing the popularity of Lucy Maud Montgomery and equalling that of Stephen Leacock. The novel that launched her to fame, Jalna (Little, Brown, 1927), and the 15 sequels documenting the experiences of the upper-class Whiteoaks family in Upper Canada from 1854 to 1954 sold millions of copies and was, at least initially, hailed by critics, inviting comparison to The Forsyte Saga. A prolific writer, de la Roche had penned over 50 short stories, 23 novels, and 13 plays by her career’s end.

De la Roche was extremely reticent with a temperamental disposition, once telling an interviewer that her primary interest outside of writing was “privacy.” And, due to the ever-shifting biography she invented for herself, the author’s secrets have been kept beyond the grave. From childhood, she was inseparable from her cousin Caroline Clement; the two were lifelong companions. “The two girls live together and are the best of comrades,” one landlady said of their relationship. “Where one goes, the other goes also. They are like twin cherries on a stalk like Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Celia.”

De la Roche has been posthumously outed in the internet age, though there has a great deal of debate whether she and Clement were lesbians, or whether their passionate friendship, or “Boston marriage,” was platonic.

Although the limited, circumstantial evidence makes definitive statements impossible, what is certain is that the pair shared a complex, caring, and deep attachment, and were devoted to each other for over seven decades. In his biography of de la Roche, Ronald Hambleton writes: “Caroline Clement was almost Mazo’s other self. These two dissimilar, but perfectly attuned persons, lived one of the most unusual and certainly most productive partnerships in the history of literature.”

Born Maisie Roche in Newmarket, de la Roche’s childhood was spent bouncing around following her father’s many brief entrepreneurial initiatives and the demands of her mother’s ill-health: from Orillia to Galt, then back to Orillia, and then numerous residences in Toronto.

(Left: Mazo de la Roche, April 15, 1927. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 10273.)

A highly emotional but imaginative child, de la Roche created an elaborate fantasy world called “The Play” in her autobiography, in which she acted out imaginary scenes and characters. Clement, who hit it off immediately with her cousin after the pair met for the first time in January 1887, was soon a willing participant in de la Roche’s fantasy world. “Any situation that Mazo imagined,” Heather Kirk observes in Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer (XYZ Publishing, 2006), “Caroline was in it, heart and soul.”

Whenever the pair, who were roughly the same age, reunited over the course of their childhood, they stepped right back into the fantasy world. De la Roche’s reliance upon “The Play” to cope with the world around her would be sustained throughout her adult life, leading some biographers to conclude that the play-acting “kept her an emotional adolescent all her life.” After Clement’s father died in 1894 and she became a full-time member of the Roche family at 157 Dunn Avenue in Parkdale, it was the start of the girls’ lifelong companionship, and Clement joined the Roches when they moved to Acton to operate a hotel in 1905, and then to Bronte to try their hand at fruit farming in 1911. The girls were inseparable, but their friendship was not without its challenges.

A bright and attractive young woman, Clement was pursued by a suitor, a young South American neighbour in Toronto. Feeling “hurt anger” that Clement was breaking “some unspoken pact” the two had made by entertaining the young man’s advances—to use language from the author’s autobiography—de la Roche was devastated. Luckily, for de la Roche at least, parental objections that the teenagers were too young, without means of support, and that their religions were incompatible, nixed the romance. Clement was crushed, but de la Roche was unsympathetic. “That night she wept after we had gone to bed,” the author recalled in her autobiography, “but I turned my back.”

(Right: Caroline Clement at Trail Cottage, Clarkson, no date. Photo from the Harris Family Collection at the Museums of Mississauga via the Mississauga Library System [Q992])

De la Roche had begun writing in the early years of the 20th century, selling her first short stories to Canadian and American magazines in 1902. She suffered a mental breakdown in February 1903, with a depression that persisted for several years, caused insomnia, and prevented her from writing. In Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (Oxford University Press, 1989), Joan Givner attributes the breakdown to the intensifying guilt de la Roche felt for “her resistance of the female role expected of her and the growing intensity of her love for Caroline.” It was Clement’s care—taking long walks, holding de la Roche in her arms, and continuing to share in “The Play”—that eventually helped the young author recuperate.

De la Roche, observers have speculated, could not have coped with a world without Clement, and would’ve never been able to write another word if Clement had not been by her side. Clement, for her part, later admitted feeling “antagonism and fear” when, in 1912, de la Roche had suitor of her own named Pierre Fritz Mansbendel. Givner asserts that de la Roche enjoyed Mansbendel’s male camaraderie as one of the few men who compared favorably with her father, but that the relationship was never romantic in nature. Givner speculates that de la Roche “felt caught between the rigid and mutually exclusive alternatives for sexual relationships”—something more than friendship but “not imply[ing] a need for physical consummation.” Despite persistent rumours throughout her life that de la Roche had been jilted at the altar, it was she who ended the relationship with Mansbendel.

After William Roche’s death in 1915, the women and de la Roche’s sickly mother moved to Toronto, with 212 Huron Street as the first of many local addresses over the next few years. While de la Roche’s writing contributed irregularly to the household income, it fell to Clement to act as breadwinner for the family. She accepted a position as a clerk with the Ontario Civil Service, rising steadily through the ranks to become Chief Statistician.

(Left: Mazo de la Roche, December 18, 1927. Photo by M.O. Hammond from the Archives of Ontario [F 1075-13])

During the summers, de la Roche and her mother would reside near Lake Simcoe, while Clement lived in a boarding house so the family could afford the holiday accommodations and continued working. Although it seems to have gone unacknowledged at the time, de la Roche later admitted a degree of selfishness on her part during these years: “I took it for granted that she should be the principal pillar of our little household.”

When de la Roche’s mother died of pneumonia in the winter of 1920, she was the women’s last close relation to pass. Although the occasion was no doubt distressing, it also proved liberating. For the first time, Givner argues, de la Roche was free to live exactly as she pleased: alone with Clement, beyond the glare of parental eyes.

De la Roche and Clement were so intensely private that even their closest friends did not know the nature of their relationship. It is impossible to determine with any certainty whether de la Roche and Clement were lesbians. Certainly they shared a deep affection, which is hinted at in a scene in de la Roche’s autobiography. In the early 1920s, the author was returning from a trip and was met by Clement at Union Station. “As the train drew in it was easy to distinguish her in the crowd on the platform, slim and straight in her black and white dress, a wing of bright hair against her little black hat. How pale her face was and how blue her eyes!” de la Roche recalled. “After the sorrow, after the separation, it was an almost unbearable happiness to be together again.” This reunion marked the last time the women would ever be separated from each other for a significant length of time again.

(Right: Mazo de la Roche and her dog Bunty at Trail Cottage, Clarkson. Photo from the Harris Family Collection at the Museums of Mississauga via the Mississauga Library System [Q993])

In her autobiography, de la Roche states that she enjoyed attracting men but had an aversion to being touched by them, and viewed “sex as rather silly.” By her own admission, she regarded herself as rather masculine. Clement, on the other hand, provided the template description for the desirable women who populated de la Roche’s fictions: blue eyes, diminutive build, thin hands, and silken hair.

“She and Caroline were deeply attached,” publisher Lovat Dickson said, outlining the common view shared by many of their closest friends, “but I don’t think they were lesbian lovers as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were, or Radclyffe Hall and Una Townbridge were. But they were ‘man and wife’ in a peculiar way.” Nor did de la Roche and Clement’s adopted daughter believe they were lesbians.

Passionate friendships between women friends were nothing new in de la Roche’s day, literary biographer Elspeth Cameron argues in a historical examination of female friendship in Chatelaine (October 1997). Such “Boston marriages” might exemplify close bonds, romantic devotion, and even the sharing of beds, without the emotional intimacy becoming sexual. Although each was certainly the other’s cherished companion, Cameron argues, it seems unlikely de la Roche and Clement’s relationship took on a sexual dimension.

(Left: Benares Historic House, 1503 Clarkson Road North, Mississauga  From the Mississauga Library System (BA0041))

(Left: Benares Historic House, 1503 Clarkson Road North, Mississauga. From the Mississauga Library System [BA0041])

In her 40s, de la Roche continued writing during her residence in Toronto, joining literary clubs and making friends and earning supporters within the local arts scene. A collection of short stories, Explorers of the Dawn, became her first published book in 1922, followed by novels Possession (1923) and Delight (1926). Most of these early works earned the plaudits of critics and appeared on the bestseller lists.

By the summer of 1926, at a small cottage the pair had built as a summer residence in Clarkson, de la Roche was writing a new novel: a family saga entitled Jalna. She drew inspiration from Benares, the stately manor in Clarkson that had been built by a former British military officer—just as the patriarch of her Whiteoak family did with Jalna—and likewise named it for a military station in India.

Mining her personal history and experiences for material and characters for her fiction, de la Roche’s works expressed “her own deep and barely articulated inner conflicts,” according to Givner. Her fictional Whiteoak family was modelled on elements of her own and Caroline’s families, as well as the Massey family that had lived nearby during de la Roche’s childhood years in Toronto. Kirk writes that de la Roche “wove together present and past, here and there, real and imagined.” Some critics have identified the subplots of marital infidelity and sexual intrigue in Jalna as a stand-in for another sexual taboo of the time: same-sex female attraction. In a later book, the sexual identity crisis and nervous breakdown of Finch Whiteoak—the character with which she admitted most closely identifying—mirrored de la Roche’s own.

De la Roche finished writing Jalna in late 1926, after moving into an upstairs flat in a boarding house operated by Gertrude Pringle at 86 Yorkville Avenue, then a quiet residential street. “I knew I had done a good novel,” de la Roche corresponded to a friend after completing the novel. “I had loved doing it. I had put the essence of myself into it.”

(Right: Toronto Globe [April 11, 1927])

In early 1927, she submitted it to the Atlantic Monthly magazine’s high-profile best novel contest. Jalna was one of 1,117 entries each vying for the $10,000 prize, and it took two months for the jurors to whittle the contenders down to 12, then six before de la Roche’s colonial-era family saga was unanimously selected as winner.

De la Roche had achieved a modest measure of critical and financial success as an author, she had remained a comparative unknown and, at the age of 48, she complained that “she still had not freed herself from the ‘hampering bonds of comparative poverty.’” All of a sudden, she was launched to international fame and fortune.

When Clement and de la Roche received word that Jalna had been selected as the unanimous winner, the intensely private author was asked to complete a questionnaire for the Atlantic publicity department in advance of the official announcement on April 11, 1927. Already dreading, as she put it, “the ordeal of publicity ahead,” de la Roche had Clement complete the form. The result was almost entirely a fabrication, but was in keeping with de la Roche’s long practice of inventing or embroidering her personal biography. So secretive were the pair that even close friends didn’t know their exact ages, causing a good deal of confusion on the part of later biographers.

(Left: Toronto Star [October 8, 1927])

In the questionnaire and subsequent interviews, de la Roche changed her place of birth and family heritage to sound more impressive. She supplied invented answers to standard questions, claiming boating and canoeing or gardening as hobbies when, in truth, she had none. To a degree, de la Roche got a kick out of putting one over on journalists. But she was also fearful of public scrutiny of her personal life, and de la Roche sought to make her life more interesting than she felt it was. De la Roche was not an avid reader, it surprised interviewers to learn, nor had she ever seen a motion picture. De la Roche’s response to one journalist gave an indication of the shy author’s view of new-found fame: “I wish I had a hole, like a fox, and could crawl into it and hide.”

The news of de la Roche’s Atlantic win was splashed across the front pages of the Toronto newspapers and merited numerous follow-up stories so readers could get to know the newly famous author. The telephone at Mrs. Pringle’s boarding house rang all day, and there were frequent knocks at the door from well-wishers offering congratulations and reporters seeking interviews. Telegrams and bouquets from prominent writers and politicians arrived in droves, including congratulations from Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

De la Roche was feted at numerous celebratory dinners over the subsequent weeks and months, revealing the degree to which the response was flavoured by nationalism. At supper at the Queen’s Hotel in early May, Charles G.D. Roberts, the president of the Canadian Authors Association, toasted her for demonstrating “beyond a doubt that there actually is something called Canadian literature.”

(Right: Toronto Globe [May 5, 1927])

Critics were ebullient in their praise for Jalna at home and abroad. “[T]here is such an energy of conception and such a brilliance of style that Miss de la Roche’s next book will be awaited with the greatest curiosity in all quarters,” Raymond Knister wrote in Canadian Bookman. The Times Literary Supplement praised the “breadth of composition and vitality about this novel,” and hailed de la Roche for handling “her characters with skill and precision, so that they are all sharply defined individuals and all interesting.”

When the book was released that fall (after being serialized in Atlantic Monthly), Jalna was an immediate, extraordinary commercial success. The $10,000 prize had already brought financial stability for de la Roche and Clement and, with the royalties rolling in, Clement was able to quit her job in the public service. “If Jalna had given us independence,” de la Roche recalled in her autobiography, “just as certainly it had, for the time being, stolen our privacy. Above all things we longed to relax, to be unknown.”

When summer arrived, Clement and de la Roche briefly found refuge—away from telephones and most journalists—at Trail Cottage, their Clarkson retreat. Then, they vacationed in Rockport, Massachusetts and New York City. De la Roche tried to start penning her follow-up, a sequel to Jalna. The distractions of parties and literary admirers soon proved too much, however. She couldn’t write, even after she returned to her winter home at Mrs. Pringle’s. By early 1928, the situation was so dire that de la Roche couldn’t even bring herself to write a postcard, and was exacerbated by acute pains in her forehead and neck. “I knew what I wanted to write,” de la Roche later wrote of the emotional strain that weighed upon her. “The words were at my hand. But could I write them?” Within a year of winning the Atlantic contest, de la Roche was suffering another serious nervous breakdown. For a time, she received a series of electric shock treatments, which worsened rather than alleviated her mysterious ailment.

(Left: Toronto Star [June 25, 1927]

Once again, it was Clement’s care and affection that restored de la Roche to a healthy, productive existence. She massaged de la Roche’s temples and neck to relieve the strain, and provided the encouragement and support the author needed to put pen to paper. Returning to the quiet privacy of Trail Cottage, Clement became more involved in the writing process, patiently transcribing the sequel to Jalna as de la Roche dictated. In her autobiography, de la Roche recalled how this approach empowered her:

Caroline was the only one to whom I could have dictated. Not only did this working together to help me to accomplish much more but it gave me confidence in myself. No longer did I think, “How much shall I be able to write today? Shall I suffer for it?’ No—I wrote that I could, then hastened to where Caroline was waiting, eager to put on paper what was in my mind. I should perhaps write two pages, while she could write three or four. And so the novel Whiteoaks [of Jalna] moved towards its finish.

By October 1928, bit by bit, they finished the novel. “The finished manuscript, on which the women’s handwriting appeared turn and turn about,” Kirk argues, “was a testament to their perfect harmony.” Whiteoaks of Jalna was an immediate bestselling success, and this pattern of collaborative writing repeated in the years to come. For each subsequent novel, Clement acted as sounding board and editor for de la Roche. “And beside all her tender qualities,” de la Roche wrote of Clement in a letter quoted by biographer Ronald Hambleton, “she is the backbone of my work, as it were. She has a far better critical mind than I.”

In the late 1920s, the pair eventually settled in Europe, residing in England for the better part of a decade. There, de la Roche and Clement adopted two small children in 1931. (The children’s true origin and parentage, however, as well as the means by which an unmarried woman managed to legally adopt them in that time period, was kept secret. Even the children themselves, Rene and Esmee, were told nothing by “Mummy” (de la Roche) and Clement, whom they called “Aunt.”)

(Left: Mazo de la Roche at Trail Cottage, Clarkson, no date. Photo from the Harris Family Collection at the Museums of Mississauga via the Misissauga Library System [Q991])

Ever a prolific writer, de la Roche churned out sequel after sequel in her Whiteoaks family saga at the behest of her publishers. They remained popular with readers, selling over nine million copies in over 200 editions in many languages. Later, the family saga would be adapted into a CBC television play in 1957 and a lavishly expensive but disastrous mini-series in 1972. But the increasingly melodramatic Jalna books were savaged by critics, and de la Roche’s literary reputation steadily declined from the mid-1930s.

The intervention of the Second World War eventually precipitated the family’s return to Canada permanently. They settled on a country house, called “Windrush Hill,” on Bayview Avenue near Steeles Avenue. The difficulty of living on the outskirts of town in an era of strict gas rationing, prompted them to relocate to 307 Russell Hill Road, and later still to an imitation English manor at 3 Ava Crescent in Forest Hill, where they remained until de la Roche’s death in 1961. “The extent to which Caroline was devastated could only be guessed at,” Givner wrote, “for she went immediately into her own room and closed the door.” Not long after de la Roche’s passing, as per the author’s request, Clement dutifully burned almost all of the author’s personal diaries—as she had requested.

(Right: Mazo de la Roche, December 18, 1927. Photo by M.O. Hammond from the Archives of Ontario [F 1075-13])

Most of de la Roche’s papers that survive in collections at academic libraries consist of the writer’s correspondence with publishers and fans. De la Roche’s autobiography, Ringing the Changes (Little, Brown, 1957) obfuscated—refusing to provide specific dates—and fabricated elements of her personal history. Even the author’s closest friends knew remarkably little of her true history, and have provided researchers limited insight as interview subjects. Forced to work from scant sources and in-depth readings of her fiction for submerged but personally revealing plots, biographers have tried to reconstruct her private life and interior thoughts. It is, nevertheless, impossible to determine whether de la Roche and Clement were lesbians. Whether they were, or whether the pair enjoyed a passionate but platonic bosom friendship, de la Roche’s autobiography does confirm the importance of Clement to de la Roche. Its dedication read: “For Caroline, From First to Last.”

Sources consulted include: The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, dir. Maya Gallus (2012); Daniel L. Bratton, Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche (ECW Press, 1996); Elspeth Cameron, “Heart to Heart,” in Chatelaine (October 1997); Greg Gatenby, Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur & Company, 1999); Ronald Hambleton, Mazo de la Roche of Jalna (General Publishing, 1966); Faye Hammill, “The Sensations of the 1920s,” in Studies in Canadian Literature (2003) [PDF]; Heather Kirk, “Caroline Clement: The Hidden Life of Mazo de la Roche’s Collaborator,” Canadian Literature (Spring 2005); Ruth Panofsky, “At odds: reviewers and readers of the Jalna novels,” in Studies in Canadian Literature (2000); and articles from the Toronto Star (June 25, 1927; November 17, 1966; April 24, 1976; January 14, 1978; and July 8, 2000)

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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