Newmarket-born author Mazo de la Roche hit the big leagues in 1927 when her third novel Jalna, the first entry in a lucrative sixteen-part series, won a $10 000 award from the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. In terms of prestige – particularly Canadians’ favourite sort, the kind that’s granted from elsewhere – you could think of her boon alongside Yann Martel’s Booker win in 2002, which similarly propelled a relatively unappreciated home-grown talent to international literary celebrity. But few people make the connection these days, or read de la Roche at all. Maya Gallus’s playful docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche does a good job of redressing this lacuna. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments with actress Severn Thompson, bitterly funny interviews with de la Roche’s adopted daughter, and talking head testimony from Canadian authors Susan Swan and Marie-Claire Blais, the film situates de la Roche both within her early celebrity in Canada and within the larger cosmopolitan movements of first wave feminism and modernism, with which she was loosely allied.
Like de la Roche’s Whiteoaks Chronicles, the tone is provincial, and dramatizations of Thompson cryptically fielding interview questions about her favourite foods like a Don’t Look Back-era Bob Dylan are a bit silly. The film’s eyebrow-raised exploration of de la Roche’s lifelong Boston marriage with cousin Caroline Clement, though, is interesting. So is one biographer’s contention that however genteel the Jalna novels might seem, and however vague the author’s public persona was, de la Roche nevertheless wrote herself into the series via a number of queer male author surrogates. Gallus doesn’t go as far as she could in broaching her subject’s sexuality, but Blais fills in the blanks, pointing out that the author had no bohemian community in Ontario, and wondering what might have been if, like Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, de la Roche had set up shop in Europe. That’s a mystery that nicely justifies the film, as well as a return to Jalna. ***/****