By Heather Kirk, Ontario. I was saddened by the recent article in community FOCUS Living in Aurora about the tearing down of the historic Lundy home. I am the author of a book about the origins of the Jalna novels by Mazo de la Roche, and the fifth chapter of my book is about the Lundy family of historical Whitchurch Township and their influence on de la Roche’s novels. This chapter was also published as a scholarly article in the academic journal, Essays on Canadian Writing.
A few years ago in Mississauga, Ontario, the Government of Canada erected an official plaque on the grounds of a museum known as Benares Historical House. This plaque recognized author Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961) as a person of “national historic significance.”
De la Roche is best known for her so-called “Jalna” novels, the chronicles of of a fictional family surnamed Whiteoak that supposedly lived on a huge farm called “Jalna” somewhere in southern Ontario for 100 years from 1854 to 1954.
The Jalna novels sold in the millions. They also inspired a Hollywood movie and a long-running London play—the first Canadian play to be mounted in London’s important West End theatre district.
But the plaque did not say that Benares was the main inspiration for de la Roche’s fictional home, “Jalna,” an erroneous theory that has circulated for a long time. And the plaque was right.
That honour belongs to a house in Aurora that is unknown beyond the confines of York Region, a house that is being demolished.
In the 1920s, when she was in mid-life, Mazo de la Roche summered at a small cottage near Benares for four years. At that time she was writing the first of what would be 16 incredibly popular Jalna novels. But after the first book in the series won an international prize for best novel, de la Roche rarely returned to Mississauga even for a visit. Benares and vicinity were just not that important to her. After 1929, he lived for ten years in England, then for about twenty years in Toronto and vicinity and vacationed in various places, including Sibbalds’ Point.
And until old age Mazo de la Roche visited often with family in York Region. She had been born in Newmarket, spent most of her first nine years of life there, and had a huge extended family there. Actually she had been raised by her maternal grandparents, Daniel and Louise (Willson) Lundy, on Prospect Street in Newmarket, just two or three kilometers from a house built in 1828 by Enos Lundy Senior, a Quaker farmer whose land once stretched for 400 acres along the north side of the St John’s sideroad, eastward from the today’s Bayview Avenue.
Enos Lundy Senior was Mazo de la Roche’s great-great grandfather. De la Roche’s adored Grandpa Lundy, son of Enos Lundy Junior, had grown up on that farm . . . .
I argue that the Georgian-style, red-brick Lundy home in Aurora was the model for the fictional house called “Jalna” in de la Roche’s series of 16 novels. My book is titled Who Were the Whiteoaks and Where Was Jalna? It was published in 2007 by Borealis Press of Ottawa, Ontario.
Mazo de la Roche is a major Canadian literary figure ranking with L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and Stephen Leacock, author of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. By the time de la Roche died in 1961, 11 million copies of the Jalna novels had been sold in 91 languages.
De la Roche’s novels have been reissued by Dundurn Press of Toronto, which also published my brief biography of de la Roche, Mazo de la Roche: Rich and Famous Writer. A documentary film about Mazo de la Roche was recently released. The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche was the work of the National Film Board of Canada, Red Queen Productions of Toronto, and Bravo! Dundurn Press will soon be reissuing Mazo de la Roche’s autobiography, Ringing the Changes.