The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche
The title of The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche is important; the film is not a simple biography, but rather a fascinating examination of what cannot be known about a woman obsessed with privacy — a woman who, after reigning as Canada's first real literary superstar during her life, has faded almost completely from the public memory.
The heart of the film is de la Roche's relationship with her cousin, Caroline Clement. Neither woman ever married and together they adopted two children. The love interest in de la Roche's career-making book, Jalna (now published by Dundurn), strongly resembled Clement.
The film is gorgeous to watch both for the story, which is quietly heartbreaking, but also for the visuals and especially for Severn Thompson, who portrays de la Roche. Thompson's demeanour is faintly amused and indeed quite debonair, but her unflinching gaze into the camera belies the pained vulnerability of a woman who was forced to deny much of herself even as the public demanded ever more of her.
Directed by Maya Gallus, the film mixes re-enactments, footage from the films and television shows based on de la Roche's books and interviews with several Canadian literary luminaries, including Susan Swan and Marie-Claire Blais. Maya took the time to chat with Open Book about her film.
What drew you to Mazo initially?
I read about a biography, entitled Mazo de la Roche — A Hidden Life, by Joan Givner, around 1991. I had just completed my first film On The Side of the Angels, about the poet Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, and I was looking around for another interesting Canadian writer as a potential subject. I discovered that Mazo de la Roche had had a lifelong relationship with a female companion, that she was intensely private and fabricated biographical details, and that she had had several nervous breakdowns. I had assumed she was a stuffy Victorian writer, so I was intrigued, and set out to learn more. It took many, many years for me to unravel the complexities of her story.
What do you think made the Jalna series so popular in its time?
She was a great storyteller, and she understood how to plot a dramatic narrative. Plus she was very funny and created highly original characters. Granny Whiteoak, the 100-year old matriarch of the novels, is one of the greatest characters in Canadian fiction, right up there with Hagar Shipley.
What do you think Mazo's books have to offer for contemporary readers?
Mazo de la Roche was an astute observer of society and its conventions. She wrote about taboo subjects well ahead of her time — about the oppression of women and, in a more coded way, the torment of same-sex love and forbidden love. She gave us an extraordinarily strong female protagonist in the character of Granny Whiteoak, and a sensitive and nuanced male protagonist with her alter ego, Finch Whiteoak. Through Finch Whiteoak, and later, his son, Dennis, she gives a very complex portrayal of depression and mental illness. She is worthy of rediscovery, as Jane Austen and Emily Brontë have been rediscovered. Mazo de la Roche has been given short shrift in terms of her place in the Can Lit canon.
Don't miss the opportunity to see this excellent depiction of a key character in Canadian literary history. The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche plays as part of the HotDocs festival. Visit their site for tickets to the final showing, this Sunday, May 6 at 4:15p.m.