February 2022 Books Monthly Review of books and stories magazine - on the web 24 years...
  books monthly 2022
The back page... this month: The Whiteoaks of Jalna


The year is 1958, and I'm just shy of twelve years old... I've read everything, regretting having returned a book to the twins next door, a favourite Enid Blyton...


...There was nothing else for it - I needed to have a look on my sister Jean's bookshelf - we each had a bookshelf in our bedrooms, except that as the weeks progressed and my collection of books grew, Dad made a set of shelves and put them up on the wall so I had somewhere to keep all the books I was buying with the money from my paper round.
   The only book I could see on Jean's shelf that looked remotely interesting, was MARY WAKEFIELD by someone called MAZO DE LA ROCHE. It was a hardback, with a pink dustjacket. I knew intuitively that it was a romance, and that didn't trouble me one bit. I loved romances, and was never afraid to pick up a Netta Muskett or a Jean Plaidy from the two-bookcase library in my primary school. There were no romances in my new school library, the library of the Crypt Greammar School - it was an all-boys school and the school librarian, one of the prefects, evidently didn't think that romantic fiction was appropriate reading for the boys. I "borrowed" Mary Wakefield, checking with Jean that it was all right to do so when she came home from work later that evening. She had finished it, she said, and I was welcome to borrow it. In fact, she said that she had loved it, and that gave me an idea for her Christmas present for that year. I tried to find another Whiteoaks book in one of the two branches of W H Smith in the city, but they had no more hardbacks, only a couple of Pan Giants, one of which was YOUNG RENNY, pictured above. In fact, when I got it home, I couldn't resist reading YOUNG RENNY myself, although it was MARY WAKEFIELD that originally got me hooked on the Whiteoaks series. I ended up getting Jean the hardback version of YOUNG RENNY that Christmas, from the larger of the two Smiths branches in Gloucester.
       I was familiar with Pan Giants, of course, and knew them to be the finest paperbacks available, with stunningly realistic cover illustrations. Most of my Leslie Charteris Saint books and a couple of my Angélique books were Pan Giants, also THE WIND CANNOT READ and s few other film tie-in titles were also Pan Giants, and they were my favourite books. I looked after them, kept them in pristine condition, was careful not to crack the spines, etc., etc. MARY WAKEFIELD was about a young English governess hired by Ernest Whiteoak to be a governess to his nephew and niece, Renny and Meg Whiteoak, who were the children of Philip Whiteoak, Ernest's younger brother, and his deceased wife Margaret Ramsay. MARY WAKEFIELD ends up marrying Philip Whiteoak after almost all of the family have turned against her. There were other titles in the series that preceded MARY WHITEOAK in terms of sequence: THE BUILDING OF JALNA was the first book in the series, and it tells how Captain Philip Whiteoak (Philip's father) marries Adeline Court from Ireland, and the young married couple are persuaded to buy some land and to settle in Ontario, and to build Jalna, a huge family home in which they and their four children and two grandchildren all live together under the one roof. This didn't seem too strange to me - I was familiar with the concept of large important families living together - the Royal Family, for example, and landed gentry who lived in stately homes with their various offspring. This series of books was about a large family all living together and getting on, or not getting on with each other, and that was what made the series so captivating for me. I can think of two other great family sagas in English literature that are comparable with the WHITEOAKS - they are the FORSYTE SAGA and the POLDARK saga. The latter two series are considered giants of English literature, but WHITEOAKS, probably because it was written by a Canadian, and I can think of no other reason, is not.
      I have read all three series, and although there are similarities in all three, for me, the stand-out series is WHITEOAKS. Winston Graham's Poldark series was written after WHITEOAKS, although Mazo de la Roche was still adding to her series in the 1960s. Poldark spans at least three centuries, while Whitoaks only covers one. But for me, Whiteoaks is by far the best and most readable of the three series, and the Whiteoaks books had a huge influence on the way I thought about life and love. I was reading them at the height of my puberty, when I fell in love with characters in books in the absence of having anyone to fall in love with in real life. I had lost touch with all of the girls I had been in love with at primary school, and  attending an all-boys' school as I did, the opportunities to meet and fall in love with girls my age simply didn't occur.  Instead, I bought all the weekly titles I could find like Romeo, Valentine etc., which had beautifully illustrated comic strip stories about girls and boys falling in love; these titles also contained pictures of pop stars and, later, as the new decade began, traditional jazz artists - I peppered my bedroom walls with photos of Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and so on, and then read the comic strips and luxuriated in the fabulous drawings of beautiful girls, and then, when it was bedtime, I would pick up my latest Whiteoaks book and wallow in the magnificent characters created by Mazo de la Roche.
       If I discovered an author I really liked, I would go all out to get all of the books he or she had written, and so it was with Whiteoaks. I collected the Pan Giants while Jean collected the Macmillan hardbacks, with the pink, green or beige dustjackets. The Pan Giants were cheaper, of course, well within my paper round limits. Sometimes the travelling book salesman who supplied our comic annuals (Lion, TIger and Commander for me, Girls Crystal, School Friend and Coronet for Jean) would bring a new Whiteoaks book, which Mum would pay a few pence to borrow for a week or two, and I would read it and wait patiently for the paperback to be brought out so that I could have my very own copy. I cannot tell you what a thrill it was to have those Whiteoaks books with their absolutely stunning cover art depicting the various characters that came and went to, and lived at, Jalna. Renny, as depicted on the front of the Pan Giant version, was exactly as I had pictured him, and so it was with more or less all of the wonderful characters that Mazo de la Roche had created for me. The Whiteoaks saga was romantic fiction, but it was not romantic in the style of Barbara Cartland. It was romantic in that the people in it were real people who fell in and out of love with each other, sometimes causing pain and hurt to siblings, but the series taught me so much about life and love. I learned about the consequences of a "one night stand" when Maurice Vaughn, who was supposed to marry Meg Whiteoak, made love to an intinerant village girl and produced a foundling baby who was left on his parents' doorstep; this was the baby whom Renny named Pheasant, and the girl who later captured Piers's heart, then broke it by having a brief affaire with Piers's elder brother Eden.
        I hated Eden for what he'd done, for after Renny, Piers was my favourite character in the entire series, and Pheasant my favourite female character, a girl I could fall in love with (and did). The series therefore warned me of the consequences of such relationships, and it was whilst reading the Whiteoaks saga that I made the most solemn resolutions of my life - that I would never make love to a girl before my marriage, and that I would never, ever cheat on my wife under any circumstances. Whiteoaks made me a better person in that respect. Almost all of the characters in the Whiteoaks series are flawed, some seriously, others less so. Renny has affaires with ladies throughout the series, but from memory, he doesn't cheat on anyone. Piers does nothing wrong whatsoever except to maybe control Pheasant to a certain extent. And so these two remain my favourite characters, along with Pheasant. Mary Wakefield, Renny and Meg's governess, is also pretty faultless, and the book is a firm favourite. I always thought that YOUNG RENNY was my favourite book in the series, but I think that may have been heavily influenced by the cover artwork of the Pan Giant version, my copy of which I still have. In re-reading these wonderful books over the past few weeks, I have discovered that I know very little about what happens in the pages of WHITEOAKS, the middle book of the series, in which Meg is finally married to Maurice Vaughan, and they have a baby, Patience; Piers and Pheasant are madly, deeply in love with each other, the grand matriarch, Adeline, dies at the age of one hundred and one; and everyone is wondering to whom she has left her considerable fortune. Renny and PIers are men who survive the Great War, although Piers was too young to serve, of course, and it is that period and the 1920s that remain my favourites in the series.
       There are so many brilliant characters in the Whiteoaks, and there are sixteen wonderful books in which they get to live out their very real and realistic lives in a province of Canada that seems like another world to me. I love the Whiteoaks saga, I love the characters, and what happens to them. Few people nowadays who were born after the baby boomer years, would have even heard of this series - they're still in print, some of the titles, but it's far easier to go on Ebay and buy secondhand copies of those beautiful Giant Pans and equally collectable Macmillan hardbacks. Each title will set you back about £7.00, sometimes less, sometimes as much as £9.00, but they're really good - not pure romance, but with elements of romantic fiction in them all. I treasure my set, which contains many Giant Pans and many Macmillans. I wish Macmillan/Pan would resurrect them and set them before a whole new audience. This series is historical fiction at its absolute best! And it helped to make me the man I am today... reading about what others do wrong helps you not to make the same mistakes yourself. My role models in the late 1950s were Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Tarzan of the Apes. Maybe I was something of a puritan in those days - but there were people I looked up to in the Whiteoaks saga - Renny was frightened of women and treated them rather badly, but apart from that he was my favourite Whiteoaks character; Piers Whiteoak did nothing wrong but never quite understood little Pheasant, although in their later years they got along famously and were perfect role models for the rest of the family. And oh! Those Pan Giant covers!

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 24th year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me
here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at paulenorman1@gmail.com and I'll let you know where to send it.

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This is the reading order of the Whiteoaks books:

  • The Building of Jalna 
  • Morning at Jalna
  • Mary Wakefield
  • Young Renny
  • Whiteoak Heritage
  • The Whiteoak Brothers
  • Jalna
  • Whiteoaks
  • Finch's Fortune
  • The Master of Jalna
  • Whiteoak Harvest
  • Wakefield's Course
  • Return to Jalna
  • Renny's Daughter
  • Variable Winds at Jalna
  • Centenary at Jalna