I had never heard of Mazo de la Roche before watching this documentary. She was a famous Canadian literary icon. She became an internationally acclaimed Ontario writer after her novel – Jalna – sold millions of copies worldwide in the 1920s. She was the first woman to win the Atlantic monthly prize of $10,000 and it was considered a breakthrough for Canadian literature. The prize was akin to winning the Booker prize today or being chosen as an author in Oprah’s Book Club. The prize changed her from someone steadily publishing novels with a fairly small readership to an international publishing success. Though her written works were well known, her personal life was shrouded in mystery. As she gained in popularity and celebrity, her desire for privacy increased to the point where she constructed a public persona to protect her private life.
In the film, Mazo de la Roche tells her own story, in her own words, drawn from her autobiography, letters and interviews. Scenes from her life are re-enacted by actress Severn Thompson who portrays the writer, and passages from her autobiography are shared through dramatizations and voice-overs. The film transitions between vignettes, archival footage, narration, literary archives and interviews with de la Roche’s adopted daughter, her biographers and other acclaimed writers. The film is divided into different aspects of her life and each segment is preceded by a title as though the film is meant to unfold like chapters in her autobiography.
I didn’t find the style of the film particularly engaging or effective. The film felt more like a collection of subjects about de la Roche rather than a compelling telling of her story. I enjoyed seeing archival footage of Toronto in the 1920s and archival documents such as articles about de la Roche and photos of the late writer, and some of the shots are really quite beautiful, but the dramatizations didn’t always hold my interest and attention, and the vignettes often contained little more than a close-up of de la Roche writing or walking or talking to the camera. I found myself longing for meatier content.
With that said, what we learn about de la Roche does create a sense of intrigue about her life. The film effectively establishes the theme of de la Roche’s life as a mystery that she herself helped to create because the fun for her wasn’t in sharing aspects of her life; it was keeping her life from her readership. What resulted was a persona defined by mystery, secrecy and ambiguity.
We learn that she thought sex was silly, that she withdrew at being touched and that she always wished that she were a boy. It is revealed that she underwent electric shock therapy for an illness that befell her and that she lived with her lifelong companion, Caroline Clement, who was her adopted sister in what was then called a “Boston marriage.” The two lived a reclusive life and never discussed their relationship. They adopted two children. Her adopted daughter recalls that de la Roche would make the kids do wicked deeds and then give them imaginary prizes. She refused to ever divulge the details of their birth to them. She went to her grave not telling her children their full story.
She wrote about ideas that were advanced for her time; about taboos in a subtle way that didn’t draw attention to them. The most basic details told in her autobiography – her birth date, her family history, her sexual orientation – are all uncertain. It raises questions rather than answers them and even her tombstone displays misinformation. The fascination about de la Roche is that we’ll never know the truth. Caroline Clement burned her diaries to protect her privacy to the end.
The fact that Mazo de la Roche’s life remains a mystery 50 years after her death is the most interesting aspect of the documentary about her. She believed that the public already knew more about her than they had any business to, yet the film shows that her efforts to shroud her life in mystery were successful. Whoever she was, the most important thing was her work. By the time she died 11-million copies of her books had been sold in 93 languages. Many people who are interested in Canadian literature have forgotten her name. One writer featured in the film believes that cutting her out of the collective memory means losing sight of a prolific writer and a big part of the Canadian literary identity. Though the film sheds little light on the mystery surrounding the life of Mazo de la Roche, it introduces a new generation to her works, which is ultimately the filmmaker’s goal.