Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche found fame in her late 40s when her third novel, Jalna, won first prize (and $10,000) in the first “Atlantic Novel Contest” in 1927. The book was serialized in Atlantic Monthly, then released as a stand-alone volume.
The book’s main characters were members of the prosperous Whiteoak family. They lived at an estate in southern Ontario called Jalna. The estate had been built by family patriarch Capt. Philip Whiteoak, a retired officer of the British Army in India. He’d named it “Jalna” after the garrison town in India where he’d met his Irish wife, Adeline.
The book was a top-10 bestseller in the U.S. in both 1927 and 1928. It was such a big commercial success that the author kept writing novels about the Whiteoaks. She ended up with a total of 16 books, now known as the “Whiteoak Chronicles,” which cover four generations (1850s-1950s) of the fictional family.
Many of de la Roche’s character names — which included Finch, Pheasant, and Wakefield/”Wake” — came directly from from gravestones in Ontario’s Newmarket cemetery.
Given the popularity of the book, and the distinctiveness of the character names, it’s not too surprising that Jalna had an influence on U.S. baby name data in the ’20s and ’30s…
Character Alayne Archer was introduced in Jalna when Eden Whiteoak, an aspiring poet, traveled to New York City to meet with a publisher. Alayne was the publisher’s assistant, and she and Eden became romantically involved.
The debut of the baby name Alayne in 1929 was due to the much-anticipated follow-up book, Whiteoaks of Jalna — specifically, to the book reviews that ran in newspapers throughout the U.S. during the second half of 1929. Many of them mentioned Alayne.
- 1937: 19 baby girls named Alayne
- 1936: 23 baby girls named Alayne
- 1935: 16 baby girls named Alayne
- 1934: 9 baby girls named Alayne
- 1933: 5 baby girls named Alayne
- 1932: 5 baby girls named Alayne
- 1931: 9 baby girls named Alayne
- 1930: 7 baby girls named Alayne
- 1929: 11 baby girls named Alayne [debut]
- 1928: unlisted
Notice how usage rose during the mid-1930s. This was due to a related reason: the movie Jalna (1935), which was based on the first book and featured actress Kay Johnson as Alayne. (By 1935, five of the 16 books were out.)
Jalna & Renny
The year after the movie came out, two more Jalna-inspired names emerged in the data. One was Jalna itself, which didn’t stick around long:
- 1938: unlisted
- 1937: 9 baby girls named Jalna
- 1936: 6 baby girls named Jalna [debut]
- 1935: unlisted
(You could compare to Jalna to Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind.)
The other was Renny, from Eden’s half-brother Renny Whiteoak, who became Alayne’s love interest after Alayne and Eden grew apart.
- 1941: 8 baby boys named Renny
- 1939: 5 baby boys named Renny
- 1937: 8 baby boys named Renny
- 1936: 9 baby boys named Renny [debut]
- 1935: unlisted
Another factor that could have given Renny a boost that year was the fifth book in the series, Young Renny, which focused on that character specifically.
…So how did Mazo de la Roche come by her own unique name?
She was born “Mazo Louise Roche” in Ontario in 1879. She added the “de la” not (necessarily) to sound noble, but to reflect the historical spelling of the family name. And here’s what she said in her autobiography about her first name:
When my father saw me he said to my mother, “Let me name this one and you may name all the others.” And so he named me and there were never any others. Mazo had been the name of a girl to whom he once had been attached.
- Bestselling novels in the U.S. (1920s) – Wikipedia
- De la Roche, Mazo. Ringing the Changes: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957.
- Historicist: Revealing Fictions
- Wolfe, Morris. “The Secrets of Mazo Remain Well Hidden.” Saturday Night, May 1972, pp. 36-37.