A Children’s Book Author in Academe

Posted on March 7, 2006 by Heather Kirk

I’m a Ph.D. dropout who writes fiction for teenagers, so naturally I don’t get much respect from academics. Perhaps that’s why I can relate to Mazo de la Roche. For decades de la Roche has been scorned by most English professors as a literary lightweight.

But I got angry when Professor Joan Givner of the University of Regina announced in 1989 that de la Roche had been a child molester when she was a teenager.  That meant de la Roche was almost worse than frivolous. She was a criminal. That was going too far!

It took me 16 years, but I finally published a scholarly article that refuted Givner’s claim. My article was titled “Caroline Clement: The Hidden Life of Mazo de la Roche’s Collaborator.” It appeared in Canadian Literature 184 (2005). It was a critique of Givner’s 1989 biography: Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (Oxford University Press).

The article proved wrong Givner’s sensational claim that sixteen-year-old Mazo de la Roche had seduced seven-year-old Caroline Clement when the latter, a cousin, came to de la Roche’s family home as an orphan.

My article got a rave review from Stephen Henighan in the November 4, 2005 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Henighan praised detailed archival research and scepticism in the face of the easy assumptions of earlier researchers. . . .

Givner’s claim had been based on mere guesswork.

She had not been able to determine the birthdate of Caroline Clement, de la Roche’s life-long companion. She had guessed de la Roche was older than Clement. She had just followed Hambleton blindly.

The first biographer of de la Roche, Ronald Hambleton, had guessed that Caroline Clement had been born in 1888: the birth year on her tombstone. Meanwhile Hambleton had proved that Mazo de la Roche had been born on January 15, 1879: the date in the notice of her birth in the Newmarket Era, the newspaper of her Ontario birthplace.

When Givner’s biography was published in 1989, it got a lot of respect and publicity. For most people de la Roche was now an icky low-life as well as a romantic pot-boiler.

Until Givner was proven wrong, Mazo de la Roche was a forbidden subject for a stupid author like me who wanted to write a biography of her for young people.

Stupid and stubborn. I searched census records, as well as family wills, tax assessments, and land records. I wrote letters, sent e-mails, and phoned.

Eventually I had proof that Caroline Clement was born on April 4, 1878. I also had an enormous amount of other new information about de la Roche and Clement. I wrote not one but two academic papers, a monograph, and the biography for young people.

I enjoyed rehabilitating the personal reputation of a fellow author of unimportant books. The experience gave me greater self-confidence. It made me aware of how often we give respect where respect is not due. How often we heap scorn, where scorn is not due.