Daphne (Marie) Rooke Biography
Daphne Rooke comments:
Nationality: British and South African. Born: Daphne Marie Pizzey in Boksburg, Transvaal, South Africa, 1914. Education: Durban Girls' High School. Awards: Afrikaanse Pers Beperk prize, 1946.
The Sea Hath Bounds. Johannesburg, A.P.B. Bookstore, 1946; as A Grove of Fever Trees, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1950; London, Cape, 1951.
Mittee. London, Gollancz, 1951; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1952.
Ratoons. London, Gollancz, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1953.
Wizards' Country. London, Gollancz, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
Beti. London, Gollancz, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
A Lover for Estelle. London, Gollancz, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
The Greyling. London, Gollancz, 1962; New York, Reynal, 1963.
Diamond Jo. London, Gollancz, and New York, Reynal, 1965.
Boy on the Mountain. London, Gollancz, 1969.
Margaretha de la Porte. London, Gollancz, 1974.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Deal," in Woman (Sydney), 26 June 1950.
"Emily," in John Bull (London), 1952.
"The Boundary Dog," in John Bull (London), 1957.
"The Friends," in South African Stories, edited by David Wright. London, Faber, and New York, Duell, 1960.
"Fikizolo," in Over the Horizon. London, Gollancz, 1960.
"There Lies Hidden …," in Optima (Johannesburg), 1963.
Other (for children)
The South African Twins. London, Cape, 1953; as Twins in South Africa, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
The Australian Twins. London, Cape, 1954; as Twins in Australia, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
New Zealand Twins. London, Cape, 1957.
Double Ex! London, Gollancz, 1971.
A Horse of His Own. London, Gollancz, 1976.
Daphne Rooke: Her Works and Selected Criticism: A Bibliography by Helen Camburg, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 1969.
Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa.
By Orville Prescott, in New York Times, 1 March 1950; Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in Book-of-the-Month News (New York), January 1952; Sylvia Stallings, in New York Herald Tribune, 20 December 1953; Illustrated London News, 21 December 1957; Saturday Review of Literature (New York), 7 March 1959; Chicago Tribune, 26 February 1961; Paul Scott, in Country Life (London), 24 May 1962.
(1991) The places where I have lived have been most important to my writing. My early memories of the Transvaal are reflected in Mittee. Ratoons has for background the South Coast of Natal where I lived for many years on a sugar plantation. Zululand made a most profound impression on me: I lived there for years as a girl: A Grove of Fever Trees, A Lover for Estelle, and Wizard's Country all have Zululand for background. Beti is set in India and East Africa, and Boy on the Mountain in New Zealand. All are written in the first person.
There is a pattern of sorts in some of the South African works: the race of the narrator has an important bearing on the story. In Mittee the whole story hinges on the fact that the narrator Selina is a Colored girl; in Ratoons the narrator is an English-speaking South African girl who falls in love with an Afrikaner; in Wizards' Country the narrator is a Zulu; in A Lover for Estelle the narrator is an Afrikaans girl whose life is influenced by a sophisticated English-woman. I did not consciously set out to create this pattern; it was pointed out to me after I had written Wizards' Country.
All the stories, including those for children, are imaginative works but have a basis in fact. In Wizards' Country when writing about superstition I attempted to avoid the supernatural; for example, Benge is a hunchback and masquerades as a magic dwarf (the tokoloshi). In my short story for children, "Fikizolo," the ingredients of a fairytale were actually present in Zululand: the two children were called a prince and princess, there was a real old witch, and Fikizolo himself was like a fabled beast, a cross between a donkey and a zebra!
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Though Daphne Rooke's novels were favorably reviewed in journals such as the Times Literary Supplement when they first appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not receive the same critical attention in her home country, South Africa. Since the more recent reissue of certain of her novels, Rooke's work has begun to be reassessed—not least because a novel such as Mittee, in dealing with sexuality and gender relations as well as race, touches upon themes currently being explored in terms of patriarchal discourse in colonial society.
The novels are striking a new generation of readers afresh with their unmistakable flavor of "South African Gothic": a startling mixture of the ordinary and the bizarre that appears to meet white/western subliminal expectations of Africa; a galloping plot so laden with incident that others might have spun two or three books from the same material; and an overwhelming response to landscape which tends to make it (as in Hardy or Emily Brontë) the most important character in the book, leaving the human ones to become strangely strident, even melodramatic and sentimental, in their efforts to be seen and heard.
Mittee centers upon a young Boer woman and her lifelong companion and servant Selina, a "colored" girl who is like a sister to Mittee but is never allowed to forget her place in Afrikaner society. Though she is ostensibly the narrator, in a sense Selina is the "shadow" of the Boer girl, as if the two characters were really one, and the underlying aim of relating their mutual struggles was to explore women's repression—and bitter revenge—in the Afrikaner world of the late nineteenth century.
Both Selina and Mittee love the same man, the Afrikaner Paul, who marries Mittee while using Selina. Both women suffer at his hands, and both exact their own revenge in a drama dwarfed by the harshness of the land and by the cruel course of the Boer War which overtakes their lives. But all is not solemn. Selina tells her story with the kind of humor that illuminates Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm, and details of vanished Boer customs and manners throng the pages with intentional comic effect. There is an inimitable lilt to the language of the characters, which is written with a strongly idiomatic Afrikaans flavor. Few beside Pauline Smith and short story writer Herman Charles Bosman have so effortlessly captured the particular note of the Afrikaner world: "Mittee called and called me again, her voice pitched on a note of anger. Ag what, let her call until she is black in the face, I thought, I won't wait on their table tonight. The way she carried on now that she was married, with Paul hanging after her as though she was gold." The dialogue is exact and often extremely funny; and Mittee's hero, the cultured English doctor Basil Castledene, is throughout the book designated as "Doctor Besil" in imitation of the flat Transvaal intonation of his name. All in all, the novel has the density of tapestry, richly and delightfully filled.
If there remains a critical suspicion that Mittee leans towards melodrama, Rooke's first novel, A Grove of Fever Trees (published internationally in 1950), is undeniably open to the accusation. Its narrator Danny is evil, not merely amoral: a twisted man through whose eyes we see the whole plot as if through strangely colored glass. The lurid light cast on the story of his doomed brother Edward and ironically named girlfriend Prudence, falls on a violence of passion and incident that would destroy a lesser book. What transforms the novel is the memorable evocation of its backdrop: an arid Zululand of ghostly fever trees and deadly poisonous snakes, the whole dominated by the mysterious peak Tshaneni, among the Lebombo Mountains. Such names are repeated like a litany, chanted to a presence more powerful than any human one could ever hope to be—or so Rooke seems to imply, as she dispatches her characters.
In Ratoons, set in a lusher Natal of canefields, tensions between white and black, Zulu and Indian are thrown up by the stormy plot as if by chance. What we chiefly remember is the sheer force of nature: floods, devastating fires, the "charred trash and the blackened stalks of the cane" from which the green of the new shoots, the ratoons, will spring after rain. Humanity appears to be shaped by this force, and sometimes swept away; human violence appears a vain attempt to assert control, born in rage and ending in a whimper.
In A Lover for Estelle the drought that grips the country mirrors the gradual attrition of the Kramer family's innocence even as it brings on their economic ruin. Once again the landscape dominates, impassive in its beauty: "We love this earth for nothing: the grassy plain and mountains are for whoever passes and our suffering or joy makes no mark on them."
If the novels contain an amount of violence that even today seems shocking, history has not disproved this view of southern Africa. Neither an academic nor a political writer, Rooke is content to be a storyteller. She succeeds magnificently, leaving the echoes to do their work—for, though you may forget the details of one of her novels, the particular atmosphere of each remains indelible in the memory.
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