From The Times
February 25, 2009
Daphne Rooke: South African novelist
More than 50 years ago South Africa's biggest newspaper, the
Johannesburg Sunday Times, opined that southern Africa was
blessed in having three such wonderful young women writers
as Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Daphne Rooke (née
Pizzey). Of the three, it believed, clearly the best was
Rooke. Today few have heard of her, largely because she
stopped writing once she left South Africa, while the other
two continued, both winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yet Rooke may indeed be the greatest South African writer
after J. M. Coetzee.
Rooke was born in Boksburg in the East Rand of South Africa,
the youngest of six children in a poor family, and was 12
when her mother noticed for the first time that she hadn't
grown at all since she was 6 and moved the whole family down
to the better climate of the Natal south coast where Daphne
did indeed manage to grow.
Her mother acquired and somehow ran a little sugar farm.
Having no gun with which to protect herself, she put around
stories that the farm was haunted - enough to keep
malefactors at bay. For Mrs Pizzey was an extremely tough,
independent woman, not only working the farm and rearing her
children single-handedly but also writing (as Mare Knevitt)
The Children of the Veld. This was a world Rooke memorably
re-created in one of her finest novels, Ratoons. She went to
school there and in Durban. "I used to invite friends home
for the weekend. We had to walk through the firebreaks in
the sugar cane. There were hundreds of black and green
mambas and other poisonous snakes lying in the sun there. I
was used to it. But none of my friends ever came back for a
As a young girl she visited relatives in the Lebombo
mountains of northern Zululand and met Zulu girls who had
never seen a white before. She and they undressed to check
that they really were the same species underneath. From an
early age she saw Zulu and Indian girls as her sisters and
could not understand, let alone sympathise with, the
prevailing white racism that cast them as lesser beings. But
her life was that of a young girl on an isolated sugar farm.
From the age of 8 she played a canny hand of bridge.
Her father volunteered for the First World War during which
his legs were shot off. For a long time his daughters said
that he was taking so long to get back from France because
he had no legs. Only gradually could they accept that he was
dead. But half the family was Afrikaner and even Daphne was
intensely proud of coming of Huguenot stock and spent
several holidays on the farms of her Afrikaner cousins. But
the passions inflamed by the Anglo-Boer war were so intense
that it was only in the 1950s that the two halves of the
family were willing to speak to one another, though as a
young girl Rooke was greatly taken with the fact that her
uncle was a published Afrikaans poet.
In the 1930s she and her brother Dick worked hard to
establish the Transport Workers Union, earning her an early
notoriety with the authorities. In 1938 she was married to
Irvine ("Bertie") Rooke. Women were not expected to work,
but Daphne's early novels carry photographs of her as an
attractive blonde journalist, chain-smoking as she hammered
on the typewriter keys. Her first novel, The Sea Hath
Bounds, was published in 1946, but her next three novels, A
Grove of Fever Trees (1950), Mittee (1951) and Ratoons
(1953) introduced her to a wide and growing international
audience. Indeed, more than 50 years later Mittee, Ratoons
and Wizard's Country (1957) were republished, and in her
nineties Rooke again found herself on the front pages of the
Times Literary Supplement.
In all she wrote ten novels, six children's books, six short
stories and an autobiographical memoir.
Critics are divided as to which is her finest work, but many
would settle on Ratoons, a historical family saga set on a
south coast sugar farm, climaxing with the Zulu-Indian riots
of 1949. Written with a terse economy and a wry sense of
humour, it is a classic study of race, class and family - in
its own way, a South African Brideshead Revisited.
Typically, South African novels written by liberals and
dealing with relations between the races have an intrinsic
preachiness: the narrative will be recounted by someone who
sees and protests against the monstrousness of it all or, on
occasion, the action will be recounted mainly through the
eyes of victims, achieving the same effect of a parallel
interior dialogue of protest and witness.
There is none of this in Rooke, no single judgmental or
protesting adjective in the book. She writes of Boers, Zulus
and Indians with an extraordinarily sharp eye and yet with
great sympathy. Helen, the protagonist, is a woman of her
time and place who accepts the racial prejudices,
stereotypes and abuses as normal enough, and yet the whole
thing is carried off with such insight and a sort of humane
economy, that the reader is somehow left aware of the
inappropriateness, indeed injustice, of those stereotypes,
even when she is writing of behaviour in Indians or Africans
which appears to confirm the stereotypes. In the South
Africa of 1953, when the book first appeared, it was right
against the current, but there is nothing shrill or
assertive about it - indeed the book's power derives largely
from its calm understatement.
Bertie had had an Australian childhood and in 1946 took her
there. She wrote a great deal there and on three world tours
by boat. She never seemed sure about where she had been and
seemed mainly to have enjoyed the bridge en route.
Always her writing was about South Africa. She and Bertie
were so appalled by the 1949 riots that they retreated to
Australia, returning only in the 1960s when Daphne wrote
what she regarded as her greatest work, The Greyling, an
exposé of apartheid. She was extremely cutting about the
extent to which Lessing and Gordimer had failed to
understand the reality of this horror - but found, to her
astonishment, that the security police had a copy of her
manuscript even before publication. She left for Australia
where she remained until Bertie's death in 1989. She then
left for England, asking why on earth she should remain in
Australia. All her work had been about South Africa, and the
muse had dried up in Australia.
But Rooke's work had been rediscovered in the 1980s by the
University of Natal, whose English department made Ratoons a
set work. It enjoyed enormous success with students of all
races and Rooke was brought out, fêted and given an honorary
doctorate in 1997.
She took great pleasure in being able to mix as equals with
Indians and Zulus in a way that was now ordinary but which
had been beyond her wildest imaginings before. "Really I'd
like to go back to Natal, which is paradise. I can't bear
the grey skies here. Natal is home. But I'm too old," she
would say. And her greatest friend, Alan Paton, was dead.
To the end Rooke retained an extraordinary empathy with the
young, helping them with their writing, and with dogs -
always a large part of her life.
She is without doubt one of the greatest writers Africa has
produced. Politically this is not an era likely to celebrate
white writers but almost certainly her reputation will
continue to grow. She herself was philosophical about her
exile. "You know," she said, "when I was a girl there was an
elephant called Lilly in the Durban Botanic Gardens which
used to give rides to all the kids. Then one day it threw
all the children off and refused ever to carry them again.
So it was decided to send her to Australia. Oddly enough, I
saw her again there. But Australia didn't suit her and one
day she threw herself off a cliff. A real elephant suicide.
She just couldn't be what she wanted."
She is survived by a daughter.
Daphne Rooke, writer, was born on March 6, 1914. She died on
January 21, 2009, aged 94