LVG Blog 1

Fifty shades of mad, bad, and dangerous

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At the end of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, Anastasia Steele has succeeded in transforming a controlling, physically-abusive entrepreneur into a doting husband, father of her two children. Miraculously (for a married couple with children) their sex life is still smoking hot and they enjoy BDSM sex. Though not regarded as a great literary feat, the series has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the heroine’s love reforms a stormy, melancholy Romantic bluebeard – replete with a mad wife secreted in the attic – into a somewhat domesticated chap with whom Jane can have a cosy and equal married relationship.

Considering that the Fifty Shades series has sold more copies on Amazon than the entire Harry Potter series combined, and that Jane Eyre is a well-loved text that has been prescribed in school and university curricula around the world for decades, it’s worth pointing out that the myths these works are purveying may not be too helpful for women trapped in abusive relationships. It’s also worth asking whether there are alternatives to the narratives they offer.

Enter gender relations in the novels of South African author Daphne Rooke.

All of Rooke’s major novels present male characters who are mad, bad, and seriously dangerous to know. But for women readers these novels offer a very different message than Jane Eyre and Fifty Shades of Grey.

I am going to focus here on Rooke’s Mittee (1950), mainly because it is a rewriting of Jane Eyre, and also because it is one of my favourite novels. You have likely not heard of Mittee before, though you may have heard of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, which is also a subversive retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s famous story.

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In a similar vein to Wide Sargasso Sea, Mittee is about a love triangle, from the perspective of a “Creole” woman. The novel is set in the Transvaal in the lead up to and during the South African War of 1899-1902, and told by Selina, the young and beautiful “coloured” servant of a young and beautiful white woman, Mittee. Selina begins by describing her peaceful life with her husband Fanie, before telling the story of her youth with Mittee in an extended flashback that comprises most of the novel. She describes how she was having an affair with Mittee’s fiancé, Paul, and it seems that she was in love with him, though he treats her dismissively and even hatefully at times. Her relationship with Paul must be kept as secret as Bertha Rochester locked away in the attic. Though she loves Mittee “as a sister”, Selina is often overcome by jealousy, and on one occasion rips up the silk for Mittee’s wedding dress, recalling the incident in Jane Eyre where Bertha enters Jane’s room and tears her wedding veil in half.

Like Bronte’s Rochester, Paul in Mittee is a dark and powerful Byronic character who first appears in the narrative on horseback. His demonic intensity and intertwined sadism and appetite for dark-skinned or ethnically-ambiguous women have much in common with Rhys’s Rochester.

On finding out that Selina is pregnant with his child, Paul seeks to marry her off to the brutal farm hand Jansie, who terrifies Selina. One evening Jansie comes around to Selina’s room, expecting her to submit to him. When she refuses him and he sees that she is pregnant, he attacks her, jumping on her stomach and causing her to lose her child. This attack becomes an excuse for Paul to kill Jansie, who was the only witness to the pregnancy. After Jansie’s death, Paul, already vicious and nasty, becomes even worse. During his marriage to Mittee they have a crippled child whom he smothers to death, as he cannot stand to see weakness in something that he evidently wants to view as a narcissistic projection of himself. When he begins beating Mittee, Selina stops him and he turns on her and rapes her instead.

While some of the brutal men in Rooke’s novels are seductive in the beginning of the narratives in which they appear, they deteriorate very quickly into violent doubles of one another. The horror is that these men are family: husbands, or potential husbands, and fathers.

When in an interview I asked Rooke about this, she responded that these men are based on stories she heard from her mother Marie (to whom Mittee is dedicated), about her mother’s first husband, Knevitt, a hard-drinking Welshman who was extremely violent to Rooke’s half-brothers and her mother. One night Marie and her three sons ran away. They heard Knevitt coming after them on horseback, with his two colt revolvers firing, and hid behind a waterfall, an incident that became the inspiration for the final major scene in Mittee.

Rooke claims that she grew up on these stories, but presumably there were other stories, and one may question the significance of her investment in tales of frighteningly violent men. After all, Rooke never knew Knevitt, and her own father, by her account a loving and benevolent man, was killed in the First World War, soon after she was born.

In The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, Slavoj Žižek argues that fictions of “enraged paternal figures,” excessively phallic figures with their “wild outbursts of violent rage,” are essentially a fantasy, such that even the most obscene Urvater, “the rapist father,” is an invented defense against the suffocating and protective figure of parental benevolence. Following Žižek, it could be argued that Rooke’s childhood, growing up without a father in a household of women, may have perversely shaped her obsession with the fiery and violent men that she returns to again and again in her novels.

An interpretation of these excessively evil male figures as “fantasies”, however, would overlook their relation to the actual violence of the patriarchal order that Rooke was describing. In her memoir Rooke not only remembers growing up in a house of women, but also makes a link between apartheid and male “aggression.” As Zoë Wicomb notes: “Rooke is resolute in her exposure of the bullying male. The consoling words of an Afrikaner matron—‘Don’t be upset by the boys. All girls have to put up with it, Selina, probably he meant no harm’ reveal to what extent sexual harassment is institutionalized in that society.”

Through the portrayal of brutal husband-fathers, Rooke reflects on the patriarchal violence that was endemic at every level in colonial society and under apartheid. Her novels are poignant as we have inherited the legacy of these toxic masculinities today.

In Jane Eyre, the heroine chooses the fiery and arguably abusive Rochester, over St John Rivers, the kindly missionary. In Mittee, Mittee rejects Paul, choosing instead to live with her missionary, Doctor Besil, and Selina eventually lives a life of peace with her compassionate husband, Fanie.

It’s not my intention to claim that “nice guys” are incapable of being trash. Such is the nature of toxic masculinities that “nice guys” can transform into demonic versions of themselves in the blink of an eye.

But unlike Jane Eyre and the Fifty Shades trilogy, Mittee demonstrates that women cannot reform narcissistic men who are overtly “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Such men don’t get better. They only get worse.

 

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LVG pomes

 

Failed execution

 

Last request: a camera

Aimed at the man with the gun.

He lifts the rifle,

I click the shutter,

The photograph on the screen

Is bequeathed

To my father.

 

The bullet collides somewhere near

My heart.

I stagger home –

Ashamed

To be not dead.

 

Now the task is

To live

Furtively.

 

 

Boland Bluebeard

 

They were unruffled,

The artist and his mistress, when I arrived in a battered kombi

To save the wife.

 

But she had already disappeared.

 

Only pink water in a bucket and a bloodstain

That smelled of detergent and would not wash out

On the floor near the fridge.

 

It is happening to me now.

As I try to hide behind the rose bushes,

He says: “Did you really think you could escape?”

 

 

Fishing 1

 

Angling for water

The fish leapt

Under the bridge

Into my arms

A soft egg wounded

By gills

I knew it would die

Like that.

 

 

 

Tick bite fever

 

My knight in shining armour

Turned out to be an engorged tick

With no eyes

Who crawled out of the veld and drank my blood until I became so sick

He had to turn to another source of life

 

What they don’t tell you in fairy tales

Is that there is nothing

Behind the polished armour –

Inside the shiny smooth body of the tick you will find only

Your own blood.

 

 

 

Defeat

 

I never thought

You could defeat me,

I always thought

My hate stronger.

But you are a white man,

with white hair

And so you and your henchmen

burned me,

Turned me into something

Hideous,

A parody of myself –

Cast out.

 

Remember. I am not on the side

of your tribe.

And the past is not forgotten.

Cast out –

I stand with the miners of Geduld

who cough up

Pieces of lung in shacks

near Mthatha,

And with the Cubans

who fought against you

At Cuito Cuanavale.

 

 

This wound

 

This wound inside

Most days sits quiet, seeping

As imperceptibly as blood murmurs through capillaries –

 

But oh

how the merest thought or kiss can tear open

The thin membrane, disgorging bits and then

 

I am on on the edge, almost falling

into that yawning void –

the solar plexus.

  

 

Northern Hemisphere Haiku I

 

Under grey English

Skies in June, I miss the smell

Of frangipani.

 

 

Southern Hemisphere Haiku I

 

Over these dark waves,

Lion’s Head and mute Apostles,

Wheels the Southern Cross.

 

 

A Disappearing World

 

The forest is being razed

Turned into powdered dust

 

From out of a chasm of hewn vegetation

They drag a panda bear

 

And her cub

Bound for some zoo, or worse

 

I rush to the mother,

And reunite them

 

Then carrying both creatures I run

Though the forest, now busy with men

 

What shall I feed these skepsels

When I take them into hiding?

 

Suddenly in my arms they grow

Smaller and smaller

 

As if I have been carrying two insects –

Lost, they have now fallen

 

I search the dusty ground but see nothing

If I had my cellphone here I could call for help.

 

Bloom

 

Tears

and stars

Bloom in darkness.

 

 

Settler’s hospital

I was 19 going on 20

when they put me in the hospital for settlers

I cannot remember why, though it must have been 

for something shameful

I remember the white ward

with two ancient white ladies, fellow settlers

one was dying

the other had lost her faculties

or at least some of her reason in the sense that

reason is focused on present coordinates

she kept rattling the end of her bed

like a cage and calling for “Florence”

and her little dog called Tover

Tover, Tover, where is my little dog

Tover

sometimes she swam into the present

and focused on her gasping companion

calling for the nurses to feed her grapes

as grapes are very digestible

sometimes I put my hands to my eyes

and feel the bones of my skull

it’s coming for all of us

the bones rattling their cage

wanting to get out

like Tover who escaped through

the hole in the fence.