Fifty shades of mad, bad, and dangerous
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.
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.