/ 12 February 2009

Pioneer of the South African novel

Born in 1914 as Daphne Pizzey, she was the sixth child of an English-speaking father. She was to be his last, because volunteering for service in World War I, he was soon reported missing and duly dead. To bail out her offspring, growing up in Boksburg, her Afrikaans mother had to turn into a writer of sorts herself.

As her future famous daughter was considered undernourished, they soon moved down to that last old colony of Natal, where life was supposed to be healthier. There mother and Daphne lived in a rondavel on someone else’s sugar estate, where the little star trod in barefoot awe of snakes among the canebreaks. “I spent my childhood in terror,” she wrote later, “but I was learning to use experiences as material for fiction. All my work is based on images of reality.”

After Durban Girls’ High School blonde Daphne went into journalism. She put off writing that first novel until she was married — to an Australian, Irvin Rooke, who became the dedicatee of much work to follow. At first she wrote in longhand in an exercise book, but then — travelling to work, strap-hanging on a bus — she suddenly realised she had got her opening sentence all wrong. It should read, she decided: “The thornveld rolls across the valley to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains.” She was to throw that out as well, deciding on: “Mother wheeled me out on to the veranda this afternoon.”

With such a forthright start, her brown-paper parcel was dispatched anonymously to Johannesburg’s Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel. By now it was post-war 1946 and none other than Herman Charles Bosman adjudged her submission to be the winner of their competition, out of 200 such entries. Titled The Sea Hath Bounds, naturally with such an accolade, it became a bestseller.

Repackaged without the rather coyly Shakespearean title — as A Grove of Fever Trees by Jonathan Cape himself in 1951 — it was the first of her works to earn an international reputation. With Victor Gollancz as her mentor, she went on to produce, in quick succession, Mittee (translated into 14 languages and recently reissued as a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic), Ratoons (1953) and several other novels.

By the time of A Lover for Estelle (1961), her books were able to flourish such quotes in their blurbs: “Let there be no misunderstanding. Daphne Rooke is one of the most impressive recruits to the novel in recent times.” From The Guardian she had this astonishing puff: “Gordimer, Lessing, Rooke, and the greatest of these is Rooke.”

Then there was a setback. Her next novel was to be called The Greyling. She discovered that security police had snooped in her study and that it was banned in South Africa even before publication. She left for New South Wales, abandoning the heartland of all her inspiration. Despite returns for further inspiration, she found her work tapering off. She was not going to fuss, however, jockeying about for any further fame in the celebrity stakes.

Before she died last week in Cambridge at the age of 94, she had the satisfaction of two revivals of her output taking place. The first was thanks to Lynne Bryer with her Chameleon Press reprints in the late 1980s.

These earned her an honorary doctorate from the then University of Natal. The second was promoted by RW Johnson, generous in his praises, which in 2006 landed her on the cover of The Times Literary Supplement itself, blazing canefields and all. The latter feature on her was to announce that an outfit called Toby Press in England, where she was then living, was reissuing all the best of her superb, now period pieces. — Stephen Gray