Mittee was first published in 1951. The story is set in the Transvaal in the late 18th century. The new edition includes an afterword by John Maxwell Coetzee. Selena, a young woman of “mixed blood,” narrates. She is a servant and companion to Mittee, who is of Afrikaans descent. Selena is not Mittee’s slave, but she must accept Mittee’s hitting, pinching, and hair pulling without retaliation, though mutual verbal abuse seems to be allowed. It is somewhat of a Cinderella situation, albeit Cinderella with a beautiful, spirited, and, for the most part, likeable stepsister.
The story opens as Mittee prepares to marry Paul, eldest son of the foremost family in the region. Selena will tell the story of her own affair with the adulterous Paul, her brutal rape by Jansie, and her eventual marriage to Fanie—a good man. But the book’s title is Mittee, and Mittee is the true focus of Selena’s tale. We read more about what Mittee does, feels, and thinks—from Selena’s point of view, of course—than about Selena’s own self.
J. M. Coetzee characterizes the story as a sexual rivalry between the girls and asks whether Rooke is not merely a romance writer rather than a serious chronicler of social and political conditions. He dismisses her as the former. I disagree with his analysis and suggest that the author is neither. I would say rather that she is an astute observer of human nature in that she has given us an incisive look at two women engulfed in self-pity. Both Selena and Mittee’s sister-in-law, Letty, act out their venomous obsession with Mittee, who struggles and finally attains her heart’s desire.
But there is not space here to develop this analysis. Suffice to say, Mittee is an excellent story—intellectually stimulating and beautifully narrated. Most highly recommended!