Sunday, 9 August 2020

Noble Savages - Sarah Watling

The subtitle tells you everything you need to know: Noble Savages is the story of the four Olivier sisters told in seven fragments.  That there were four sisters is indisputable; the need for seven sections is neither apparent nor especially useful.

The Oliviers were the daughters of Sir Sydney, an upper middleclass socialist, diplomat, and governor of Jamaica, where the girls spent parts of their childhood.  This made them exotic, slightly savage, and the talk of the town when they arrived in London for their advanced education.  They were also extremely beautiful, which helped, and given to nudity, which helped even more.

Brynhild was the most beautiful.  She was also the least bright.  She married earlier and had a child almost straightaway.  The unlikely star of the quartet was the youngest, Noel, whom Rupert Brooke fell for when she was only 15.  In fact, she is the only reason for this book.  For forty years, since John Lehmann and Paul Delany launched a wave of 'new' Brooke biographies, Noel was the focus of attention, largely because she doubled the number of women Brooke was known to have courted and indeed proposed to, whereas hitherto he had been assumed to be gay, largely because so many of his circle were.  Now Noel is known to be just one of many and Rupert Brooke was propositioning simultaneously.  Indeed, he courted three of the four Oliviers and we must be grateful he didn't set his cap at their beautiful and vacuous mother.

The fact is, the sisters were neither happy nor successful.  They were the centre of attention of a circle of gay and lesbian dilettantes who were easily bored.  They had plenty of admirers from roughly 1908 to 1914.  After the war they were peripheral figures from a very different past.  Noel, to her credit, refused to have anything to do with the insane hero-worship which grew up around Brooke.  She had a successful medical career, a much less successful private life, and ended up surly and eccentric.

Sarah Watling does a great job with unpromising material.  She makes all the sisters likeable to an extent because she portrays them warts and all.  Watling is a very fine writer with a wide knowledge of the time of which she writes, and I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

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