Noble Savages The Olivier Sisters – Four Lives in Seven Fragments

by Sarah Watling

  • Jonathan Cape London 2019
  • ISBN: 9781473549333
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

By Anne Henderson

In an age when so much importance is given to the study of children’s education, the biographical Noble Savages The Olivier Sisters – Four Lives in Seven Fragments by Sarah Watling is timely. It is a study of four very different sisters living in times where women were revered for beauty, purity and their willingness to be man’s helpmate or what Watling calls a “supporting cast” or “accessory”. Yet, these four single minded women, Margery, Brynhild, Daphne and Noel, springing from their progressive upbringing and background, showed independence of mind in the face of social constraints.

Sarah Watling explains her brief, in undertaking a study of this kind, as one of fascination with the Olivier sisters, cousins of the actor Laurence Olivier. Born between 1886 and 1892, they grew to adulthood in the early years of the twentieth century, in Watling’s words, “among the hopeful young people who gathered around Rupert Brooke in Cambridge before the First World War … [and] among socialists who hoped to make new kinds of lives possible for women”. She adds, “Between them they had been unusually well educated, at a time when education was still thought to be damaging to the ovaries.”

The sisters were the daughters of Sydney and Margaret Olivier. Sydney, an Oxford graduate, was a leading light in the Fabian Society and member of the Labour Party.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               He would go on to serve as Governor of Jamaica and as Secretary of State for India in the first government of Ramsay MacDonald. Margaret was the daughter of Homersham Cox, a noted mathematician, writer and circuit judge. Their circle of friends and associates was significant and their daughters would mix with the cultural and intellectual elite of their day – names like H G Wells, Virginia Woolf, the Webbs, Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes, Lytton and James Strachey among the many.

From their earliest years, the girls were given a life and education that involved freedom: freedom to choose and freedom of expression. In 1891, Sydney and Margaret moved their family to the countryside of Limpsfield in North Downs where their daughters rambled at will in the woods like a little tribe of hunter gatherers. Hence the description given to them much later by Bunny Garnett as “noble savages” when he released his third volume of memoirs. These young women enjoyed the ultra freedom of the Neo Pagans, swimming naked at Penshurst and camping out in mixed groups of their nature loving wider network.

At a time when women were excluded from taking out university degrees, although allowed to attend lectures and sit exams at universities like Oxford and Cambridge, Margery and Daphne both attended Cambridge University and passed exams. Noel chose to study medicine taking out her qualifications from Royal Tree Hospital in London, the only teaching hospital to have an all-female medical school.

Growing up with a sense of entitlement to independence, at a time of social restrictions on women, left each of the Olivier sisters with complicated personal decisions. Their mother Margaret believed their education was very important but believed also that, above all, they must marry and marry well. Along with this, their sibling relationships, in such a united family, while bringing much needed support in difficult times also divided their loyalties when personal choice conflicted with sisterly guidance or advice.

Noel’s love, as a mere teenager, for Rupert Brook struck a reef when her eldest sister Margery, who believed Noel should not consider falling in love before the age of 25, stepped in to caution Noel about Rupert. Noel would keep Rupert at bay until he was diverted by a fling with Ka Cox. By the time Noel was ready to firmly part with Brooke, her feelings had more than hardened – he had left her for Ka, pursued her sister Brynhild and bombarded her with threats and pleas. Nonetheless, after Rupert’s death in the Dardanelles in 1915, Watling writes, “Though she had decided to let Rupert go, his death was, she felt, the final confirmation she had lost the love of her life.”

Movements such as the Neo Pagans and Fabian Society were well ahead of the times when it came to individual freedom and moving the social contract to favour the working man. Yet, when it came to women, such groups were constricted by a traditional misogyny that was hard to move. Watling exposes this succinctly by tracing the lives of the Olivier sisters. For all their progressive education and the values it gave them, social mores would continue to force their fates.

As Watling writes: “Progressives who put their faith in electing socialists to parliament pursued a strategy that excluded women and that engaged with the institutions that maintained their subordination.” When Margery belonged to the Fabians as a young adult, a quarter of its membership was female and yet the Fabians had no stance on female suffrage. Meanwhile, Rupert Brooke was no supporter of the equality of male and female. Watling pulls no punches in describing the Brooke mantra:

The concept of women as the frailer sex was one to which Rupert whole-heartedly subscribed. His own version of freedom was closer to indecisiveness and when it came to sexual matters, he was profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of an equivalent freedom for women. Noel’s reticence in this respect suited Rupert, who did not approve of the sexual precocity of the New Woman.

A motif Watling gently offers throughout the story of these progressives is the Basel Pact. In September 1909, as the group around Rupert Brooke met at Portishead, in Somerset, overlooking the Severn Estuary, inspired by Brooke the group, which included Margery and Bryn (Daphne and Noel joined later), made a pact to meet on Switzerland’s Basel station in May 1933. There they envisaged making a new world away from their aging lives of family responsibilities. In reality, as the stories of their lives unfold, this dream of the young idealists is stripped away. The Basel Pact returns in flashes of memory for the Olivier sisters but by May 1933 they are far from any ideal imagined.

Indeed, it is the idea of the Basel Pact that captures the fallibility of the ideals the young progressives around Brooke had entertained. They could see that life would deliver more mundane responsibilities but they still maintained they could overcome this in a sort of breakaway utopia of their own.

Instead, by May 1933, Brooke had been dead more than two decades, Margery had survived a decade and more in a series of institutions for the mentally ill, Bryn was being treated for an incurable case of Hodgkin’s disease (she would die in January 1935), after two marriages, a brood of children and a failed attempt at farming. Noel was expecting another child whose godfather would be James Strachey, Noel’s lover in spite of her steady marriage to her doctor husband Arthur Richards. Daphne, meanwhile, having pioneered with a small team a new school along Rudolf Steiner principles, was finding the burden of mothering her five children meant her role at the school was increasingly sidelined.

For all that, as women the Olivier sisters were trailblazers for contemporary women. Their chief attribute was an ability to find a level of independence whatever the constraints they might face from social mores. They were not into any shock of the new or displays of radical behaviour. What they achieved was a degree of being in charge of their respective destinies. Even Margery, in her most delusional moments, forced those around her to work things, to some extent, her way.

This need to be in control found its most extreme form in Noel. While intellectual friends like Geoffrey Keynes might question Noel’s choice of Arthur Richards for a husband (“no one could ever understand why the clever & so attractive Noel married him”), Noel did love Arthur who never assumed a superior place in their professional lives and who never stood in Noel’s way as a career woman and mother. Further, an insight into Noel’s unusual lack of jealousy over Brooke’s affair with Ka Cox can be found in her expressed apprehension over the effects of passion and love. As she put it to Brooke: “… they destroy all one’s judgement & turn one into an ape. I refuse to be blinded to anything about you, good or bad.” A steady and manageable partnership was what Noel chose in marrying Arthur.

It is Noel’s reactions to recorded biography that brings the book to its close – a fitting conclusion which allows Watling to reflect on her own craft as well as her subjects. Taking Christopher Hassall’s meetings with Noel in 1962 – by then Noel was nearly 70 and a retired paediatrician – over his biography of Rupert Brooke as an entry point, Watling explores Noel’s resistance to giving over personal letters that would add to Hassall’s book. Other memoirs were coming out, along with accounts of Brooke that romanced his image. Noel was determined that the points of view in such publications were not in any sense a truthful record. Her need to control what was left of her knowledge of the times and its players close to her was paramount. She exasperated Hassall who began to form the view that it was Noel who was to blame for Brooke’s emotional breakdowns:

Noel was to blame for everything. Rupert’s vacillations between Noel and Ka had caused the breakdown… Why hadn’t Noel put a stop to it and thereby saved Rupert from so much suffering? Where until now, he and others had tended to view Ka as the guilty party because of her failure to resist Henry Lamb’s sexual appeal, he now realised that if Noel had just staked her claim to Rupert like a normal woman, she might have prevented him from betraying her with Ka in the first place.

Watling crafts a masterful conclusion, not just by analysing the problem for strong and independent, intelligent women but by delivering an exposure of the male mentality they have to overcome. “All her fault” the cry – as if there are no views from Noel’s side that might explain and justify her decisions. In doing so, Watling offers an analysis of biography itself, it flaws and its limitations.

In her introduction to Noble Savages, Watling writes: “Interesting women have secrets. They also ought to have sisters.” The strong cord that binds Watling’s tale of these sisters is that sibling bond, added to by a strong relationship with their parents. The sisters make their own way again and again only to pull back to each other. And their loyalty knew no bounds.

And, in their pulling back and going forth, these strongly independent sisters, for the most part, constructed fruitful lives, in the telling of which Watling creates both an era of its time, alongside previews of what would come for women in the twentieth century across the Western world. In achieving this, Watling has written a gem.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History