(paperback 416 pp, published by Vintage in August, 2020)
This is an interesting book about four sisters, cousins of Sir Laurence Olivier (who barely appears, and who I mention just to give a little context). I had certainly not heard of these women before I picked up the book, being attracted by the ‘savage’ aspect of these early twentieth century women. Indeed, I did not notice the connection to Sir Larry until I read the subtitle, having bought the book. The author (whose first book this is) describes it as being ‘four lives in seven fragments’, sensibly leaving out chunks of each life in order to do justice holistically to the lives of all four sisters, their remarkable parents and their many friends who are still household names. She makes her material (derived I would say from a great deal of vigorous research) work hard on a number of fronts.
At the outset, the book is about the sisters’ Fabian childhood, which encouraged youngsters to enjoy an outdoor, unfettered life. Basically they ran wild, particularly during the summer months. Father, Sydney Olivier, was a civil servant, later ennobled, the zenith of whose career was as Governor of Jamaica. In between periods abroad with their parents in the Caribbean on various postings, and lengthy camping trips and wild swimming in Surrey, the Olivier siblings managed to pick up pretty decent educations, bonded closely and feared nothing.
These, then, were the ‘noble savages’ of the title: Margery (born 1886), Brynhild (born 1887), Daphne (born 1889) and Nöel (born 1892). As children they formed themselves into a small fierce tribe, of whom the other local children at their family home in Limpsfield were terrified. They continued to be a force to be reckoned with throughout their lives, which included periods abroad with their parents, close friendship with Rupert Brooke and his set (dubbed by Virginia Woolfe the ‘Neo-Pagans’), the Bloomsbury set itself, university education (then still very difficult to come by for a woman), then for Noel a career as a doctor specialising in obstetrics, and for Daphne a career as an instigator of the Steiner anthroposophical educational system in Britain and a teacher within it.
Of course, women at this time had to fight super-hard for every gain, be it control over their own finances, bodies, children or careers. The Oliviers ran the gamut of what could go wrong for well-educated, outspoken women of their class and time, and also what could be achieved by such women.
The material about their association with many of the creative movers and shakers of their day is fascinating (they were not creatives per se themselves, except Brynhild, who made jewellery). But the word ‘no’ simply seemed to make them redouble their efforts to achieve a ‘yes’. These were brave women. It probably didn’t occur to them at the time how brave they were. They were resourceful. They were flawed, and sometimes they became broken. But their lives and times are fascinating. They certainly deserve to be read about and remembered. Sarah Watling has performed a sterling service on their behalf.