BOOK OF THE WEEK
Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters – Four Lives in seven fragments
by Sarah Watling (Cape £ 25, 416 pp)
Margery – the crazy one. Brynhild – the divorce who died of cancer on her failing farm. Daphne – the obsessive Rudolf Steiner who founded a school. Noel – the doctor and the one with whom Rupert Brooke was in love.
Four remarkable sisters born at the end of the 19th century, and I didn't know anything about them before they read this extremely fascinating book in which their entire lives lie before us. Their story has opened my eyes to whole new areas of early 20th-century British life – not least the meager-dipping craze in the back-to-nature movement before World War I, known as the & # 39; Neo-Pagans & # 39 ;.
Olivier sisters in a tree. Margery – the crazy one. Brynhild – the divorce who died of cancer on her failing farm. Daphne – the obsessive Rudolf Steiner who founded a school. Noel – the doctor and the one with whom Rupert Brooke was in love
Ingredients for a neo-pagan afternoon? Spotted shadow by a river, preferably in Grantchester, absence of clothing, wet hair, sound of splashing, Rupert Brooke read a poem. Take me there now.
Gosh, those four enchantingly beautiful Olivier sisters behaved badly like little girls. Their parents, Sydney and Margaret Olivier, were Fabians, which meant that they were so unnatural socially that their servants dined with them.
But the girls were allowed to run wild in the forests of Surrey – visitors describe them as & # 39; wanted & # 39; – and their nanny, Gertrude, always wondered if all socialist babies are so exhausting & # 39 ;.
They made their physically fearless and wild girls psychologically fearless when they approached the woman.
Brynhild, the most blinding of all, was the cause of much sexual tension at those neo-pagan gatherings. She and H.G. Wells liked each other after a picnic, & # 39; but they managed to dispel it with a powerful game of circles & # 39 ;. Phew.
It was the youngest, Noel, on whom Rupert Brooke became fixated – when he was 21 and she was 16 and still in Bedales (the favorite progressive school for Fabian children).
Brooke made sure he appeared in places where he had heard Noel, such as camping in the New Forest, where everyone was singing to the birds, tumbling in the flowers, bathing in the rivers & # 39 ;. He described Noel as & # 39; more glorious than the sun and stronger than the sea. . . whose brain is clean and clear like a man's, and her heart is full of courage and kindness; and who I love & # 39 ;.
A bit of nonchalant sexism there, but it wasn't until 1908. Noel teased and encouraged Brooke, but did not fully respond to his love – and she was partly blamed for the nervous breakdown he had sustained in 1911 after she had completely rejected him.
He was deeply bitter and sputtered in a letter to his friend James Strachey that Noel would fall in love one day when her biological clock demanded it, and she & # 39; ripe for everyone & # 39; would be – a rather small and very shiny man, probably a syphilis and certainly a Jew. She crawls over to him, Noel will and ask him to have her. And he will undoubtedly & # 39 ;.
The sisters on a picnic. Brynhild, the most blinding of all, was the cause of much sexual tension at those neo-pagan gatherings. She and H.G. Wells liked each other after a picnic, & # 39; but they managed to dispel it with a powerful game of rounds & # 39;
So not quite the angel he was immortalized as after his tragically early death by sepsis on his way to the Dardanelles in 1915. As soon as the Dean of St. Paul reads his poem, & # 39; If I die, Brooke was sanctified by the British public. The Olivier sisters, who had known the blood of flesh and blood Rupert, were appalled when they saw that their poor friend turned into a mythological hero – just as they cherished their memory of him. From that moment until the end of her life, Noel refused to let Brooke & # 39; s biographers look at the love letters he had written to her.
Sarah Watling opens her epic saga with this scene in 1962: Rupert Brooke's biographer, Christopher Hassall, visits an outdated old retired female doctor in Kensington – Noel – who stubbornly refuses to let him look at the letters.
At the height of Neo-Pagan paradise in 1909, all members of the group made a pact: that they would meet for breakfast at Basel Station in Switzerland on May 1, 1933, and & # 39; a new world together & # 39 ;.
While reading, it is heartbreaking to see how events conspire to thwart this vision.
While reading, it is heartbreaking to see how events conspire to thwart this vision
Noel comes across as a frivolous child – but she suddenly became an adult and studied medicine at the UCL, so she took her studies extremely seriously. She was going to marry a fellow doctor, a sturdy Welshman named Arthur Richards, and they lived an exhausting life of doctoring, commuting and raising their five children.
Now we come to mental health problems. Daphne first: she was diagnosed with the delirium after the death of Bruintje Brooke and an unfortunate affair and was stunned in a psychiatric institution.
At that time, the method to heal that specific condition was & # 39; filling a woman with food and removing all intellectual stimulation. It was normal to put three and a half stones during these & # 39; rest hours & # 39 ;.
Daphne got out and got better, although she was then captivated by the spiritualist and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.
She married a Steiner obsessive, Cecil Harwood, and founded the first Rudolf Steiner school in Britain.
Poor Margery was the really loose person. She started with such a promise: an undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, and all the fun that came with it.
She collapsed shortly after breaking an engagement with an employee of her father.
Then the delusions began. Margery was convinced that a mathematician named Harry Norton was madly in love with her. She wrote him letters that accepted their engagement.
Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters – Four Lives in Seven Fragments by Sarah Watling (Cape £ 25, 416 pp)
Her sisters called it Margery & # 39; s & # 39; Nortomania & # 39 ;. She came to wander the streets of London in the middle of the night in her dressing gown and tried to find him. She spent the rest of her life (42 years) in various institutions, suffered from increasing dementia, and later developed a strong belief that the Prince of Wales was in love with her. She was violent and tried to strangle a nurse.
I thought Brynhild was at least happy, but no.
With a strong will like the rest of them, she lost the love of her first husband, art historian Hugh Popham, and fell in love with a man named Raymond Sherrard.
She divorced and married Raymond, but it didn't get better for her. The couple was desperately short of money and tried to run a hopeless farm in Sussex that George Bernard Shaw had lent them money to buy. Then Brynhild was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 47.
Noel – even sensible Noël – got tired of Arthur and started an affair with James Strachey, the same man to whom Bruintje Brooke had written that bitter letter. I imagined that he would turn into his grave at the moment.
The life stories of these women remind us that the 1880s were the worst decade to be born. Those carefree young wood sprites had no idea that they would have to endure the cataclysms of the 20th century with their eyes open.
The cruelest fact of all: Margery, tucked away in her asylum, survived all her sisters, living in her delusion until 1974.
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