Watling approaches the ambitions and qualified successes of these four extraordinary women with even-handed empathy. Her fragmentary method, consisting of large chronological leaps, will be disorienting for anyone who doesn’t already have a basic grasp of the context. But unlike Hassall and the generation of biographers before her, she has the radical good sense to investigate the Olivier story by starting with the Oliviers themselves.
This is a sensitive, scrupulously researched biography, in which Watling has expertly and chronologically marshalled the facts. She rightly condemns biographers of Brooke who trivialize the Oliviers as Neo-Pagan pin-ups. But the attempt to connect their bond to modern concepts of “sisterhood” feels clumsy, and at times the book sags under the weight of so many details crowding in. Their significance gets lost among the sweeping historical panoramas: a baby’s teething problems, the Blitz, children tobogganing in Minehead and Virginia Woolf’s suicide – all dealt with in a couple of paragraphs – are not equally important. The book is nonpartisan, but Noël Olivier Richards deserves a biography in her own right. “Why didn’t you marry any of those romantic young men?” Woolf asked her in 1924. She told her she didn’t know, but reading Brooke’s “beautiful beautiful love letters – real love letters, she said – she cries & cries”.
It was high time we had a proper look at the four beautiful, original Olivier sisters. Hitherto, with one exception, they have been seen in glimpses, playing marginal parts on the Bloomsbury stage after about 1910. The exception was the youngest, Noel, who all her life and since has been stuck with her invidious role as the girl who turned down a national hero, Rupert Brooke. Even Sarah Watling cannot help beginning and ending her solid, thoughtful book with that piece of the jigsaw. But admirably, if a trifle laboriously, she goes on to consider each of them as an individual, and succeeds in placing them firmly in the vanguard of the slow progress of women towards a measure of personal and professional freedom.
This book is interesting on a dozen levels – on the sisters, of course; on “New Women” and feminism; on medical history and attitudes to mental health (Margery lived long enough to be at risk from R D Laing); on the development of Steiner schools; but also on the subject of biography... Noble Savages is a latecomer to the field, but a thoroughly fascinating one.
Watling’s respect for the lives of others results in a refusal to speculate or draw conclusions. She simply presents the facts and leaves it up to us to sift through the evidence and interpret in our own way how a story that started out as a pastoral comedy ended up as a tragedy. It is a noble endeavour and a laudable achievement.
Four remarkable sisters born at the end of the 19th century, and I didn’t know about any of them before reading this utterly absorbing book in which their whole lives are laid before us. Their story has opened my eyes to whole new areas of early 20th-century British life — not least the skinny-dipping craze among the pre-World War I back-to-nature movement known as the ‘Neo-Pagans’...
The life stories of these women remind us that the 1880s was the very worst decade in which to be born. Those carefree young wood-sprites had no inkling they would have to endure with open adult eyes the cataclysms of the 20th century.
This is more than a biography of four sisters. It is a story of a generation of women, who were born Victorians, who came of age as Edwardians, a gilded generation, fatally tarnished by the First World War. They fought for degrees, for the vote, for the right to practise as “lady doctors”. Education was thought to damage the ovaries and strain the nerves.