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Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters by Sarah Watling review – rebels with a cause

Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters by Sarah Watling review – rebels with a cause

From suffrage marches to skinny dipping with the Bloomsberries … the remarkable life stories of four sisters are told for the first timeWhen Christopher Hassall was writing his biography of the poet Rupert Brooke in 1962 he found the woman he most wanted to interview, Noël Olivier, with whom Brooke had had an on-off relationship for four years, maddeningly uncooperative. To his chagrin, she simply could not see why her own story – she had lived a long and professionally successful life in her own right – should be subsumed into Brooke’s, and she frustrated Hassall at every turn. Subsequent biographers didn’t fare much better, though they rightly sensed that understanding Olivier and her three sisters, all of whom had known Brooke, was key to understanding his milieu. In this compelling biography Sarah Watling tells their tale for the first time. It is the story of the end of Victorianism and the birth of the modern age. It is also, grippingly, the story of the early feminist movement, and a vital contribution to the construction of an alternative women’s history.The Oliviers grew up at the turn of the 20th century in the Fabian Eden of Limpsfield in Surrey, surrounded by Russian anarchists and writers and intellectuals. The sisters were raised in line with “principles of freedom”, which included being allowed to roam, climb trees “like monkeys” and skin rabbits – leading their nursemaid to wonder “if all Socialist infants are so exhausting”. They were fortunate, at a time when any sort of intellectual study was believed to be damaging to the female reproductive system, to have a father, Sydney Olivier (later a member of Ramsay MacDonald’s postwar Labour cabinet), who arranged tuition for them with a lecturer from University College London, while their mother, Margaret Cox, encouraged political engagement. Continue reading...

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