The Olivier Sisters
Winner of the Tony Lothian Prize for best first uncommissioned biography, Noble Savages reclaims the story of the four Olivier sisters, whose dramatic, interconnected lives span the twentieth century.
The four Olivier sisters were emancipated, determined and wild in an age when society punished women for being so. Margery and Daphne studied at Cambridge at a time when education was still thought to be damaging to ovaries. There they met Rupert Brooke and formed the Neo Pagans, initiating a web of entanglements that would challenge even the sisters’ unbreakable bond. Daphne later became a pioneering educationalist, and set up Britain’s first Steiner school, and Noel joined a tiny minority of female doctors before the First World War.
Drawing on recently available personal documents and interviews with their descendants, Noble Savages brings the sisters in from the margins, tracing lives that span the colonial leisure of the Caribbean, the bucolic life of Victorian progressives, the frantic optimism of Edwardian Cambridge, the bleakness of war, their links with the Bloomsbury Group, and a host of evolving philosophies for life over the course of the twentieth century. It offers a vivid portrait of sisterhood in all its complexities, and rediscovers the Oliviers within the varied fortunes of the feminism of their times.
Praise for Noble Savages
This is the first time [the Olivier sisters] have had a biography to themselves, and a very fine job Sarah Watling makes of it… thoroughly fascinating... This book is interesting on a dozen levels.Lynn Barber, Daily Telegraph
The best group biography of the year – of many years, in fact – is Sarah Watling’s Noble Savages, the story of the four Olivier sisters... Their mother was the model for Tess of the D’Urbevilles, their joint best friend was Rupert Brooke, and they had, said Virginia Woolf, strange glass eyes which they took out at night. But this is not why they are interesting. After feral childhoods in Surrey, where their parents lived in a Fabian utopia, each woman struggled with postwar realities: insanity, grief, poverty, catastrophic marriages. Elegantly structured in “seven fragments”, Watling’s book gives us a riveting drama that begins as pastoral comedy and ends as tragedy.Frances Wilson, New Statesman, Books of the Year
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.Ysenda Maxton Graham, *Book of the Week*, Daily Mail
In this compelling biography Sarah Watling tells [the Olivier sisters’] 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… [Watling] is quite brilliant.Elizabeth Lowry, Guardian
A story of four girls rebelling against Edwardian stuffiness is vividly told… in this thoughtful, compassionate biography… I found much to celebrate and admire here.Laura Freeman, The Times
If the Bloomsberries lived in squares and loved in triangles, the Olivier sisters lived in tents and loved in Venn diagrams… Sarah Watling’s riveting book… is a noble endeavour and a laudable achievement.Frances Wilson, Literary Review
In her highly accomplished first book Sarah Watling aims to follow [the Oliviers'] lives as a way of recovering what still feel like missing aspects of twentieth-century female life ... Watling is excellent on the way that biographers’ zeal for “uncovering” material facts and psychological truths about their subjects is really an attempt to claim authority for what are essentially acts of imagination... This does not mean, though, that Watling is willing to sacrifice the rich, enduring pleasures of biographical storytelling ... Watling deftly uses the Oliviers’ lives to reanimate the kinds of female experience that tend to lie inert inside grander narratives.Kathryn Hughes, The New York Review of Books
This marvellous biography… shines a light on these four fascinating women [the Olivier sisters] – and the dramatic, pioneering lives they led.Francesca Carington, Tatler *This summer’s best new books and holiday reads*
Watling vividly conjures up the sisters, but ultimately this is an exploration of the difficulty of knowing anyone truly, and how sisterhood makes it harder still… it renders them inspiring without flattening them into the bland ‘rebel girls’ stereotypes currently in vogue.Gwendolyn Smith, Mail on Sunday
Sarah Watling’s expertly crafted portrait of the lives of the Olivier sisters manages to draw out of the archives not only vital threads of English cultural history but a sense of the risk of new biographical subjects being seen and heard for the first time. Watling is a highly sensitive curator and she handles her subjects with exquisite care, folding them back into the environments which made them and allowing us to visit them there. I read Noble Savages and I was reminded of the thrill of first reading the writings of ethnographer and explorer, Mary Kingsley.Sally Bayley
Sarah Watling puts four remarkable twentieth-century lives in the spotlight with sympathy and lightly-worn scholarship. What trailblazers they were!Virginia Nicholson
Watling’s book gives us a riveting drama that begins as pastoral comedy and ends as tragedyFrances Wilson, New Statesman