Private Lives

The Oliver sisters at a picnic, Hampshire, 1910
Laurence Harwood
From back center to right, Daphne, Sydney, Noel, Margery, and Brynhild Olivier at a picnic, Hampshire, 1910

On a bright Somerset day in September 1909, a group of lucky young people discussed their future. Intoxicated by the way that they had already managed to create for themselves “splendid lives—with Art and Friendship and the great blusterous beautiful world about us,” as one of them complacently put it, they nonetheless scented danger ahead. These golden creatures—mostly Cambridge undergraduates, several beautiful, one a poet—were appalled at how they would change as the years went by. “We shall become middle aged, tied with more and more ties, busier and busier, fussier and fussier.” So they came up with a plan. On May 1, 1933, by which time they would be in their forties, they would all gather for breakfast in the restaurant at Basel station in Switzerland. From there they would simply vanish “from the knowledge of men” to “make a new world together” consisting of “a Heaven of Laughter and Bodies and Flowers and Love and People and Sun and Wind.” If the details were vague, the gist was thrilling. Over the next few weeks, the little group recruited their closest friends to the scheme. Assuming everyone kept their word, there could be up to a dozen middle-aged people piling into Basel station on May 1, 1933, ready to make a break for a secret, glorious second youth.

Virginia Woolf, who was slightly older than the Basel signatories, dubbed the group, only half-mockingly, the “Neo-Pagans.” Centered around Rupert Brooke, the handsome Cambridge undergraduate poet, and his friends the four clever, beautiful Olivier sisters, the Neo-Pagans combined intellectual high-mindedness with a positively Arcadian view of nature. A good day meant writing and arguing in the morning before spending the remaining hours “singing to the birds, tumbling about in the flowers, bathing in the rivers.” Indeed, bathing in rivers while naked had emerged as the signature activity of the Neo-Pagans, who were inspired by the “Simple Life” theories of the utopian socialist Edward Carpenter.

This makes them sound faintly debauched, but the young people prided themselves on maintaining a certain sylvan decorum. While Woolf’s parallel Bloomsbury group was generally urban, introverted, promiscuous, and gay, the Neo-Pagans were outgoing, heterosexual, and celibate, liking nothing more than to lie out companionably under the stars without laying a finger on one another. There was one infamous occasion in 1911 when Bloomsbury joined the Neo-Pagans on a camping trip to Dartmoor. One of the newcomers was Lytton Strachey, who was so appalled at the suggestion that he might sleep chastely on the bare earth that he hurried back to town after a single night.

By the time May 1, 1933, actually rolled around, none of the now middle-aged Neo-Pagans appeared to have remembered their pact, let alone…


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