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 reserved a ticket for Switzerland. And yet, just a few months later, Noel Richards, the youngest of the Olivier sisters, found herself by fluke in Basel. She had not traveled to Europe that summer to tumble into rivers, sing with the birds, or embark on a secret second youth. Rather, she had been summoned from London to care for her seventy-four-year-old father, who had caught a chill while walking in the Alps and now lay acutely ill in a hospital. Noel flew with her newborn daughter to Basel, her ticket arranged at a moment’s notice not by her dull Welsh doctor husband but by her on-off Bloomsbury lover, James Strachey. In addition to keeping an expert eye on her father—Noel was a practicing physician—she was there to support her aging mother and find a suitable hotel where they could all stay while Sydney Olivier convalesced. Here, then, was an episode freighted with exactly those dreary obligations of midlife that the young Neo-Pagans had vowed to avoid.

In The Olivier Sisters, her highly accomplished first book, Sarah Watling aims to follow their lives as a way of recovering what still feel like missing aspects of twentieth-century female life. We are not in Downton Abbey territory. The Olivier sisters did not go down on the Titanic, nor were they wooed by royalty, and, since they had no brothers, they did not endure decimating personal loss during World War I, beyond the death of their great friend Rupert Brooke in 1915. Instead, they set out from a place of reasonable cultural privilege that nonetheless failed to protect them entirely from the economic and social buffetings of their times. Watling posits the Oliviers’ lives not as spectacular but as exemplary, akin to those of many educated British women in the twentieth century faced with enduring issues of how to live, who to live with, and what to do when modest birthrights of good looks and good fortune started to run down.

Margery, Brynhild, Daphne, and Noel Olivier were born between 1886 and 1892 to Sydney Olivier, an Oxford-educated colonial civil servant who eventually became a cabinet minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour government of 1924. The girls were first cousins to the actor Laurence Olivier, and you can see a certain likeness in their high cheekbones. Sydney and his wife, Margaret, were very early members of the evolutionary-socialist Fabian Society, followers of Edward Carpenter, and devotees of William Morris (Brynhild was named after the wise witch in his epic poem, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs). There was hardly a radical cause, from secularism to land reform via trade unionism, in which the Oliviers were not passionately engaged. When Sydney died in 1943, having been made Lord Olivier for his thoughtful, principled work as both governor of Jamaica and secretary of state for India, the admiring Times obituary described him as “one of the foster-parents of the Labour Party.”


Of this fat plait of good causes, it was the Utopian strand that led the young Olivier family to relocate to the Surrey countryside in 1891. Here, in the picturesque village of Limpsfield, the four little girls could grow up safe from the moral taint of urban high capitalism. With minimal interference from the grown-ups, they threw themselves into muddy walks, river swimming, and camping trips to the point where their nanny wondered aloud “if all Socialist infants are so exhausting.” An early photograph shows the little girls, aged between about five and eleven, perched on the branches of a tree in the thick wood surrounding the village. The word that best describes them is “hoydenish,” signifying something quite different from the scruffiness of the local village children. The Oliviers wear short (for the time) dresses and sturdy boots. They are disheveled but not dirty, obviously well fed and blooming with good health. The photograph appears to catch them at a moment when they have just been surprised in their woodland kingdom, yet the girls’ jaunty smiles suggest that it is the viewer, and not they, who have somehow been caught out.

Captured here is the Olivier sisters’ self-contained clannishness, a quality that would both entrance and baffle everyone with whom they came into contact through the decades. Bunny Garnett, a contemporary who had moved to Limpsfield with his publisher father and translator mother, remembered in middle age how tantalizingly elusive the Oliviers (or “Reivilos,” if you coded it backwards, which they often did) always appeared. One year, dedicating himself to finding the den he knew the girls had built somewhere deep in the woods, he failed to spot any sign of it until midwinter, when the trees were quite bare. Decades later he wrote of the incident as an illustration of the sisters’ unknowability and resistance to social convention: “Usually rather serious and always noble in looks and manners and in attitude of mind, they could be as unthinkingly cruel as savages.” Woolf, who did not meet the Oliviers until they were young adults, was struck by their “beautiful glass eyes, glazed and fixed and melancholy,” which repelled all attempts at intimacy. Inevitably, none of this bothered the Oliviers. As Noel attempted to explain later to a perplexed Brooke: “Such as us have many delightful acquaintances…but few good friends.”

The right of someone to remain unknowable despite the world’s demand for instant legibility is one of the main themes of this thoughtful book. 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: “The Olivier sisters lived. They were fascinating and complicated. But in writing this book, I [have] also invented them.” To highlight the essentially fictive nature of her practice, Watling takes care to emphasize its discontinuities and blind spots. Rather than go for a “cradle-to-grave” structure, she organizes her account around seven “moments” in the sisters’ lives, broadly akin to the seven ages of man, but adapted to the untidiness and contingency of so much female experience in the twentieth century. Rather than chapters of similar lengths, Watling often gives us “fragments” of only a couple of pages. This is to reflect the fact, she says, that “there were, of course, long periods in each of [the Oliviers’] lifetimes when nothing much happened beyond the absorbing business of everyday life.”

This does not mean, though, that Watling is willing to sacrifice the rich, enduring pleasures of biographical storytelling. She is particularly good at the comedy that ensued when left-leaning metropolitan bohemians such as the Oliviers and Garnetts descended on the highly conservative rural community of Limpsfield. Ford Madox Ford, who lived briefly in the village, observed how strange and self-important the newcomers seemed to the natives: they “wore beards, queer, useful or homespun clothes and boots…. They were Advanced.” The village boys were naturally thrilled to discover that the Misses Olivier swam naked in the village river. Sometimes the lads gawped; occasionally they threw stones. Little Bunny Garnett was startled to be told by the boy who came to sharpen the kitchen knives that he would be going to Hell because his parents were atheists. When the Boer War broke out in 1899, prompting a wave of jingoism, the Olivier girls made a point of burning an effigy of Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies, on the village common.


Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke; drawing by David Levine

As the sisters matured, it was inevitable that they would turn their sights to Cambridge. The ancient university had been accepting women for a generation, although female students were still not permitted to graduate. The colleges to which they were confined, Girton and Newnham, were, as Woolf would point out so robustly in A Room of One’s Own (1929), poor and shabby compared with the well-funded splendor of the all-male Trinity and King’s. Nonetheless, Cambridge was still the place where politically engaged, intellectually curious, bicycle-riding “New Women” could make a life for themselves that was demonstrably different from that of their grandmothers. Margery, the eldest Olivier sister, read economics at Newnham and became one of the leaders of the university’s branch of the Fabian Society. She was also a member of the Marlowe Society, a drama group recently founded by Brooke. It was out of these two loose groupings, one political, one artistic, that the Neo-Pagans emerged.

Despite their insistence on the innocence of relationships between men and women, the Neo-Pagans experienced sexual love with all the intensity you might expect of any group of strikingly attractive late adolescents. Usually it was Bryn, the second and most beautiful of the Olivier girls, with her intriguing gleaming silence, whom the young men fell for. So no one was prepared for the moment when the twenty-year-old Brooke, the Neo-Pagans’ Golden Apollo, noisily declared himself in love at first glance with fifteen-year-old Noel, the youngest Olivier girl. Though Noel might not seem like an obvious candidate for mature male attention, being dumpy, frizzy-haired, and mostly confined to her country boarding school, Brooke was adamant he had found his soul mate. “I adore you,” he wrote. “You are Noel. You are supreme.” And again: “Sometimes…I love you so much that I feel frightened at our very names.”

Equally unscripted was the fact that stolid schoolgirl Noel did not return handsome Rupert’s feelings. She would not always respond to his letters or make herself available when he swooped down to claim her attention at school or on the latest camping trip. In addition Margery, who was in loco parentis now that Sydney and Margaret Olivier were in Jamaica, advised Noel against starting a love affair while she was still so young, since marriage and motherhood posed a threat to female self-determination. Cue howls of disapproval from the male Neo-Pagans. Brooke raged against Margery for getting in the way of his desires: “I hate and despise her more each day.” His great friend Jacques Raverat, meanwhile, damned Noel as having “little sensitivity, no tenderness, no imagination.”

What seems never to have crossed either man’s mind was that Brooke’s offer was not terribly alluring. Noel was already planning a career in medicine and knew that she could not afford to be derailed at this early stage. Young as she was, she may also have been skeptical of Brooke’s desire for her, since all the signs suggested that he preferred to think of his women as woodland sprites rather that as political activists with bicycles, professional ambitions, and their own sexual preferences. Brooke was, in any case, far from exclusively attached to Noel—while he was pouring out his devotion to her he was simultaneously conducting a love affair with Ka Cox, another Newnham girl, and in time would even lay siege to Bryn Olivier. As if this weren’t enough to make a sensible girl pause, there were plenty of hints that the Great Lover was equally keen on boys.

When Noel finally made it clear that she could never match the high register of Brooke’s desire for her, the Golden Apollo went into a tailspin. Entrusted to the care of Dr. Maurice Craig, the eminent specialist in “nervous diseases,” Brooke was eventually dispatched to Cannes and then on to Germany to recover. The severity of his breakdown suggests that behind the Neo-Pagans’ strenuous performance of sexual equanimity, there was a fair amount of ambivalence and repression, not to mention full-blown hysteria. Over the next few years all the Olivier girls would respond to the ends of relationships by losing their minds. In 1915 Brooke’s death in Greece sent Noel into an unexpected slump from which she took years to emerge: “Its very difficult to decide whether or not to die,” she wrote bleakly at the time. Daphne, who had followed Margery to Newnham, was wooed and then rejected by the Oliviers’ childhood friend Bunny Garnett and for several months was “out of her wits” in a mental asylum run by the psychiatrist who had earlier treated Brooke.

And then there was Margery, who became “queerer and queerer” before being consigned to a lifetime of institutional care. Following the breakup of her engagement to her father’s personal secretary, in 1916 Margery became convinced that a mild, homosexual Cambridge mathematician called Harry Norton was madly in love with her. She was sometimes to be found walking around Bloomsbury looking for her imaginary fiancé in the dead of winter in her nightdress. Watling is heartbreakingly good on what it must have felt like to experience the terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia before there was even consensus among the psychiatric profession as to what these were. That still left the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis. Jung was duly consulted about Margery’s case, but felt unable to take her on as a patient, probably because of her volatility and incoherence. The final irony is that Margery’s lifelong asylum fees were partly paid with the money raised by selling her letters from Brooke—the man who had railed so wildly against her—to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.

Watling deftly uses the Oliviers’ lives to reanimate the kinds of female experience that tend to lie inert inside grander narratives. While historians have routinely reported that the cohort of young women who trained as medical students during the war often found it difficult to carry on their careers once men returned home from military service to flood the profession, it is hard to know what this disappointment actually felt like. But hearing how Noel, now a hospital consultant, was worried about hurting the feelings of a touchy new junior doctor who had recently served as a major at the front makes professional women’s anxiety over status and security in the new postwar order acutely real. Likewise, Watling shows how Daphne Olivier, who was instrumental in setting up the first Rudolf Steiner school in Britain, became sidelined in favor of male colleagues, including her own husband, when the history of anthroposophy came to be written.

Even dreamy Bryn, the only one of the sisters not to pursue a professional life, fell foul of the new moral conservatism of interwar Britain. In 1923 she embarked on what she assumed would be a well-mannered divorce from her husband, Hugh Popham. How terrifying it must have been to learn from her lawyer that, since she had magnanimously agreed to be the “guilty party” in order to protect Hugh’s professional standing, she was entirely at his mercy as to whether she would ever be allowed to see her three children again.

“But why should there be biographies?” Noel Oliver wailed in 1927, already dismayed at the way that details of her own and her sisters’ lives were becoming public property. It wasn’t that researchers were interested in the Oliviers per se, but they did want to know all about their friends—or one friend in particular. When Brooke died a national hero in April 1915, a month after the publication of his patriotic Petrarchan sonnet “The Soldier,” the questions started to come thick and fast. Was it true the marvelous boy had once been in love with Noel? Had he also written rapturous letters to Bryn? And what about the rumor that poor Margery’s madness was caused in part by the misery of realizing that Brooke’s initial friendship with her was based on nothing more romantic than a shared commitment to Fabian ideals?

Luckily Brooke’s literary executor, Eddie Marsh, was in thrall to Brooke’s mother, and since Mrs. Brooke loathed the Olivier sisters—“they’re shocking flirts and their manners are disgraceful”—she made sure that they did not appear anywhere in her son’s first biography, written by Marsh in 1918. In many ways this suited the sisters, for whom privacy remained the highest value. Nonetheless, it was odd to find themselves not so much relegated as erased.

But the real struggle came in 1962, when Noel, by now the only survivor apart from mad Margery, found herself pursued by Christopher Hassall, a writer determined to get to the root of Brooke’s 1912 breakdown. What unfolded subsequently was a kind of riff on Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers,” in which Noel was cast as the “subtle old witch” who refused to hand over her stock of letters and memories to the pushy publishing scoundrel. In the absence of all but the most grudging cooperation from Noel, Hassall got his revenge. In his finished text, published in 1964, he managed to hint that the cause of Brooke’s breakdown was Noel’s sexual frigidity. When the schoolgirl failed to put a stop to his flirtation with Ka Cox, the poor young man became so anguished that he collapsed in despair. “I think,” wrote Hassall privately, having met the distinguished sixty-nine-year-old retired pediatrician just twice, that “she lacks the nerve to fall in love at all.” In light of such complacent viciousness, you can see why Sarah Watling believes that the time has finally come for the Olivier sisters to get a book of their own. Not, she admits in a rueful postscript, that they would dream of thanking her for her efforts on their behalf.