Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom

Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom

by Philip Eade

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Sylvia Brooke was one of the more exotic and outrageous figures of the twentieth century. Otherwise known as the Ranee of Sarawak, she was the wife of Sir Vyner Brooke, the last White Rajah, whose family had ruled the jungle kingdom of Sarawak on Borneo for three generations. They had their own flag, revenue, postage stamps, and money, as well as the power of life and death over their subjects—Malays, Chinese, and headhunting Dyak tribesmen. The regime of the White Rajahs was long romanticized, but by the 1930s, their power and prestige were crumbling. At the center of Sarawak's decadence was Sylvia, author of eleven books, mother to three daughters, an extravagantly dressed socialite whose behavior often offended and usually defied social convention. Sylvia did her best to manipulate the line of succession in favor of her daughters, but by 1946, Japan had invaded Sarawak, sending Sylvia and her husband into exile, ending one of the more unusual chapters of British colonial rule.

Philip Eade's Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters is a fascinating look at the wild and debauched world of a woman desperate to maintain the last remains of power in an exotic and dying kingdom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250045904
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 64,705
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Philip Eade was born in Shropshire and graduated from Bristol University. He was briefly a criminal lawyer before turning to journalism. For several years he was on the staff of the Daily Telegraph as a writer and editor on its obituaries page. He lives in London and the Welsh Marches. Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters is his first book.
PHILIP EADE has worked as a criminal barrister, English teacher, and journalist. His first book, Sylvia Queen of the Headhunters, was a runner-up for the Biographers' Club Prize; his second, Prince Philip, became a Sunday Times bestseller. He lives in London.

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Sylvia's elder sister Dorothy – later better known as the Bloomsbury painter 'Brett' and the third in D. H. Lawrence's ménage à trois in New Mexico – recalled being wheeled in a double pram with Syv by their nurse in Hyde Park one day and being told to wave to their father, Reginald Brett, who was out walking with a friend. Reggie wondered to his friend why those children were waving at him. 'Perhaps they are yours,' the friend ventured.

Reggie Brett, who succeeded his father as the second Viscount Esher in 1899 when Sylvia was fourteen, was a fabulously well-connected man, the confidant of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, and of every prime minister from Rosebery to Baldwin. Yet he was a remote and often cruelly insensitive father to his children when they were young, apart from his younger son Maurice, whom he worshipped. Girls, in particular, were 'tiresome things until they are grown up', as far as Reggie was concerned. For her part, as the youngest child, Sylvia felt that 'nobody loved me and that I was the cuckoo in this illustrious family nest. It even seemed to me that my father's voice altered when he spoke to me, as if he were forcing his words through cubes of ice.'

For as long as Sylvia could remember, a steady stream of luminaries trooped through her family home, Orchard Lea, in Windsor Forest. This dark, rambling house was completed a few months after Sylvia was born, in 1885, to Reggie's hideous if fashionable 'Tudorbethan' design, with lead casements and low oaken ceilings. Lord Rosebery learned to ride a bicycle in the garden there during his time as Prime Minister; Kaiser Wilhelm II admired the house so much that he ordered similar ones to be built in Germany; and Queen Victoria came so often that she had her own special entrance built – it was also much used by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. 'It was a curious life for children,' Sylvia recalled. 'The house was almost continually filled with famous people ... At meal times we would sit dumbly listening to conversation of such a brilliant order that we became imbued with a kind of dull despair, and inferiority complex ... I would sit there like an anaemic suet pudding, suffering the tortures of stupidity.' She also remembered spending 'a great deal of my childhood crying my eyes out in a ten-foot by twelve ivy-papered lavatory at the top of the house'.

Starved of parental love (her mother, by Sylvia's account, was usually too occupied with her 'wifely adoration' to give the children her full attention), young Syv sought it instead from her genial grandfather, the first Viscount Esher. (William) Baliol Brett, as he was before his elevation to the peerage in 1885, was a curate's son, descended, according to family legend, from William Brett, who built Brett's Hall in the County of Warwick during the reign of Henry III. He was a useful amateur boxer and captained the 'lightning' Cambridge crew that beat Oxford by a dozen lengths or more in 1839. Irresponsible and fun-loving as a young man, he subsequently knuckled down and excelled at the Bar, thanks to a remarkable memory and determination, driven to a great extent by his adoration of his French wife, Eugénie, who was forever urging him to forge ahead in his career. Elected Conservative MP for Helston in Cornwall in 1866, he was Solicitor-General in Disraeli's brief administration of 1868, and in 1876 made a Lord Justice of Appeal. Seven years later he was appointed Master of the Rolls, the second most senior post in the judiciary of England and Wales, and on his retirement in 1897 he was created a viscount, a dignity not given to any judge, Lord Chancellors excepted, for mere legal conduct, since the time of Sir Edward Coke, the great seventeenth-century judge. Baliol's last letter to his wife, written from the Lake District while on circuit, is a moving testament to his steadfast devotion:

The lake and its hills were lovely as ever. This morning when I was going for my before-breakfast walk, the ground and the hills were covered with snow – still with the woods and hedges marking dark patches and lines, and the hills of every shape, and the lake dark in the midst of it all: it was only a new beauty in these dear lakes. I thought of nothing but you my loved and lovely one, and how happy and most happy I was there with you in the pride of your youth and beauty: and I felt again all the deep gratitude I ever feel and felt for you for having given them both to me with a loving kindness that seems to have no bounds. How gloriously happy were those days, when all was love and hope! Now, with me, all is the same love, but instead of hope is the feeling of the present. There is now in life, to me, a sense of sadness! It is I suppose, that I can no longer hope anything in myself; I know myself for what I am. For you, my love and my enchantress, you are my only hope, and my only real happiness. If I see you bright and happy, it is as Heaven; if I see you otherwise, the light is out of the sky.

As a young girl Sylvia would sit on her grandfather's knee 'stroking the snow-white hair that grew like a soft halo around his head' and implore him to marry her. 'What about your grandmother?' he would ask. 'Don't you think we had better ask her first?' But Sylvia was afraid of her grandmother, and told him that this had better be a secret between the two of them. Though by then a severe old lady in a partial brown wig, invariably slightly askew, Eugénie Brett had once featured in the popular annual Book of Beauty (1848), her then handsome features rendered by Count d' Orsay, the lover of the book's editor Lady Blessington. Eugénie's mother Fanny (née Kreilssamner) claimed to have been the widow of Louis Mayer, a fellow Alsatian whom she had followed to Waterloo in 1815 with her one-year-old daughter. Widowed during the battle, she subsequently married Colonel John Gurwood, a veteran of the Peninsular War, who had made a name for himself by capturing the governor of Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington awarded him the French governor's sword for this feat, but Gurwood spent his later life paranoid that others were questioning the true extent of his heroism. Severely wounded at Waterloo, he became the Duke's private secretary and was largely occupied editing his despatches until he cut his own throat on Christmas Day 1845.

Family legend had it that Fanny was a vivandière and that Eugénie had been born on the field of Waterloo. Doubtful about Fanny's past, the scrupulous Gurwood had refused to let her near the Duke or other important English friends and made her stay behind in their hotel while he went into society. Instead she and Eugénie drifted into the more bohemian set centred on Gore House, where Lady Blessington and Count d'Orsay held court to an exotic assortment of émigré writers and artists. In the early years of their marriage, Gurwood had also required that Fanny leave the young Eugénie behind in Paris, thereby inviting gossip about the girl's legitimacy (some whispered that her father was Napoleon). One consequence of this was that Eugénie's admirers tended to want her as their mistress but not their wife. By the time Baliol Brett declared himself, she was nearing thirty; yet even then, busy as she was with attending the London and Paris seasons, she made him wait until he was earning enough from his briefs to support her. They married after an engagement lasting eight years and in 1852, while living in Kensington, she gave birth to their first child, Reginald Baliol, Sylvia's father.

Young Reggie spent his early life between London and Paris, and, in his memoir Cloud-capp'd Towers, he later recalled: 'As a child, in a poplin frock, I had been seated on the lap of a wizened old man who had once played the violin before Marie Antoinette. Later in my great-aunt's [Fanny Kreilssamner's sister Isabelle] house, I had been presented to a stout, dark-skinned man with masses of grizzled hair, an enormous hat held curiously between his knees. It was Alexander Dumas [whose mistress his great-aunt had been] ...' Later still he had been kindly treated by the venerable Comte de Flahault, 'who, as Napoleon's aide-de-camp, had accompanied the Emperor home from Moscow, and ridden that tragic ride alongside his master away from the field of Waterloo'. Inevitably, perhaps, the boy became keen on history. He slept with one of the brown volumes of Southey's Nelson under his pillow, and before the age of twelve had read all of Hume's History of England, and all bar one of the Waverley novels.

From Cheam, Reggie was sent to Eton, where he soon came under the spell of William Johnson, a famously short-sighted and absent-minded master who was said to wear three pairs of spectacles, one on top of the other, and was once observed, so the story goes, hurrying down Windsor Hill, grabbing at a hen in the belief that it was his hat. 'Tute', as the boys called Johnson, was nonetheless a brilliant scholar – he was a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge – and an accomplished poet, best known as the author of 'They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead', translated from Callimachus, and much anthologised. He also wrote the Eton Boating Song, and was among the finest teachers in the history of the school, albeit with a notorious propensity towards favouritism. He steeped his disciples in the Greek and Latin classics and modern literature he approved of, and taught them the complementary ideals of romantic bisexual love and high-minded service to Empire. He based his ethical teachings on the classical Greek philosophers, but how far Johnson himself stuck to the Socratic ideal of restraint from passionate physical acts is unclear; he eventually resigned from Eton under a cloud in 1872, two years after Reggie had left the school, and changed his name by deed poll to Cory (that of his grandmother), saying it would save time in writing.

Johnson held Reggie Brett in the highest regard: 'I have loved other Eton boys,' he wrote to him in 1869, 'but none so great as he, so devoted to the public good, so exalted above me.' At the age of sixteen, when he first came to Johnson's notice, Reggie had received a letter from his tutor counselling him to 'be unworldly; don't worship celebrities, like simple people, honest people'. Some time later there was frank jealousy over 'my sweet Elliot', as Johnson referred to the future Sir Francis Elliot, GCVO, and Minister to Athens: 'I envy you being kissed by him,' Johnson wrote to Reggie, 'If I were dying like Nelson I would ask him to kiss me. I kissed his dear foot last Tuesday on the grass of Ankerwyke.'

For Reggie, though, Elliot was a dalliance. He would have deeper and longer lasting love affairs at school, most profoundly with Charles 'Chat' Williamson, a lifelong friend, a frequent and often long-term guest at Orchard Lea, and an adored confidant of Sylvia. Johnson predicted to Reggie in 1869: 'Some day, not long hence, you will be steeped in love for a woman as not to comprehend the old affection for boys.' Yet while he did go on to marry, and very happily, Reggie never ceased to indulge in intimate liaisons with (usually younger) members of his own sex.

His busy love life did not prevent him from passing the entrance examination for Trinity College, Cambridge, but leaving Eton was a terrible wrench, as his grandson, Lionel Brett, later explained: 'Floating in a dodger on the silent Thames then at the height of its elmy beauty, friendships were formed which were to last a political lifetime ... To have to leave this hedonist's paradise, even for Cambridge, was heart-rending for my grandfather. Years later, the recollection reduced him to tears. It seemed a threat to his private life and created a distaste for the public arena that was to be his best-known characteristic.'

Another characteristic of Reggie Brett's was the powerful appeal he held for older women. While at Cambridge, he was taken up by Lady Ripon, the mother of his friend Olly de Grey, and he often stayed with her and her husband, the former Viceroy of India. A rich semi-invalid, Lady Ripon shared her husband's radical Whig views and their combined influence persuaded Reggie to reject his father's Toryism and eventually throw in his lot with the Liberals. Through the Ripons, Reggie also came to know Sir William Harcourt (who also happened to be a friend of his father's), who was then Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge and later served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Gladstone. Constantly at Harcourt's side was his son Lewis, 'Loulou', an ultimately creepy figure whose mother had died when he was born. Eleven years Reggie's junior and only nine when they first met, Loulou became one of his dearest friends; as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he would also be a potentially useful ally for Sylvia and her husband in relation to Sarawak. However, he became more widely known as a lustful pest to adolescent boys and girls, including on several occasions Sylvia's sister Doll.

William Harcourt lent Reggie rooms at Nevile Court during his time at Trinity, and later conspired with Lady Ripon to usher him into politics in 1878 as private secretary to Lord Hartington (later the eighth Duke of Devonshire), then leader of the Liberal opposition, thus launching him on his remarkable career. Though he consistently turned down jobs that brought responsibility, Reggie was an extraordinarily influential manipulator behind the scenes in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. His love of scheming, in his case usually for the good, certainly seemed to rub off on his daughter Sylvia, if not his diplomatic finesse.

'Who is Lord Esher?' his friend W. T. Stead asked in 1910. 'Something bizarre, inexplicable, abnormal, something that does not fit in with our notions. He is a man of original genius who has carved out a unique place for himself in the world of affairs, and who in doing so has discarded almost all the usual steps and stairs by which in this country men ascend to the highest positions. He runs after nothing, but all things seem to run after him.' Esher's guiding theme, according to his grandson, was 'that as against decadent France and isolationist America only the British Empire could save the liberal values of the West from "Prussianism" '. As early as 1906 he saw the 'certainty' that Britain would have to fight Germany, and while in the popular mind he is most associated with having invented the modern jubilee and coronation, his more important achievement was the Defence reorganisation of 1904, which abolished the Commander-in-Chief, set up the Committee of Imperial Defence (of which he became a permanent member) created the Army Council and thus 'solved the vexed problem of dual civilian and professional control'. In 1909, following the success of his Territorial Army recruiting drive, Edward VII wrote to him: 'You are a wonderful man; everything you touch succeeds.' When, during the First World War, the new machinery was put to the test, Esher was in Paris acting not only as the political adviser to Kitchener and Haig but also as the confidant of the French General Staff, the only effective liaison between the two Allied governments.

Before reaching these heights, however, the young Reggie Brett had been, in his father's eyes at least, a wastrel. For four years after coming down from Cambridge he had drifted about the grand houses of England and Scotland (his parents' choice of school had paid off in this respect at least) without any apparent inclination to take up a profession. During this time he shared lodgings with his friend, the novelist Julian Sturgis, at Brayfield on the Thames. The house belonged to Sturgis's American cousin Elizabeth Van de Weyer, the only surviving daughter of Joshua Bates, the American partner of Baring's Bank, and the widow of Sylvain Van de Weyer, who had been the principal founder of the Belgian monarchy and later the Belgian Minister at the Court of St James. From time to time Reggie would go with Sturgis to play tennis and dine with their landlady, who lived nearby in a vast Tudor-Gothic mansion called New Lodge, which had been built by her father as a wedding present on land granted to them by Queen Victoria. It was there that Reggie first set eyes on the youngest of the Van de Weyer daughters, Nellie, then aged thirteen. By the summer of 1878 he was telling friends that he and Nellie had an arrangement to marry and, although she was still only seventeen at the time, it was an arrangement that neither of them would ever repent.

According to Lionel Brett, this mousey girl was 'intelligent enough never to bore him, to defer to his own intelligence, and to know that all her life she would play Second Fiddle'. And Reggie's biographer James Lees-Milne noted that, despite her youth, Nellie was sufficiently intuitive to know what she was letting herself in for: 'Mr Brett sends word that I shake hands in a most unbecoming fashion,' she wrote in her diary in 1875 soon after their first meeting.


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Copyright © 2007 Philip Eade.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Family Tree,
Author's Note,
Select Bibliography,
Also by Philip Eade,

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