Ride a cock horse
To Sarawak Cross
To see a young Ranee consumed with remorse.
She’ll have bells on her fingers
And rings through her nose,
And won’t be permitted to wear any clo’es.
– George Bernard Shaw
Most dynasties have their longueurs. For every fabulous nutter like Sissi it seems there’s a doughty, dutiful dullard, only remembered by history out of politeness.
The Brooke Dynasty, on the other hand: pure gold. Their patch was Sarawak, in the north of Borneo and now forming part of Malaysia, which English adventurer James Brooke took in 1841 as a reward for helping the Sultan of Brunei suppress an uprising. Thus the “White Rajahs” began 100-odd years of relatively benign rule distinguished by world-class levels of personal eccentricity.
And they saved the best for last: Sylvia Brooke was, as they say, A Piece of Work. She was born in England as Sylvia Brett on this day in 1885, the daughter of a viscount and younger sister to the painter who established herself among the Bloomsbury Set under the name Brett. Sylvia grew into a highly-strung child who, by her own (generally unreliable) account, attempted suicide three times. Failing, she decided instead to “live flamingly and electrify the world”.
Sylvia’s passion was writing, and as a young woman it looked like literary fame would find her before a suitable marriage partner. She was encouraged by George Bernard Shaw and Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, both of whom seem to have nursed some kind of May-December affection for her.
But it was a meeting with a neighbour, second Ranee of Sarawak Margaret Brooke, that determined her destiny. Her son Vyner, the heir apparent, fell in love with Sylvia and after a long, difficult, largely long-distance courtship, and despite the viscount’s disapproval, the pair married in 1911.
Vyner became the third White Rajah of Sarawak in 1918. Sylvia, who took to her new role with relish, was not the demure consort expected by the largely Muslim nation, combining hauteur and lewdness while shamelessly (and misleadingly) talking up the dangerous exoticism of Sarawak to outsiders. A British MP noted that “a more undignified woman it would be hard to find”.
Her three daughters inherited her bent for mischief-making, but without a male heir, it looked like succession would skip to Vyner’s nephew, an outcome Sylvia relentlessly schemed against. In the end it was all academic anyway. Shortly after the end of the Second World War (most of which he had sat out abroad) the Rajah ceded Sarawak to the British Crown.
The pair adjusted poorly to life as commoners. Sylvia made it sound like the curtain had come down on a particularly long run of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: “Perhaps I had enjoyed more than I should have, seeing everyone rise to their feet as I entered a room, and the traffic drawing to one side as I went by.” She continued to write and maintained that she kept herself slim by “cooking so badly that most of it is thrown down the lavatory”.
Vyner stayed in London and had numerous affairs with much younger women while Sylvia spent more and more time in Barbados, “another lonely old woman…drowning her identity in nightclubs”. After Vyner died in 1963, Sylvia concentrated on two volumes of memoirs, which at last brought her modest success as a writer. She had embellished wildly, a strange way to approach a life which was extraordinary enough without amendment, but her vanity required that less distinguished episodes remained veiled.
Sylvia Brooke, consort of the last White Rajah of Sarawak, died in 1971. Only in 2007, with the publication of the excellent Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters, by Philip Eade (another Telegraph obituaries desk alumnus) did the unvarnished truth emerge. But despite (or because of) her petty feuds, pretensions and occasionally crass behaviour, I can’t think of a 2oth century crowned head I would rather have been seated next to at a dinner party.