Sarawak job

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.

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10 comments

  1. Pingback: Places: The Astana « Strange Flowers

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  3. Matthew Wilde

    Hello – and thank you for a fascinating website, which my searches have led me to on more than one occasion! I have just read your page on Sylvia Brooke: I am currently reading Eade’s biography of her, ‘Queen of the Headhunters’ (and planning to read Lees-Milne’s biography of her father next, ‘The Enigmatic Edwardian’). This message is about Gladys Milton Palmer.

    My interest in Sarawak started through genealogy – when trying to help an American cousin document his family’s fascinating stories. His maternal grandmother was Tamara de Frescheville (1909 St Petersburg, Russia – 2004 California, USA). Tamara and her family met Gladys, on a ship from Egypt to India during World War Two. Gladys was the heir to the Huntley & Palmer biscuit company, and seems to have led a fairly notorious lifestyle – though without anyone having written her biography, as far as I can tell. She married Bertram Brooke – and thus became Sylvia’s sister-in-law – but separated from him, and lived in Paris and (at the end of her life) Colombo. My cousin tells me that Gladys appointed Tamara as her lady-in-waiting.

    Gladys converted to Islam – the ceremony taking place in the air – and was then known as Her Highness Khair un-nisa binti ‘Abdu’llah, Dayang Muda of Sarawak – the latter title being the equivalent of ‘Princess of Wales’ (ie the wife of the heir to the throne) here in the UK.

    Have you come across the ‘Princess Gladys’?

    • Thank you for your comment. Your enquiry took me back to the Eade biography as well, and I’m surprised the description of Gladys didn’t leap out at me before. Her spiritual journey, the fact that she was heir to a biscuit fortune, her mastery of mandoline and triangle, her habit of sleeping on pillows filled with straw…there’s a lot to get your teeth into. And apparently she (like Sylvia) wrote an autobiography! Which – praise Yahweh – is available from my regular library. So while I can’t shed any more light on her, please accept my thanks for bringing her to my attention.

      • Was she related to Eva Palmer? Eva’s life is relatively well documented, involved as she was with Raymond Duncan (brother to Isadora), and writer Natalie Barney. Perhaps some lateral investigating would reveal more about Gladys?

      • Now THAT would be something! But it appears not.

      • ‘clouds – are you psychic? Do you have…powers? I very briefly leafed through La Gladys’s memoirs today, and she talks about her friendship with Isadora and Raymond Duncan, although no mention of Eva. I also briefly noted that she (Gladys) attended a dinner party with both Proust and Montesquiou, and that she called Oscar Wilde “Uncle Oscar”. Can’t wait to get back to it. Damn you gainful employment! *shakes fist*

      • I just retain info about turn of the last century biscuit heiresses extremely well.

  4. Matthew Wilde

    I have read that Gladys was not a very clear or reliable narrator of her memoirs (‘Relations and Complications’), and that they were ghost-written by Kay Boyle and John Glassco. According to my cousin, Gladys once exited an aeroplane in the nude; and was asked by the UK government not to come to England again. Please email me, if you find any documented facts about Gladys – and keep up the good work on the website!

    • Ghost-written by Kay Boyle and John Glassco?! Were I not up to my eye sockets in work today I would be on my way to the library NOW. Definitely a woman that demands further investigation.

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