If the Bloomsberries lived in squares and loved in triangles, the Olivier sisters lived in tents and loved in Venn diagrams. Take Noel Olivier, the youngest of the four and the star of Sarah Watling’s riveting book. David ‘Bunny’ Garnett fell in love with Noel when she was five and he was six, Rupert Brooke fell in love with her when she was fifteen and he was twenty. Brooke, who was at Cambridge with Margery Olivier, the oldest of the sisters, was also in love with Brynhild, the second sister, and with another undergraduate called Ka Cox, who was herself in love with Jacques Raverat and Henry Lamb, who was in love with Lytton Strachey. Meanwhile, Strachey’s younger brother, James, who had initially been in love with Brooke, also fell in love with Noel (why, asked Brooke, would James sacrifice their friendship for an ‘off chance at a cunt’?). Daphne, the third Olivier sister, was in love with Bunny Garnett and Margery fantasised that Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother, was in love with her, but he was actually in love, of course, with Noel. It’s little wonder that Margery lost her mind and that Noel, by the time she was nineteen and studying medicine at UCL, had encased herself inside her carapace like a lady crab.
The Olivier sisters were the feral daughters of Sydney and Margaret Olivier, leading lights of the Fabian Society. Laurence Olivier was a cousin on their father’s side, Siegfried Sassoon a cousin on their mother’s side; their aunt, Agatha Thornycroft, was the model for the titular character of Tess of the