Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom by Philip Eade - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Tropical Fever

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

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Weidenfeld & Nicolson 362pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

Sylvia Brooke, the third Ranee of Sarawak, was mad, bad, and dangerous to know: a liar, racist, destructive mother, procurer and vetter of her husband's women, a cock-tease self-styled as 'frigid’ – in short, awful.

But if anyone deserves posthumous forgiveness, it is Sylvia Brooke. Consider her father, Reggie Brett. Seduced at Eton and himself a seducer of boys, he was in love with his own son. After a three-year romance with another Eton boy (Reggie was already a husband and father) he began writing letters, eventually thirty-five volumes of them bound in red leather, to his son, Maurice: ‘Still, I had seen you, Molly. Will you remember, years hence, how passionately you were beloved; with a real romantic passion which someday you may feel for someone else.’

Born in 1885, Sylvia described herself as ‘so ugly. And they kept telling me so’; she was like ‘an anaemic suet pudding’. Podgy, awkward, lonely, and suicidal as a child, Sylvia proposed to much older men, including G B Shaw and J M Barrie, who gently but flirtatiously turned her down. The morning after her wedding to Vyner Brooke, the third Rajah of Sarawak, ‘he looked at her, pulled a funny face and muttered

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