British journalist Eade debuts with a well-written biography of Sylvia Brett Brooke (1885-1971), a tale that doubles as a history of the last days of the Raj.
The story takes place in Sarawak, a kingdom on the island of Borneo ruled from 1842 on by the autocratic Brooke family. The eponymous headhunters were the Dyaks, a ferocious and warlike people whose traditional practices the Brookes tried to eliminate, with mixed results. Sylvia’s husband, Vyner Brooke, became the third White Rajah of Sarawak in 1917, and she dubbed herself “queen of the headhunters” in her fanciful memoirs. Although an ineffective, irresponsible, disordered, hedonistic and largely absentee ruler, Vyner was vaguely devoted to providing for the welfare of his people, who loved him and celebrated whenever he and Sylvia returned to Sarawak. They rarely spent more than a few months per year in Sarawak, mostly to avoid the English winters. At home and abroad, Sylvia wrote novels, painted and night-clubbed; the author refers throughout to her unrestrained behavior and stories that “can’t be put on paper” but offers few specific examples. The ones he does provide—painting portraits of prostitutes, too much drinking and dancing—seem hardly excessive by the admittedly extravagant standards of colonial rulers. The Brookes were exceptional in their spending habits, however, leading a very high life (though rarely together) when back in England. The appearance of Machiavellian Gerard MacBryan as Vyner’s private secretary in the late 1920s launched years of plots about the succession; Sylvia was determined that her daughters not be excluded by primogeniture, but the Japanese settled the question by invading in 1941. Vyner and Sylvia were, of course, elsewhere at the time.
Vivid portraits of some fairly crazy Brits and a way of life that deserved to be doomed.