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James Roose-Evans on the works of Edith Olivier

Such Devoted Sisters

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Edith Olivier, born in 1872, was one of ten children whose father was for nearly fifty years Rector of Wilton, on the estate of the Earls of Pembroke, outside Salisbury. After the death of their parents, Edith and her beloved sister Mildred were invited by the Earl of Pembroke to live, at a peppercorn rent, in the old Dairy House (which Edith renamed as the Daye House) in Wilton Park. When, in 1924, Mildred died of cancer, Edith was desolate. She wrote in her journal, ‘I cannot realize that I am going to be lonely always.’ Being a devout Anglican – each day of her life she went to an early Eucharist – she considered entering a convent, but at 52 she was told by the Mother Superior not only that she was too old but also that she was ‘too rebellious of mind’.

The following year changed everything for Edith. She was invited by her neighbour, 19-year-old Stephen Tennant, the beautiful son of Lord Glenconner, to join him and a fellow student from the Slade School of Art on holiday in Italy, and it was then that she met the brilliant young artist Rex Whistler. He was to become like a much-loved son to Edith, and would illustrate eleven of the books she was to write.

Soon a whole galaxy of writers, artists and mu

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Edith Olivier, born in 1872, was one of ten children whose father was for nearly fifty years Rector of Wilton, on the estate of the Earls of Pembroke, outside Salisbury. After the death of their parents, Edith and her beloved sister Mildred were invited by the Earl of Pembroke to live, at a peppercorn rent, in the old Dairy House (which Edith renamed as the Daye House) in Wilton Park. When, in 1924, Mildred died of cancer, Edith was desolate. She wrote in her journal, ‘I cannot realize that I am going to be lonely always.’ Being a devout Anglican – each day of her life she went to an early Eucharist – she considered entering a convent, but at 52 she was told by the Mother Superior not only that she was too old but also that she was ‘too rebellious of mind’.

The following year changed everything for Edith. She was invited by her neighbour, 19-year-old Stephen Tennant, the beautiful son of Lord Glenconner, to join him and a fellow student from the Slade School of Art on holiday in Italy, and it was then that she met the brilliant young artist Rex Whistler. He was to become like a much-loved son to Edith, and would illustrate eleven of the books she was to write. Soon a whole galaxy of writers, artists and musicians began to gather at the Daye House for meals, weekends or even longer visits, including Siegfried Sassoon – who fell passionately in love with Stephen Tennant – William Walton, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Lord David Cecil, Oliver Messel, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton, who eventually leased his first home nearby at Ashcombe. And, of course, Rex. As Beaton wrote later:

Of the neighbours on whom I grew to rely more and more, Edith Olivier was perhaps the most cherished. It was she who, by bringing me into contact with so many new friends, was largely responsible for my having blossomed into a happy adult life; and it was she who continued, without effort on her part, to discover young people of promise and bring them into her house. So many of the young writers, painters and poets came to her with problems about their life and work.

Edith was liberated by these young people. In her journal she describes Cecil Beaton arriving one weekend in his two-seater car with Rex Whistler, Oliver Messel and piles of luggage and furniture. ‘I climbed in on to anyone’s knees and we hurtled along through blinding rain and cruel wind, skidding round corners. Cecil approaches all corners at sixty miles an hour and then jams on the brakes! They are like schoolboys, rushing after each other, and fighting and shouting till all hours of the night!’ Then, one evening, about eighteen months after the death of her sister, unable to sleep, she began to write what was to be her first and perhaps most memorable book, The Love Child. Long after it was published and she had written several more, she was asked why she had not written anything earlier. She replied that since childhood she and her sister had been the closest of companions: ‘We often used to make up stories to entertain one another. We would tell each other that one day we would write books, but we found each other’s companionship so completely satisfying that we sought no wider public.’ On 10 February 1927 she recorded in her journal: ‘A great day! Got a letter from the publisher Martin Secker accepting The Love Child and saying he read it “with very great pleasure” and will publish it at once. He only received it on Saturday and wrote this letter on Tuesday. I simply can’t believe it.’ Tuesday. I simply can’t believe it.’ The novel, born out of a sudden and intense imaginative energy, opens with its central character, Agatha Bodenham, left on the death of her mother in solitary occupation of a large house. She recalls how, as a child, she had created an imaginary companion called Clarissa with whom she had shared everything. But when she was 14 her governess, finding out about Clarissa, had put a stop to such make-believe games. Yet Clarissa had meant more to Agatha than any real person so that, in losing her, she had also lost part of herself. Now however, in her loneliness, she begins to talk to the imaginary Clarissa, who eventually becomes visible to Agatha, though to no one else. More and more Clarissa inhabits Agatha’s life as the two become totally dependent on one another. Suddenly, however, Clarissa becomes visible to other people and Agatha is forced to account for her by saying that she is a child whom she has decided to adopt. But then reality breaks in when the local policeman calls with a form requiring Agatha to state Clarissa’s full name, parentage and date of birth. If she fails to do this, the child will be taken from her. Quite unprepared, Agatha finds herself saying from somewhere deep inside her, ‘She is a love child. She is my own.’ This, psychologically, is the truth, but no sooner has she said it than she realizes everyone will now look on Clarissa as her illegitimate child. By now Clarissa is 17 and has made friends with the Rector’s daughter, Kitty, who introduces Clarissa to her cousin David. He falls in love with Clarissa, and Agatha, like Phaedra, is consumed by jealousy. The way in which Edith Olivier handles the tragic climax of her story is both brilliant and haunting. At the moment Clarissa vanishes, Agatha cries out to David, ‘She was mine, mine only! I gave her life to her and you have taken it away!’ As Lord David Cecil wrote in his introduction to a Virago reissue, ‘It is Miss Olivier’s triumph that the balance between fantasy and reality never wavers for an instant.’ The book is, above all, a study of loneliness, and the power of psychological projection, for it is not only children who create imaginary companions. Edith wrote many books, though none became a best-seller and she was always hard up. Where she most comes into her own is when she writes out of herself, as in The Love Child and in her autobiography Without Knowing Mr Walkley, published by Faber in 1938, which focuses on the places and people among whom she spent her life. The latter contains a memorable passage describing the occasion when Salisbury Cathedral was flooded:

All through the night the water had been silently coming up through the floor, and by morning the nave was a large still pool, from which the pillars rose and into which they threw their reflections. The water did not reach the choir and services were held there throughout the flood, the congregation reaching them upon perilous bridges made of planks.

For sixty years Edith kept a journal, part of which, covering the period from 1924 to her death in 1948, has been edited by her greatgreat- niece Penelope Middelboe. It is a wonderful record, written with a total lack of inhibition and full of rare insights into the characters of Siegfried Sassoon, Ottoline Morrell and others. On a visit to Renishaw to stay with the Sitwells she writes: There is this feeling of mystery and madness. They say the house is haunted, but the ghosts are the living people. Every evening Lord Berners and Willy Walton play violent impromptu duets on the piano in order to drive Sir George Sitwell to bed. When they succeed, we sit round and Osbert tells many amusing and cruel stories about Lady Colefax and the other people he dislikes. With the outbreak of war Edith was put in charge of housing the evacuees who flooded into the area. Then, in July 1944, she learned that her beloved Rex had been killed in France. In her journal she wrote, ‘To try to speak makes me cry. O Rex, Rex! . . . Everyone seems to know what he and I are to each other.’ She was 72. She died four years later. As Cecil Beaton wrote, ‘There was honour, indeed, for what she had done, but there was love for what she was and is. We were there because we loved her. We owe her so much.’ As Edith’s coffin was lowered into the grave, a pigeon flew straight up into the sky with a great swish of wings. Cecil Beaton and David Herbert both gasped and said simultaneously, ‘Edith soaring through tracks unknown!’ – a phrase she herself had often used when speaking of death.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © James Roose-Evans 2012


About the contributor

James Roose-Evans is a theatre director, and founder of the Hampstead Theatre. His most recent books include a memoir, Opening Doors and Windows, and Finding Silence: 52 Meditations for Daily Living. He has just adapted for the stage Philippe Besson’s novella En L’Absence des Hommes, newly translated by Carl Miller.

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