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THE EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF SYLVIA BROOKE THE LAST WHITE RULER OF THE JUNGLE KINGDOM OF BORNEOSylvia Brooke was one of the exotic and outrageous figures of the twentieth century Otherwise known as the Ranee of Sarawak she was the wife of Sir Vyner Brooke the last White Rajah whose family had ruled the jungle kingdom of Sarawak on Borneo for three generations They had their own flag revenue postage stamps and money as well as the power of life and death over their subjects—Malays Chinese and headhunting Dyak tribesmen The regime of the White Rajahs was long romanticized but by the 1930s their power and prestige were crumbling At the center of Sarawak's decadence was Sylvia author of eleven books mother to three daughters an extravagantly dressed socialite whose behavior often offended and usually defied social convention Sylvia did her best to manipulate the line of succession in favor of her daughters but by 1946 Japan had invaded Sarawak sending Sylvia and her husband into exile ending one of the unusual chapters of British colonial rulePhilip Eade's Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters is a fascinating look at the wild and debauched world of a woman desperate to maintain the last remains of power in an exotic and dying kingdom

10 thoughts on “Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters

  1. says:

    UNFINISHED at p 164This book is hyped up SO MUCH on its back cover with raves like 'jaw dropping' 'reads like a thriller' 'juicily entertaining' 'wonderfully written' and I would very much like to know what book these people were reading as it simply can't have been the one I was reading It's just not possible that those people journalists for respected publications mostly except one inexplicable comment from Joanna Lumley which seems to be a recurring theme on Eade's book covers read this book and actually felt impassioned enough to write those phrasesI gave up on this book a long time ago but since I do so hate to stop halfway through I kept my bookmark in it and thought perhaps one day I'll pick it up again and it will have gotten betterNopeSo today I officially give up on this incredibly boring book with the hilariously overstated praise on the backWhat galls me the most is the fact that I mainly picked it up because the Times compared it to White Mischief in terms of its scandalous content and it looked like it might be similar to The Bolter There might have been some scandal after page 164 but getting there was such hard work that it certainly wasn't worth trudging on On the face of it this story ought to be fascinating Eade's real problem is that he obviously did so much research for it he couldn't decide what to leave out and what to put in Long in depth asides about irrelevant characters whole chapters devoted to stories that go nowhere and don't affect the outcome of Sylvia's life these things make the book unreadable I do not care about a family acuaintance who may or may not have initiated Sylvia's sister into the mysteries of sex at a young age and the subseuent effects it had on said sister's life nor do I care about when how and where he died especially if the telling of it interrupts Sylvia's actual story I do not care about the intricacies of her father's life at court I do not care about the myriad of ways in which they may have been deceived in the man who was their downfall on Sarawak I do however care about the actual feelings and opinions of these people the one thing which is in short supplySimply put the book was badly written There was no excitement or intrigue there was intermittent and incoherent hinting at a scandal that never materialised and the author has no apparent opinion on any of the strange characters and behaviours about which he is writing This is the real kicker The author has to take a position He can't just enumerate the facts and leave the rest to fate He must have a voice an opinion a slant to give to the events This is what writing history is all about especially popular history that is intended to be read like a novel For me the centre of the story is the comic yet poignant scenario of the White Rajahs of Sarawak Eade mentions several times that popular opinion at the time found it just as comical and odd but he never delves deep enough into the absurdity and the humanity of it to really engage the reader with the situation and therefore the entire story is based on a premise that we don't really care about

  2. says:

    Find this and other reviews at 've a confession to make folks As much as I hate to admit it I had no idea who Sylvia Brooke was prior to picking up Philip Eade's biography and to be entirely honest I couldn't've found Sarawak on a map if my life depended on it I knew nothing about this volume except that it sounded interesting Flying blind I had no idea what to expect in terms of subject matter and was pleasantly surprised by the colorful eccentricities of Sylvia her friends and relations Eade's depiction of her dysfunctional home life unconventional lifestyle and colorful personality illuminate much of her character and make a lasting impression on the reader That said I found Eade's writing difficult to appreciate The material is entertaining but his prose is both dry and plodding The most engaging passages are uotes lifted directly from family journals andor correspondence a fact which made the book uite difficult to get lost in I was also irritated by Eade's tendency to recap every detail of his extensive research as his inability to streamline his findings made navigating the text rather tediousWhen all is said and done Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters proves an interesting biography but the format and style fail to deliver the engaging and richly provocative story its cover suggests Not a waste of time but not any way essential

  3. says:

    “Sylvia Brooke was one of the exotic and outrageous figures of the twentieth century an extravagantly dressed socialite whose behaviour often offended and usually defied social convention Sylvia did her best to manipulate the line of succession a fascinating look at the wild and debauched world of a woman desperate to maintain the last remains of power in an exotic and dying kingdom” Does this sound like an exciting biography to you? It did to me when I read this blurb of a book I saw was being newly released on Kindle this new year It’s a pity that the life of the woman described within in no way resembles this thrilling and provocative back matterThe childhood and young adulthood of both Sylvia and her husband – the future Rajah of Sarawak – paint the picture of two shy and socially awkward individuals who’d given up on finding love and indeed seemed unlikely ever to do so Somehow they married each other after a lot of false starts but whilst they initially seem to have been in love this uickly fizzles into a companionable commitment The Rajah has his affairs and so too does Sylvia – but this is not as scandalous as it sounds It was an arrangement that both accepted without fuss and their marriage was never in doubt On Sylvia’s side at least the affairs may have been little than emotional ones as she expressed a repugnance for sex at one point so too did the Rajah but this doesn’t seem to have stopped him in his extra marital liaisons The Brooke Rajahs of Sarawak – who were of English descent – were far from fabulously wealthy Eastern potentates and the book is at pains to emphasise how meagre their finances were The ‘palace’ was modest and poorly decorated and the society in the capital especially for the new Ranee was rather dull owing to the separation of men’s and women’s clubs and the very few Europeans at the Sarawak court Rather than being a grand manipulator as the blurb would have her Sylvia comes across as of a petty meddler sparking family feuds but lacking the authority or charisma to convey any force of will or carry off any coups Far from ‘wild and debauched’ the impression one gets is of a woman who traded off the modest fame of her title for a mention in the newspapers in her boredom sought amusements and spent money and idly tackled a writing career with plenty of procrastination and frankly mild success ‘Exotic and outrageous’? HardlyPerhaps that’s an unfair assessment of the real Sylvia but it is certainly the impression given by this book I have to agree with other reviewers that the style of writing is not the best The author is prone to going off on long tangents about family friends and acuaintances whose roles seem to have little to no impact on Sylvia’s story where it would have been better for the text to have focused in tightly on Sylvia’s life and that of her husbandI regret spending money on this book Too dull to justify it3 out of 10

  4. says:

    The British Empire did a lot of expedient things like let the Brook family who claimed Sarawak take up the authority of Rajas and style themselves as rulers so long as they remained within tolerable British parameters The third generation of white raja Vyner met his wife Sylvia at the community orchestra his mother Ranee Margaret had organized to try and find wives willing go to Borneo Sylvia herself was from an eccentric Victorian family at the core of court life her father was the organizer of the ueen's Jubilees and state ceremonies and a close confidante and the friend of JM Barrie and George Bernard Shaw when she wasn't being a catty pain in the ass While in Sarawak the Brook family fought each other and modernization with the result that they were bought off and deposed in 1946 unlike Brunei which has similar gold and mineral assets Sarawak had not been profitably exploited and the family uickly burned through their payoff with little to show for it Eade improves upon Sylvia's own memoirs she's uite an unreliable narrator with family papers foreign office documents and interviews and the results are the kind of bizarre biography that makes Kipling's Man Who Would Be King plots a lot reasonable

  5. says:

    Because Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters got off to such a rough start it was perhaps 100 pages before I really began to get into the hang of things While Philip Eade has evidently done copious amounts of research he included far too many irrelevant details in the beginning of it—“setting the groundwork” I’m sure but not in a way that was especially necessary This biography then was interesting some of the time but far from a captivating piece of work It’s hard to put my finger on things exactly but it seemed like the author focused on the wrong things about the Ranee Sylvia’s lifePrior to reading this I had never heard of Ranee Sylvia or the 3 generations of white Englishmen that ruled over the Raj of Sarawak on the island of Borneo I feel like in its jacket copy Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters is made to sound a lot exciting than it really is Because in spite of the promise of good material this book was by and large rather dullIt’s not that Ranee Sylvia didn’t do anything of interest—she did But Eade’s presentation was not engaging and oftentimes he focused far too much on things that weren’t strictly important when speaking only of Sylvia’s life And in spite of the copious number of extant letters and journals that are available I had no real sense of who this woman was “Eccentric” sure but what? A good biography shouldn’t just relate facts in a dry unenthusiastic manner; I need than that And though the life of this historical figure isn’t probably as strictly exciting or adventurous as publicists would have had me believe there was no reason for it to be so dullBeyond that I confess that I didn’t much care for Philip Eade’s authorial presence which was very evident in the text While I admit that it’s impossible to write completely without bias the author seemed to be extremely cautious to only show Sylvia in as undamaging light as possible He never really delved into the problematic nature of the governance of Sarawak in the first place though he spent countless pages discussing small governing crisis Considering that the rule of Sarawak was “given” to the Englishmen because the local Malays were “too incompetent” to rule themselves it would seem like at least some discussion of British imperialism would be appropriate It was very expertly avoided however To my dismay even Eade speaks in a very pro imperialist tone in the epilogue of the book dismissing the modern governance of Sarawak with something that read suspiciously like disgusted condescension And though Eade is certainly entitled to that viewpoint and from conversations with my modern Malaysian friends I know that the state of the Malaysian government is hardly excellent I hardly like him for it all the same Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters adopts a very blatant tone in support of white colonialism and right of conuest and for me it was very off putting I also don’t like the fact that I know about the author’s ideals than I do about Ranee Sylvia’sI must confess to not being particularly impressed with this It’s very dry and takes a rather long time to get anywhere that even vaguely interesting Philip Eade’s research is good but his distant and clearly one sided delivery left much to be desired Sylvia ueen of the Headhunters hardly lives up to its promise and aside from a highly interesting anecdote about Errol Flynn I do not consider myself to be much improved by the reading of this book

  6. says:

    The person this book is about the Ranee of Sarawek during much of the first half of the 20th century is interesting and indeed eccentric but she her husband the White Rajah and the heasdhunter tribes they ruled over get lost and buried beneath mounds of minutiae that the author excavated in his tireless research Way too much detail about when they came and went from Sarawek what she wore what their friends and relations did etc detract from the potentially interesting stories of the lead characters themselves I finished the book but I admit to some long stretches of skimming

  7. says:

    Interesting to read about this family and there now defunct kingdom of Sarawak

  8. says:

    The only reason I know about James Brooke the first White Rajah of Sarawak is because he appeared as a character in one of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels Little did I know that the White Raj lasted for a hundred years until just after World War II although the last Rajah and his Ranee Sylvia the subject of this book were certainly lacking in the charisma and governing skills of the founder of the lineThe Brookes ruled Sarawak located on the island of Borneo from 1841 to 1946 when the last Rajah Vyner ceded the country to the Colonial office While they ruled they had their own flag revenue postage stamps and money as well as absolute power over their Malaysian CHinese and Dyak subjects Sylvia the last Ranee was clearly a black sheep in a prominent English family Her father the 2nd Viscount Esher was an intimate of both ueen Victoria and Edward VII and organized both Victoria's Diamond Jubilee as well as Edward's coronation Sylvia clearly adored her father but he had little use for her or her elder sister Dorothy clearly preferring his second son MAurice to all his children Sylvia's constant battle for her father's attention led her to attempt a career in writing which was mildly successful as well as setting her cap for the Rajah Vyner Once married she produced three daughters but not the needed son heir and carried on her life as an extravagant socialite indulging in behavior that scandalized polite British society and exasperated the British foreign office She indulged her daughters with the result they grew up as feckless as she and lived peripatetic lives with eight marriages between themThe kingdom was invaded by the Japanese during World War II and the Rajah and Ranee spent the war in exile in England When the war was over it was clear that times had changed The inhabitants of Sarawak were in no mood for their dotty English rulers and at age 72 the Rajah was worn out Over the objections of his nephew Anthony the presumed heir Rajah Vyner ceded the country to the British Colonial Office who ruled it as a British protectorate until it became part of Malaysia in 1963 Rajah Vyner lived uietly in London on a British pension until his death in 1963 and Ranee Sylvia lived in Barbados where she continued her life as a albeit faded socialite until she died in 1971 Her daughters all ended up living in Florida where the last one died in 2003 thus ending a flamboyant chapter of the British EmpireThis book was a fun read about a time and place now largely lost to modern memory

  9. says:

    This is one of those cases where I wish we could award half stars This book is better than three stars but not enough to get to fourIt is a fun tale for the most part The book is a menagerie of truly awful people all of whom saw themselves as swell The arrogance and noblesse oblige of British colonialism in the first half of the 20th century comes through vividly Sylvia Brooke is accurately described on the dust jacket as exotic and outrageous but she has competition from all her family and a bunch of other folkThe most readable aspect of the book are the many letters excerpted in the text There are some wonderful ones to Sylvia from George Bernard Shaw and most of the correspondents in general are literate and sometimes wry As the book progresses Sylvia's prose becomes startlingly American which is an interesting transition to observe I also found it interesting to learn what things cost during the 20th century and my recollection is a pound Sterling for most of the book was worth 480 And especially in the first half of the book the Brookes interacted with many prominent Brits of their era and the stories are often interestingBut the book is overlong and suffers from TMI There is detail than one can absorb The family tree at the beginning helps a lot to keep a large cast of characters sorted out I also never got any real sense of Sarawak and its capital Kaching where much of the story takes place Eade never even gives a population figure A rudimentary map does not help much nor do the pictures which are generally a big vaguely focused There are very few pictures of the town itself I'm not really sure though why the book does not work better Eade has done meticulous research and it would not seem there is that could be told Somehow though the details got in the way of the story and sometimes made it difficult for me to grasp the main thread of the narrative in terms of telling what happened But this is a distinctive and different book and I am for the most part glad I read it but I keep feeling I could have enjoyed it somehow I was relieved to finish it

  10. says:

    Well I slogged my way through it and I have to say that the life of Sylvia Brooke the last Ranee of Sarawak works better in capsule form This very thorough biography gets bogged down by Sylvia's overall blandness other than breeding conniving and writing forgettable fiction Sylvia didn't really do anything Even her early friendships with George Bernard Shaw and JM Barrie both obviously suitors fade away once she becomes RaneeI did get excited by the memorable opening chapters where we learn of the romantic sexual love between Sylvia's gay father Reggie and his own son Sylvia's brother Maurice Here for example is a letter from father to son at Eton I couldn't resist inspite of a sore head and heart coming down to you last night and standing concealed by the shadows of the elms while I called you by that old whistle I saw your dear figure pass down the passage after a long wait etc etc Another great moment was when Sylvia describes the sexual prowess of her husband Rajah Vyner He made love as he played golf in a nervous unimaginative flurry Does this mean he got the yips in the sack?I should also mention that the indigenous people of Sarawak and the larger historical and cultural narrative of that strange Brooke Raj are largely absent from the narrative