Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom by Philip Eade

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 15, 2014

Sylvia Brooke was one of the more 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 more unusual chapters of British colonial rule. Philip Eade's Sylvia, Queen 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.

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Sylvia's husband, Charles Vyner Brooke,
  the third and last White Rajah of Sarawak
I'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 quotes lifted directly from family journals and/or correspondence, a fact which made the book quite 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 tedious.

When all is said and done, Sylvia, Queen 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. 

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'She rules over one of the wildest countires in the world,' it was reported, 'swarming with tigers, venomous snakes 15 feet long, boa constrictors many feet longer and the most dangerous wild beasts and reptiles known in the Asiatic jungle.'
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