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‘Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters’ by Philip Eade

Sylvia Brett (1885-1971) and her siblings were born to an aristocratic English family, the kind whose parents who were so consumed with their own social lives that when her father, Reggie, encountered three children waving at him in the park, he was confused until a friend suggested, “Perhaps they are yours.”

It’s an apt beginning to the biography of Sylvia. Unloved, overlooked, and troubled as a child (she tried to commit suicide twice by age 12), Sylvia was determined to “live flamingly and electrify the world” as an adult. And after marrying Vyner Brooke, the rajah of Sarawak, in 1912 she acquired a nation of subjects whom she would neglect in turn.

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This is a tale of British colonialism in its waning days. Sarawak, a region in the northwest section of the island of Borneo (now part of Malaysia), fell into the hands of Vyner Brooke’s ancestor James Brooke, (1803-68), who instituted a monarchy in a mild version of the classic British colonial style: three parts paternalism mixed with one part railroad-building and a liberal splash of gin to keep its British administrators cheerful. Luckily for the Brookes, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful place that required little political oversight.

A narcissistic, dramatic young woman, Sylvia was called “a female Iago” by her own brother and marrying the scion of the Sarawak dynasty proved to be an ideal golden ticket. She was described by one Sarawak official as “ ‘one of the most superficial people I have met’ . . . with ‘a firm eye on the main chance.’ ” Had she remained in England she may have remained just another debutante obsessed with lunch dates and nightclubs, but thanks to her status as the ranee she became, in one US newspaper’s words, the “most charming of despots.”

While Vyner busied himself with matters of state, including keeping the peace with the infamous local Dayak headhunters who give the book its title, Sylvia wrote novels based on her childhood, played tennis, drank gin slings, and received visitors. Although she seemed to be genuinely touched by the beauty of Sarawak and the kindness of its people, the notion that she should make any personal sacrifice in her service as their queen never occurred to her. Sylvia (and Vyner to a lesser extent) spent more than half of every year away from Sarawak during her nearly 30-year rule, going “home” to England or on trips to the United States the rest of the time (she adored Hollywood).

And the Brookes chose to leave Sarawak when it really counted. In the autumn of 1941, threat of war with Japan in the Pacific was imminent, and it was at this point that both Sylvia and Vyner decided to go on vacation. At least one Sarawak official balked at the rajah’s departure, writing that it suggested a lack of a “sense of duty toward [his country] that would have been expected from a ruler really interested in the welfare of his people.” Vyner had left his chief secretary Cyril Le Gros Clark in charge of things while he was away; during the war Clark was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed by the Japanese.

What effect this news had on Sylvia and Vyner, author Philip Eade doesn’t say, but they were certainly sad to give up their royal status when the war ended and Sarawak was ceded to Britain, leaving the couple “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors,” as Sylvia wrote.

There is undoubtedly an important story to be told about the Brookes and their kingdom of Sarawak: How did the native population of Sarawak feel about the Brookes, one wonders? What was the daily life of a Sarawak citizen like?

As a biographer, Eade focuses solely on Sylvia, and since Sylvia focused solely on herself, a deeper understanding of the people, culture, and history of Sarawak is not to be found in these pages. Perhaps it’s not fair to ask for more about the common folk in a book devoted to their queen. But had her life been more connected to the lives of her citizens, her biography and legacy would be more worthy of remembrance.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “The Inspirational Atheist,’’ slated for release by Penguin next year.
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