'Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters' profiles a gloriously free-living upper-class Briton who became a kind of East Indies royalty

This smashing biography – an updated American version of a 2007 British edition – transports readers to a not-so-stuffy Edwardian England and the far edges of the British Empire

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    Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters
    By Philip Eade
    Picador
    384 pp.
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The subtitle of the new biography Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters refers to "An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom." It's an understatement about a master of overstatement.

Even the stiffest of upper lips couldn't resist using every kind of droll slur to describe Sylvia Brooke, a gloriously free-living upper-class Briton who became a kind of East Indies royalty. "A more undignified woman it would be hard to find," snooted a British politician, while others let loose with dire warnings of "a dangerous woman" who left chaos wherever she went.

Determined as a girl to "live flamingly and electrify the world," Ranee Sylvia, as her Malaysian subjects called her, succeeded marvelously. And at its best, this book is as positively smashing as its subject.

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Journalist Philip Eade does more than rescue Brooke from obscurity. This biography, an updated American version of a 2007 British edition, transports the reader to a not-so-stuffy Edwardian England and the far edges of the British Empire. Intimate lives are laid bare, revealing a familiar landscape of jealousy, gossip, manipulation, and even something a bit like love.

Brooke – "Sylvia Leonora, Lady Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak, born The Hon. Sylvia Leonora Brett," as Wikipedia puts it – was the daughter of an aristocrat who served as a royal confidant and a master event planner in charge of funerals and a coronation. A perennial philanderer, Sylvia's father somehow avoided the scandals that brought down other British men of his time. (He's one of several men in the biography who strays from a spouse, with some – in a couple of disturbing cases – turning predatory around underage women.)

As a child, Brooke was prone to fits of dramatic excess. This never changed. As an adult, she would claim that she tried to kill herself as a girl by eating sardines she left to spoil, lying naked in the snow, and attempting to develop a romantic case of consumption. Eade speculates that these stories of Brooke's lush childhood imagination may be products of, well, her lush adult imagination.

At this moment in the very first chapter, the book threatens to become a hall of mirrors inhabited by the thoroughly modern Brooke, a literal drama queen. Can anything be real here? But Eade keeps things under control with a warm but skeptical eye.

Brooke grew into an intensely perceptive woman who wrote novels and captured her world in memoirs in which she pondered the fates of the girls in her family ("written off ... as plain and tongue-tied, and therefore made so") and women in general ("only brought into the world to become the slaves of men").

But Brooke turned out to be anything but a servant of her husband. Her engagement to His Highness Rajah Vyner (aka Charles Brooke) – one of the "White Rajahs," the men in his family who ruled a chunk of Malaysia called the Kingdom of Sarawak – spawned "careful letters of congratulation," Eade writes, with "some marveling at what an adventure it would be for her to rule over savages." Other friends and family members worried that she would  end up in a harem, while playwright George Bernard Shaw, who maintained a sly correspondence with her ("you ought to be in love with me"), suggested she take a lover and save marriage for a fellow she only likes. "There should always be another. He will keep well if you take care to keep him imaginary."

With her typically delicious wryness, Brooke later wrote that her worried parents – when she married Vyner and went to Sarawak – "imagined me, shriveled and hideously tanned, returning to them.... Or else headless and buried in the barren soil of the north-west coast of Borneo."

Much of the biography is pure fun, but there's a serious side, too. Underneath all her bravado, Brooke understood people, pinpointing her father's "mischievous desire for adoration" and her own "longing for love." She chronicled the changing times, too, noting that her three daughters – who'd have eight husbands between them, including a bandleader and an earl – "never had to stand in a row of anxious virgins as I had done, waiting to be asked to dine or dance."

Readers may feel a bit lost when the biography turns to the political wrangling inside the Kingdom of Salawak during World War II when Japan tried to dominate the Pacific. And they may also wonder who actually lived in the Kingdom of Salawak besides colorful Brits. The people of Salawak, caricatured as headhunters by the journalist who gave Brooke her nickname, don't get much attention from the author.

As a whole, however, any time with Lady Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak, is well spent, especially for those who of us who might think obsessions with celebrities, gossip, and intense self-scrutiny were invented in our own age. Thanks to this biography, it's easy to see the now in then.  

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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