20 The Cl, Salisbury SP1 2EB, UK
Fitz House, Teffont Magna, Salisbury SP3 5QS, UK
Daye House, Quidhampton, Salisbury SP2 8PH, UK
Wilton House, Wilton, Salisbury SP2 0BJ, UK
St Mary and St Nicholas' Church, 27A West St, Wilton, Salisbury SP2 0DL, UK
Edith Maud Olivier MBE (31 December 1872 – 10 May 1948) was an English writer, also noted for acting as hostess to a circle of well-known writers, artists, and composers in her native Wiltshire.
Olivier was born in Wilton, of Huguenot stock, her father being Canon of Wilton, and her mother the daughter of a bishop. She was one of ten children. After receiving schooling at home, Olivier went up to St Hugh's College, Oxford in 1895, but completed only four terms before leaving because of asthma.
She was related to the actor Laurence Olivier through her paternal grandfather, Henry Stephen Olivier, who, through one of his other sons, was the actor's great grandfather.
Until his death in 1919 her life was dominated by her father, who was both autocratic and conservative. She was an adherent of the Anglican Church and served on the Women's Diocesan Council. Olivier also undertook activities in the Conservative Party, and Women's Institute. In 1916, at the behest of the Wiltshire county agricultural committee, Olivier helped form the Women's Land Army in Wiltshire, for which she was rewarded in 1920 with an MBE. When she was elected to Wilton Town Council in 1934, she became the first woman to serve on the council, and was later mayor from 1938 to 1941. As mayoress it was her responsibility to house the children and mothers of babies evacuated from London. Southern Command was based at Wilton and every bedroom in her house was occupied by a lodger. She describes this in Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady humorously illustrated by her close friend, the artist Rex Whistler. Her public service during the Second World War included the presidency of the local St John Ambulance Brigade.
Born at Wilton Rectory, Edith grew up playing in and worshipping the neighbouring house and gardens of Wilton House. George Lord Pembroke and his wife Gety were childless and encouraged the young Olivier children to spend time with them and to play with their nephews and nieces. When Edith's widower father Canon Dacres Olivier retired before the First World War, she and her sister Mildred moved with him to No.20 in Salisbury's Cathedral Close. Her father died the year the war ended, and after a short spell renting at Fitz House, Teffont, the two 40 year old Olivier sisters moved into the old dairy house (Daye House) on the Wilton estate in 1920. This was at the request of childhood friend Reginald, Lord Pembroke, who had inherited Wilton from his uncle in 1913. Wilton and Wiltshire were her lifelong passions.
“Of all the neighbours on whom I grew to rely more and more, Edith Olivier was perhaps always the most cherished. So many of the young writers, painters and poets came to her with problems about their work and their lives and they knew that after she had listened intently to their outpourings, her advice would be unprejudiced, wise and Christian.” – Cecil Beaton
In her nightly journal – missed only three times: when her brother Harold was killed fighting in 1914, her sister Mildred died from breast cancer in 1923 and her closest friend Rex Whistler was killed jumping from his tank in 1944 – Edith recorded a way of life and a generation that vanished with the outbreak of the second world war. She describes the ‘Bright Young Things’ on the Earl of Pembroke's estate at Wilton and at nearby Ashcombe, Cecil Beaton's house, first discovered by Edith. She writes of her close friendships with neighbours Stephen Tennant, and his mother, Pamela, wife of Sir Edward Grey, the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, and painters Henry Lamb and Augustus John. Her book on her beloved Wiltshire in the County Book series was published posthumously by her niece Miss Rosemary Olivier who continued to live at the Daye House at the request of the Pembrokes, and became Mayor of Wilton also.
It was after Mildred died in 1923 that she started to engage a broader social circle. It was then that she formed a profound friendship with Rex Whistler and acted as a frequent hostess to an elite, artistic, and social set which included Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon, William Walton, and Osbert Sitwell. She describes them vividly in her journals:
Cecil Beaton: ‘a marble face and voice’
John Betjeman: ‘cleaner than I expected… loves Georgian churches’
Lady Diana Cooper: ‘I have never seen anyone else really look what I think Helen of Troy must have looked’
Siegfried Sassoon: ‘such fun to tell things to. Laughs so utterly’’
Edith Sitwell: ‘bitter against the world in general, and very comprehending towards individuals when she knows about them’
Stephen Tennant: ‘dazzling in his inspired wit and vision’
William Walton: ‘a very domestic man, ready to help in all household emergencies’
Rex Whistler: ‘a reincarnation of Breughel’
Her first novel, The Love Child was published in 1927, and was followed by further novels, biographies, including one of Alexander Cruden, and the autobiographical Without Knowing Mr Walkley.
Olivier died in 1948, after suffering three strokes, and was interred in Wilton churchyard.