Olive Malvery’s ancestry is important to understanding her story. A skilled storyteller and clever self-promoter, her mixed heritage was central to the romantic narratives she created around her identity, and played a key role in how she marketed herself to Western audiences.
Her heritage is a mixture of South Asian and European on both sides of her family. Her paternal great-grandfather was reported to have been a vivacious French Officer, who ‘in the days of the early European history of India, succumbed to the fascinations of that radiant land. He made a romantic marriage with a lady of princely birth and stayed in the country of his adoption.’
Romantic stories of Western travellers marrying Eastern princesses appear to be a common occurrence in Olive’s family tree. The following story of an ancestor, passed down through female relatives, would later become one of her popular public addresses ‘The Romance of the Red Rose:’
In the reign of James I - the story goes - there came an English knight (sometimes referred to as being from a ‘brave and gallant Scotch family’) lured by the “Splendid East” who was….
‘…tired of the Western ways. He had not much to recommend him, but a handsome face and a trusty sword. Court after Court he visited, making friends with the various Monarchs, and at last found himself in the palace of a King, who was growing old and feeble in governing. The Englishman took his fancy, and rapidly advanced in influence in the Court.
One day there was a great hunt, in which a cheetah, according the Eastern custom, was used; but soon after the start it broke away from keepers and wounded the King. After he had been released from its claws, he was taken back to the palace, where was taken with a fever. No one knew much of surgery, and were unable to do thing for him, and he rapidly grew worse. One day the young Englishman told the King that if would not take anymore wine and would wash himself in pure water, he would get better. This the King did, and he rapidly recovered, and loaded the Englishman with presents.
When altogether well, a big feast was given, and after it was over and as the Englishman was going home, a red rose dropped at his feet. He looked up and saw the King's daughter, and soon after he knew that he loved her greatly, and after that he met her many times. One day he went and demanded audience of the King, and asked for the hand of his daughter. The King took this in bad part, but after persuasion gave in, and gave his daughter in marriage.’
Finally, her maternal great-grandfather Charles Sinclair was, according to Olive, a Scotsman bearing a commission in the East India Company's service, who was apparently also rewarded with the hand of the daughter in marriage after rendering some military service to an Indian royal house. Certainly, in 1841 Charles was listed as being in ‘Her Majesty’s Service,’ and at the time of his death he was described as a Lieutenant ‘late in the King of Oude’s Service.’
Whether the ‘Romance of the Red Rose’ is about Charles Sinclair (admittedly with a few liberties taken with dates and details for the sake of storytelling), or whether there are three separate royal weddings in her family tree is unclear. Either way, much was made in the British Press that ‘the blood of an Indian Princess runs through her veins,’ and amongst the working poor of East London she was widely known as “The Little Princess.”