Early Life in India
Despite spending over half her life there, relatively little is known about Olive Christian Malvery’s childhood and early adulthood in her native ‘British India.’ However, what few glimpses we do have into her formative years provide valuable insight into her beliefs and motivations.
Olive was born in Lahore on the 1 October 1871, the first child of Thomas Barber and Jessie Malvery. Thomas Malvery was a man of French ancestry originally from Bombay. His own father, the bookseller John Malvery, passed away when Thomas was only seven years old. His wife Jessie Anderson was fourteen years younger than him, and the marriage does not appear to have been a happy one. Working as a contractor (Olive would later describe him as a Civil Engineer) he failed to make a success of various business schemes. At some point following the birth of their son Henry in 1874, Olive’s parents separated while she was still a child.
Few things are known about Jessie. She was a Christian, presumably Anglican, and well known for her philanthropic work. For example, in 1902 it was reported that she was keeping and educating twenty small children ‘gathered in from several plague and famine stricken districts’ in India. One rare anecdote by Olive about her mother depicts a blunt, no nonsense figure. In this story, Jessie encounters a woman who always gave her children carrots to suck:
“They have all had it" she said to her (Miss Malvery's) mother. "Yes," was the reply. "but they all died." "Ah, it is the Lord's will" the woman said: `Nonsense." replied her mother. “It’s not the Lord's will, it's the carrot.”
Olive and her brother were raised in the home of their maternal grandparents Robert and Harriet Anderson. They were relatively wealthy, employing multiple servants. The house itself was a one-storied building of ‘great height’, with a veranda running it’s the whole length. Surrounding this were beautiful grounds; gardens boasting roses, chrysanthemums and thousands of ‘the most rare and lovely flowers.’ There was a porch of radiant creepers and, lining the path leading to the gate, orange trees that were ‘a blaze of gold with the fruit hanging ripe and lovely among the velvety green leaves.’
Olive summarises her upbringing simply as ‘gardens and flowers and care-free days.’ However, her childhood was also a somewhat lonely one. Left to wander the grounds alone with only her imagination for company, she began to create stories. From age six she would tell and write these stories, and had her first story published while still only thirteen years old.
The family appear to have been well-connected; amongst their family friends they included Louis George Mylne, the Bishop of Bombay. At some point, probably whilst still a child, Olive met Archibald Mackirdy, a Scottish born banker’s son fourteen years older than her, and her future husband.
Out of all her family, it is her grandmother Harriet that had the greatest impact on Olive. Prior to marriage, she had been a Sinclair, and it would seem she possessed a great pride for her connection to the famous Scottish family that she passed on to her relatives – both her daughter Jessie and granddaughter Olive named one of their children after the clan, and the latter drew regular attention to her Sinclair ancestors on many occasions. Harriet also appears to be the most likely source of Olive’s Asian heritage (see Ancestry).
Harriet was an impressive philanthropist, having as many as thirty schools for girls and women in India under her charge. Olive as a tiny child accompanied her grandmother to these schools and would often teach ‘quite old women’ to make their letters using a wooden slate and reed pen. Coming from such a philanthropic family, it is unsurprising that Olive developed an interest in the lives of the poor and performing charity work. As a child she helped collect money for Dr. Barnardo's Homes. Circulars from Barnardo’s, as well as Dr Müller's Orphanages, captured her imagination with highly romanticised images of poverty in Britain.
'Two books which were sources of constant delight to me when I was a tiny child, were a story called " Froggy's Little Brother," and another called " The Match-Girl." The first was a charming tale of two little crossing-sweepers, who lived in an attic in Shoreditch, and " The Match-Girl " was the story of a little child obliged to stand in the streets of London (I think in the book the snow was always on the ground) selling matches for the support of a family. I forget just now whether the " family " were supposed to do anything for their own support or not. The books were profusely illustrated, and the stories of these children were made very real to me. I also had a lovely story about "Flower Girls," '
Olive never went to school, and was instead taught by both Harriet and Jessie until the age of seven, when she began to be educated under an English tutor. Harriet’s interest in her granddaughter’s education saw her playing a vital role in preparing Olive for her future career as a storytelling and public speaker. A very fine reader herself, she would sit and listen as she made Olive stand at the other end of their home’s long veranda and read aloud passages from newspapers, poetry, or literature. Olive would later credit this as teaching her to ‘use my voice naturally and well.’ As a little girl she learnt to recite Rudyard Kipling’s The Charge of the Light Brigade in exchange for being told a story about a friend losing an arm to a tiger.
Overall, it appears that Olive was well-educated. Hoping to qualify for a university degree, she studied for the Entrance Examination to an Indian university. In 1896, when Mark Twain arrived in India for a three-month lecture tour, Olive attended one of his readings. She recalled:
“We had been enjoying the famous humourist’s stories immensely, but as we came out regretting the end of the performance, this lady remarked: "Well, I can't see where the fun came in; I can say funnier things than that myself."
Despite reaching her late twenties, Olive never married while living in the Indian sub-continent. This would have been noteworthy; her grandmother was married at nineteen, her mother at twenty-one. As Olive herself described:
“In the East marriage is looked upon as the normal state for women, and a girl is not often left in anxiety as to whether she will succeed in marrying, or for ever remain an old maid, for no woman in the East who by any chance did escape matrimony could possibly hope to enter the "holy estate" had she once passed the age of twenty."
Instead of marriage, Olive spent much of her time travelling around India, and described riding, shooting and various outdoor pursuits as her ‘greatest joy’. Through travelling she was able to master three ‘Oriental’ languages. She made two hunting trips to Kashmir, staying once for three months, and fell in love with the region.
“England was a lovely land. but not so lovely as Kashmir, where there were fields and fields of roses which filled the air with their scents, marvellous lakes on which lilies lay like ivory blossoms, and the stars were reflected in the water, making it look as if jewelled with a thousand gems.”
It was during her travels in Kashmir that she discovered her talented voice , and decided to train as a professional singer. For a while, there was a question of exactly where she should go for her education; London, Paris, or Boston.
“it was urgently advised by those who understood these matters, that I should be sent to England to train as a public singer. A friend who loved me, and believed that I really possessed the gift of a beautiful voice, was instrumental in helping me to accomplish the desire of my heart which was to study in England.”
From her time as a student not long after moving to England, Olive actively contributed to the Temperance Movement. , and there is strong evidence for her views forming out of experiences whilst still in India. Whilst overall a sober country, her only real encounters with drunkenness came from Englishmen "who would knock about in the streets jeered at by the natives!”
During her travels in Kashmir, whilst with a shooting party she witnessed a horribly wounded young man being carried on a stretcher;
"The men had been shooting, and as a matter of fact the reason for the young man’s accident was that…He had dined too well, taken too much champagne, and was quite sure of himself. His shot failed; it wounded the bear, which turned round and mauled him. He was reckoned an extremely good shot – he had gold medals and silver cups to show he was a good sportsman. There were those who did things like that time and time again, but this young man had taken more drink than was good for him once too often. Seven days afterwards he died. "
This tragedy would be retold to audiences as part of her social campaign that took her all over Britain encouraging men and women to turn away from the evils of drink. However, it is the tragedy closest to her that never spoke of publicly. In 1896 her father Thomas Malvery, now a pauper, died at the age of 61. The cause of death was listed as ‘Excessive drinking.’