Sybille Noel's journal 1924

Sybille Noel's journal 1924

A recent discovery has been the journal written by Noel's first wife in 1924. He had met and married Sybille Graham in 1914, after a whirlwind romance. She was a Shakespearian actress, and Noel had seen her on the stage, waited for after the performance, invited her to dinner, and they married during one of his home leaves during the first world war. They belonged to the Bloomsbury set, together with Francis Helps, a renowned portrait painter, and his Creole wife. Noel invited Helps to join his party, but the Tibetan authorities would not give permission for any non-essential people to go beyond Chumbi, the first town in Tibet from the Sikkimese border. In April 1924, the expedition gathered at the Mount Everest Hotel in Darjeeling, a huge, splendid Victorian-style building perched on a hillside overlooking the town and the glorious mountain chain beyond. Today, sadly, it is in ruins, following a dispute between the later owners, the Oberoi chain, and the municipality of Darjeeling, probably over the supply - or theft - of water!

As Helps would not be able to keep up with the cracking pace set by the climbers leaving Darjeeling, he and Sybille, who intended to collect fairy stories from the mountain regions, were left to meander through the foothills between Darjeeling and the Tibetan border, writing and painting. Sybille made copious notes in pencil, detailing her impressions and experiences in a journal, rather than a daily record of events. But it is extremely interesting, and I was able to use it to follow their progress from Darjeeling to Kalimpong, into Sikkim and up to the Jelap La. They stayed in daks, Government-run lodges, managed by a caretaker, but where the traveller brought along his own staff, bedding, food and pack animals. On one occasion, a Tibetan general was staying at the same dak (in typical Sybille fashion, we are not told his name, or the reason for his travels). He spoke good English, and entertained them with his stories of life in the Tibetan Army; he once commented that he thought a bear was stealing his horse’s food, and would they mind if he stayed up until after dusk, and, if necessary, shoot the marauding beast, adding: ‘Are you much troubled by bears in London?’ Sybille had been unable to resist taking in unwanted or injured animal, so the menagerie increased in size at every stop – 2 snow leopard cubs, a monkey called Dongmali, a black puppy named Rupert, and a lame dog called Khartu and 3 cats. The monkey was always up to tricks, and on more than one occasion discovered the tubes of oil paints, and liberally added to Helps’ painting!! He also often raided the food store, much to the distress of the cook. Helps enjoyed sketching and painting the local people, but found it difficult to be consistent in his tipping – a girl model obviously disclosed to her father the meagre sum of rupees which Helps had unwittingly given her for sitting, and he burst in, demanding more, suggesting that Helps had cast an evil eye over the entire family by his avarice. On another occasion, Helps, in his vague way, mistook the notes, and gave a young monk a huge tip. Helps also had to be careful never to have a young sitter alone, so then had to pay the chaperone as well!! All too much for Helps’ non mathematical brain. Sybille’s faithful maid, Jeti, charmingly persuaded many of the locals to retell fairy stories, handed down from one generation to another, so Sybille had a constant source of information, which she ultimately collated into book form.

When Gen Bruce had to leave the expedition,due to ill health, he stayed with them in the dak in Gangtok and (Dr)Hingston took Marigold Weatherall on insect-hunting trips; Sybille and Helps departed 17 May, but bad weather forced them to return to Gangtok and take the more southerly Jelap La. The monkey became ill, (altitude sickness?), and Helps administered brandy, and the monkey was allowed to sit on the horse, while everyone walked! She describes the caravans of traders, and then the distressing sight of dozens of mule carcasses, stripped by vultures, which littered the pass. In Tibet, she describes the farming methods, and is surprised to learn that polyandry is practised, where a woman marries a man and all his younger brothers; it is, in fact, a satisfactory arrangement, as it ensures that, when the nomads are travelling to find grazing for their goats, sheep and yaks, that there are enough men staying in the encampment to look after the woman and children, whilst other men look after the herds. Despite the lovely scenery and the abundance of material she was accumulating, she felt uneasy, but both Helps and John Macdonald, who had arrived from Base Camp, tried to allay her fears. She wrote, ’At all events, I was glad enough to have any morbid fears brushed away…But a morning dawned when nothing would convince me that I was wrong. I felt and knew a tragedy had occurred. Try as I might, I could not shake the feeling off. Even later, when Mr Macdonald came and told us he had received a message to transmit in secret code to India, a message he could not decipher himself, but one he felt confident told of success, my conviction was not shaken. I said, ‘Something terrible has happened, I know it.’

‘When the news reached us, although in some measure I was prepared, it came as a shock. Mallory and Irvine killed!! So that was the end of the great adventure, or perhaps only the beginning of a still far greater one.’

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