Letters from Tahiti, No. 1, January 1923

Letters from Tahiti, No. 1, January 1923

June 25, 2022

Whilst researching the chapter on Tahiti for my book Utterly Immoral, I came across two letters that Jolie Keable had written to Wuffy, (the nickname for the mother-in-law of her good friend Rita Elliott). Robert had first met Jolie in France during the First World War and she was the inspiration for Julie, the free-spirited nurse in Simon Called Peter. When Robert Keable returned to England from Basutoland at the end of 1920 he secretly met up again with Jolie and the two made plans to run away together to Tahiti. Jolie stayed with Wuffy in the weeks before she travelled to Australia to meet up with Robert. When Robert and Jolie first arrived in Tahiti, just before Christmas 1922, Jolie was still only 23, twelve years younger than Robert. The letter gives a good insight into moving to Tahiti in the 1920s. The house she is describing used to belong to the French impressionist Paul Gauguin. 

My dear Wuffy,

Too late my dear to wish you a very Happy Christmas, I am afraid. But nevertheless, I should like to think that I thought of you at Christmas time, and that I shall drink your health on Christmas day in my own little house. And you would like my little home, my dear, because you are so artistic. It is a bungalow, and it is set in the midst of a coconut plantation looking towards the sea. In fact it is only two minutes from the sea, with our own little bathing beach. You enter from the road and come to a wide verandah. This has two doors both leading into large rooms. Our spare room and our room. These are painted white with white furniture. The floors are polished and there is very little furniture so they always look cool and airy. The colouring of the spare room is a sort of love-in-the-mist blue and my room is green.

From these rooms you walk into the drawing room. This room we had rebuilt. East and west there are no walls except bamboo breast high so that one gets a glorious view east and west of the sea. The walls are painted grey and the floor is polished and I have the most fascinating carpets of brown and green Chinese matting with brown leaves stencilled on. There has been built into one corner a topping little cosy-corner, and I have masses of green cool looking cushions everywhere. There are heaps of arm chairs and two setees and a huge desk for Bill (her nickname for Robert Keable). I had the armchairs made of bamboo; the furniture is all the darkish colour of the floor. There is no electric light only lamps with soft green shades. I have masses of lovely tropical green plants everywhere and a huge green parrot who struts about, and of course there are flowers everywhere, but in huge clumps. From this room opens into our dining-room. The walls are also pale grey, and there are two huge windows east and west and also facing south and a door in the middle of them leading out on to the sea. I have my store cupboard built into the walls and there we keep our wines etc. Wines are very good here and cheap, and whiskey is cheaper here than in England. The table is polished and the chairs the same dark brown colour. There is also a settee and all my table china is white with green pattern. Outside is the kitchen and I have a very excellent Chinese servant who will do anything for me. I hire a girl to do the washing. She washes in our little freshwater river and gets the clothes up wonderfully! We have our bathroom and a shower bath outside and a great luxury in this country a real bath given to us by a man going back to England. I think you would rather like it dear. This being French settlement you get wonderful cooking but oh lor’ their houses I have never seen places so crowded in my life and with such awful things, nick-nacks of every description. Terrible.

Cushions my dear with ‘God is love’ and ‘Doves of peace’ written on them. You would laugh, even I find it very difficult not to, and when some fat little Frenchman turns to me and says “And you have no children madame Keable” I always long to say Thanks God, no. However we shan’t be bothered with people now we are out in the country. I am awfully happy and I can scarcely imagine myself back again in Burghfield (where Wuffy lived). Bill is awfully good to me, and so is everybody. The passport officials found out that my passport was not in the same name as Bill’s but they all knew that we would be married if we could and that it is not a passing phase, so they are all simply charming to us and treat us as an ordinary married couple, and there are no people more exclusive than the French. Even their daughters are permitted to meet me. Entre nous Wuffy me dear I think I must look immensely respectable for I am certainly not respectable according to conventional codes. I haven’t had a line from any of my people, only a very sweet letter from my friend Mrs Simpson who you have met I think. But she would always love me if I kept a harem I think. I have a jolly car called a Dodge which Bill got me knowing my dislike of walking. They are wonderful buses for the roads, of course one has to send to Frisco for everything or Australia for the shops here are most Chinese stores. Do write to me about once a month. We only get a mail once in four weeks and you can’t think how I long for letters. The great excitement is when the mail boat comes in. Is it too much to ask? It would be a kind action. Bill gets hundreds of letters literally from adoring females and earnest young men every mail. Simon Called Peter is being dramatised and produced in New York this spring by the famous Cochran. So, we hope to make some money. It will of course come to England eventually. How very humorous if it comes to Reading!

Well I must close now. Please excuse this awful typing but I am always going to use it, because it is so much less trouble than writing in the heat.

With much love to you Wuffy dear,

Yours very affectionately

Jolie Keable