Letters from Tahiti, No. 2, March 1923

Letters from Tahiti, No. 2, March 1923

June 30, 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). I posted the first letter a few days ago so here is the second, sent on March 21st, 1923. By then Robert and Jolie were well settled into their life in Tahiti. Robert had a number of writing projects on the go and Jolie was running the house.

My Dear Wuffy,

I was hoping I should have had a letter from you by now. Life flows on smoothly here and the days are all the same, in that there are no worries, no servant troubles, nothing to upset one. I am very happy and very contented. Do you know we have been married so to speak for six months? Awful the way the time flies. But my dear I can’t think how grateful I am to my small amount of common sense that I did not marry the first man that proposed to me, but waited for the right one to come along, and I am afraid I should never settle down and be a respectable and dull and dutiful wife, and never mind how many babies I have or how soon I grow old and faded just because I had achieved matrimony and therefore was settled for life. Talking of babies (this is for you alone) I must say I am extremely glad that Bill (Jolie’s nickname for Robert) shares my views about them. I certainly do not want to start having babies for at least 4 years. I don’t really want them at all, in spite of the fact that every woman is supposed to long for them.

My dear you would love this place. It would just be heaven to you. Always warm never dreary and cold. Excellent servants (at least I find so). Plenty of scope for giving really topping parties and moon light picnics, always free and unconventional, and not being in terror of your cook because 4 people turn up three days running and stay to lunch or dinner. Also, to be always able to wear soft and pretty clothes. Materials are expensive here, except Crepe de chine and Chinese silks. They are in comparison with English prices amazingly cheap. I can get the heaviest crepe de chine at 30 Francs a metre. That is 8 shillings for a quality you could not get under 15/- in England, and the Chinese silks are heavier and better still. I never wear stays or shoes or stockings unless going into Papeete, and of course I make all my own dresses as there are no shops for those sort of things. I am making one now. Snowy white silk crepe with crimson cherries worked on the front and dotted about on the skirt, and no sleeves at all. The only fashions I can get is to go into Papeete on the day the mail boat is in from ‘Frisco and career around in my car and watch the tourists going to America or Australia and see what they are wearing. The only objection to buy ordinary materials here is the fact that you are quite liable to see a Tahitian maiden in the same frock as you next week. So I am extravagant, I only buy the best materials which I know they cannot afford, and of course embroidering makes a great difference. At present our plans are to stay here. We have done a lot to the house and Bill is interested in the garden. I personally am bored to death with gardening, but one thing makes it more enjoyable here than at home, if you plant a hibiscus cutting in three weeks to a month you have a flower, the same with other plants. Practically before the week is out you see the new flower beginning.

I like the food too you know. My cook makes delicious curries A la Tahitian. Our house is set in a grove of coconut trees. If you open a coconut, throw away the milk, shred the coconut white stuff, put the shreddy bits in a table napkin, and squeeze hard, you get the most delicious cream. It scarcely tastes of coconut at all, flavour it with rum and it is wonderful, in sweet dishes make it with curry and shrimps or any meat, it is like curry cream.

Another thing I am very fond of that is egg nog with rum. But you must have a cocktail shaker. You try it, it really is delicious. Put the yokes only in one for each person, add a tablespoonful of rum per head, a squeeze (generous one) of lemon not for each person though, a little water, not too much about a quarter of a tumbler for 4 drinks, a little sugar and shake it up, not up and down, but backwards and forwards for about half a minute, then pour into wine glasses and grate a little nutmeg on the top. The whole thing does not take a few minutes, and it is delicious. I am afraid we are awful with drinks.

I allow 1,500 a month for house-keeping, servants wages, and rent, washing etc. and drinks are generally a little over £250 a year. My dear you won’t believe it. We have four courses at every meal. My washing cost the equivalent of 16/- a month, I send all my household things and always shirts and trousers, and all for 50 franc a month, and as much as I like to send, and beautifully laundered, though they are hard on clothes here as in all foreign places where they wash them in your own little river. My car expense is extra, but you can’t imagine what a lot I get for my 1,500 a month. An excellent Chinese cook, and a native girl to do the rooms, and she brings me also masses of lovely flowers every day and does them beautifully for me. We have ice sent out every day from Papeete, and fresh soda water. The meat here is daily inspected in the market by a French government official, and is always fresh and good, being only just killed. You would think it would be tough, but there is a wonderful leaf here, very common called the Burra. You just take a handful of these leaves and wrap the meat in it, and in ten minutes it is as tender as can be. If you leave it longer, you could almost tear it to pieces with your hand. I cannot imagine why, but it is so. The natives wrap up their fish and meat (if they can afford it) in Burra leaves and cook it by placing it just as it is, wrapped up on red hot wood, with red hot coconuts as fuel perched on top. The food is shoved underneath the coconuts on the wood. The Burra leaf which looks so soft and green does as a saucepan it doesn’t burn up or shrivel, and of course the natives are mad on raw fish with slightly fermented coconut sauce (the sauce being nothing but shredded coconut) and the raw fish is delicious because the Burra leaf makes it so tender and cool.

Come here Wuffy, my dear, for a visit. It costs such a little to live. We could put you and your husband or Dick (Wuffy’s son) easily or I could find you a little house for six months, and a good servant, and what you spent on your fares you would save in living here for six months. Do come! You would love my dear Bill. He is so clever and knows such a lot. I never realised how appallingly ignorant I was before I met him. Though I was always bored to death with the young women round Burghfield wasn’t I? I didn’t dislike them one little bit. I was merely bored by the futility of their conversation, and their utter inability to see farther than their noses, and their indifference (I think this was the worse) to wish to learn anything new or talk of anything except their beastly games, or scandal; both of which bored me to death, because even if the scandal was really naughty they would blush and hesitate before saying out what they had heard. As for their clothes, and the money they spent on them with such deplorable results, - well I think you and I were at one there, eh?

I must stop my meanderings now my dear, because Bill is shouting for a long cool whisky, and I require one also, and I must take an intelligent interest in what he has written, so au revoir, Wuffy, we are friends, aren’t we?

Much love

V affectionately yours

Jolie Keable