Review: The Queen of Whale Cay: The extraordinary story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, the fastest woman on water by Kate Summerscale

The Queen of Whale Cay book cover

The true and yet utterly fantastic story of one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary and yet little-known figures.

Genre: Biography

The Blurb

Born in 1900 to a promiscuous American oil heiress and a British army captain, Marion Barbara Carstairs realised very early on that she was not like most little girls. Liberated by war work in WWI, Marion reinvented herself as ‘Joe’, and quickly went on to establish herself as a leading light of the fashionable lesbian demi-monde. She dressed in men’s clothes, smoked cigars and cheroots, tattooed her arms, and became Britain’s most celebrated female speed-boat racer—the ‘fastest woman on water’.

Yet Joe tired of the limelight in 1934 and retired to the Bahamian island of Whale Cay. There she fashioned her own self-sufficient kingdom, where she threw riotous parties at which Hollywood actresses and British royalty were among the guests. Although her lovers included screen sirens such as Marlene Dietrich, the real love of Joe’s life was a small boy-doll named Lord Tod Wadley, to whom she remained devoted throughout her remarkable life. She died, aged 93, in 1993. 

Should I even bother writing a review? I’m pretty tempted to just leave it at the blurb and a link to Book Depository.

But I won’t because The Queen of Whale Cay (Bloomsbury, 1997) is fucking fabulous and I want to gush about it.

First, HOW WAS JOE CARSTAIRS NOT ON MY RADAR BEFORE NOW??!! I mean, what a life! From the literary salons of Paris, to the Bright Young People’s parties in London, to grand adventures and love affairs with movies stars on a private island—the life of Joe Carstairs was that most wonderful of cliche’s: stranger than fiction. Don’t even get me started on Lord Tod Wadley. You cannot make this stuff up. Even before I finished the book, I’d added Joe to my list of five people, dead or alive, that I’d want to invite to a dinner party. (Sorry, Patricia Highsmith: you’re bumped.)

And I only learned about this book, and by extension Joe, by happy accident. I’d been sent a review copy of Kate Summerscale’s most recent book, The Wicked Boy, (which I haven’t yet had a chance to read) and saw she was speaking at Adelaide Writers’ Week, so I figured I’d listen in on her session to learn more about The Wicked Boy before I dived in. By the end of Summerscale’s talk, I knew The Wicked Boy would have to wait a little longer: I needed to read The Queen of Whale Cay first. As in, immediately. It just seemed too good a story to be true. I mean, here’s this woman who was so utterly unique and yet somehow also very specifically a product of her time. And what a time! Much of the book focuses on Joe’s work as a mechanic and chauffeur and later as a speed-boat racer in the 1920s, and then her early years on Whale Cay in the 1930s and 40s when she transformed the impoverished island into a thriving economic success. Here was this woman who found herself in the very privileged position of being rich enough to snub her nose at all the things that were expected of her as a woman at that time. She could dress as she wished, sleep with whom she wanted (Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde, was among her early lovers) and be wholly and unapologetically herself—and she took full advantage of that.

But, extraordinary as Carstairs’ story is, it’s Summerscale’s retelling that makes The Queen of Whale Cay such a memorable read. Not only is her style highly engaging, Summerscale has a brilliant knack for blending analysis and storytelling. For example, there is a fabulous chapter titled ‘The Neverland’ in which Summerscale explores the many parallels between Joe’s obsession with boyishness and life on Whale Cay with the story of Peter Pan. Looking at Joe through a contemporary lens, it would be easy to code her as transgender, but Summerscale takes pains to point out that this is inaccurate, or at the very least, an oversimplification. While Joe dressed and behaved in ways that were perceived as ‘male’, she didn’t want to be a man, she wanted to be a boy. (On an interesting but totally tangential note: it’s this same word—’boy’—that Joe’s contemporary, Daphne du Maurier, used when writing about her alter-ego, ‘the boy in the box’.) While Whale Cay became economically prosperous under Joe’s management, her lifestyle on the island had the feel of a Boys’ Own adventure story: there were sailing expeditions, wild parties, elaborate pranks played on unsuspecting guests, treasure hunts, crusades against the powers that be on larger islands, shipwrecked tourists taken hostage, and it seems Joe was rather fond of wielding a cutlass. But of course, and as J. M. Barrie reminds us in the opening line of Peter Pan: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ And Joe wasn’t that child.

In the book’s latter chapters Summerscale recounts the gradual loss of Joe’s fantasy boyhood (and with it her illusions of immortality) as her body slowly betrayed her in her final decades. The great tragedy of Joe’s life, it seems, is that it declined slowly. Unremarkably. In a manner so at odds with Joe herself. My favourite lines in Peter Pan, which Summerscale also quotes, are these: ‘On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.’ And perhaps what I loved most about The Queen of Whale Cay—more even than its wild, rollicking early chapters—is the sense that Summerscale communicates of a coming-of-age story playing out on a grand scale, taking place over decades rather than months or years. In highlighting how this was such a belated and drawn out transition for Joe, she makes the loss of childhood more tragic, an ache more keenly felt.

While Joe is undoubtedly one of history’s more unique personalities, Summerscale is quick to point out that she was also very much typical of her generation, and that her extravagance and eccentricity, her obsession with youth, her androgyny and her tendency to live wholly for the moment were traits shared by many of her peers. The key difference is that Joe endured.

Summerscale writes about Joe as one of the few survivors among her Bright Young friends, an alarming number of whom committed suicide, became addicts and overdosed at a young age, were casualties of war, met some other untimely end or simply grew up. She manages to communicate, beneath the dazzling theatre of Joe’s life, a very specific and insatiable yearning for a moment that’s been lost, and perhaps never really existed to begin with. It’s the same yearning that underpins many fictional works of Joe’s contemporaries: it’s there beneath the wit and in the jolting endings of Nancy Mitford’s novels, woven through Evelyn Waugh’s biting satires and writ large through Brideshead Revisited, and (across the sea) permeates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

It would be easy to just look at Joe Carstairs the myth, and Summerscale gives the impression that perhaps this is what Joe herself wanted (she constantly contradicted herself and deflected when answering personal questions), but Summerscale makes a real effort to seek out and understand the woman behind the myth. In fact, the real triumph of The Queen of Whale Cay lies in Summerscale’s ability to temper theatrics and sensationalism with moments of poignant reflection.

I’ve since read Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (review coming soon), and her style is so engaging, her research so thorough and her analysis so fascinating that she’s basically become one of my favourite non-fiction writers. I’m very much looking forward to The Wicked Boy.

Five stars

See The Queen of Whale Cay on Goodreads and purchase through AmazonBooktopia or Book Depository.

Thanks to Grammarly for picking up twelve critical issues and eighteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

—Margot XO 

Like what you see? Get the latest from Lectito delivered to your inbox. 

Send Me Updates!