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The Bolterby Frances Osborne
This illuminating biography of Idina Sackville fulfilled my expectations, exploring the desires, wildness, and sadness of a woman enticed by an age of jazz dancing and intoxicants, from heights of euphoric delight to depths of tragedy. Bolter includes letters, diaries, and beautiful photos, and is exquisitely written. Lovely. I almost feel like I knew her.
Synopses & Reviews
She was irresistible. She inspired fiction, fantasy, legend, and art.
Some say she was “the Bolter” of Nancy Mitfords novel The Pursuit of Love. She “played” Iris Storm in Michael Arlens celebrated novel about fashionable Londons lost generation, The Green Hat, and Greta Garbo played her in A Woman of Affairs, the movie made from Arlens book. She was painted by Orpen; photographed by Beaton; she was the model for Molyneauxs slinky wraparound dresses that became the look fo the age—the Jazz Age.
Though not conventionally beautiful (she had a “shot-away chin”), Idina Sackville dazzled men and women alike, and made a habit of marrying whenever she fell in love—five husbands in all and lovers without number.
Hers was the age of bolters, and Idina was the most celebrated of them all.
Her father was the eighth Earl De La Warr. In a society that valued the antiquity of families and their money, hers was as old as a British family could be (eight hundred years earlier they had followed William the Conqueror from Normandy and been given enough land to live on forever . . . another ancestor, Lord De La Warr, rescued the starving Jamestown colonists in 1610, became governor of Virginia, and gave his name to the state of Delaware). Her mothers money came from “trade”; Idinas maternal grandfather had employed more men (85,000) than the British army and built one third of the worlds railroads.
Idinas first husband was a dazzling cavalry officer, one of the youngest, richest, and best-looking of the available bachelors, with “two million in cash.” They had a seven-story pied-à-terre on Connaught Place overlooking Marble Arch and Hyde Park, as well as three estates in Scotland. Idina had everything in place for a magnificent life, until the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the newlyweds world—the world theyd assumed would last forever—to collapse in less than a year.
Like Mitfords Bolter, young Idina Sackville left her husband and children. But in truth it was her husband who wrecked their marriage, making Idina more a boltee than a bolter. Soon she found a lover of her own—the first of many—and plunged into a Jazz Age haze of morphine. She became a full-blown flapper, driving about London in her Hispano-Suiza, and pusing the boundaries of behavior to the breaking point. British society amy have adored eccentrics whose differences celebrated the values they cherished, but it did not embrace those who upset the order of things. And in 1918, just after the Armistice was signed, Idina Sackville bolted from her life in England and, setting out with her second husband, headed for Mombasa, in search of new adventure.
Frances Osborne deftly tells the tale of her great-grandmother using Idinas never-before-seen letters; the diaries of Idinas first husband, Euan Wallace; and stories from family members. Osborne follows Idina from the champagne breakfasts and thé dansants of lost-generation England to the foothills of Kenyas Aberdare moutnains and the wild abandon of her role in Kenyas disintegration postwar upper-class life. A parade of lovers, a murdered husband, chaos everywhere—as her madcap world of excess darkened and crumbled around her.
"Osborne's lively narrative brings Lady Idina Sackville (an inspiration for Nancy Mitford's character the Bolter) boldly to life, with a black lapdog named Satan at her side and a cigarette in her hand. Osborne (Lilla's Feast) portrays a desperately lonely woman who shocked Edwardian high society with relentless affairs and drug-fueled orgies. Idina's story unfolds in an intimate tone thanks to the author, her great-granddaughter, who only accidentally discovered the kinship in her youth with the media serialization of James Fox's White Mischief. Osborne makes generous use of sources and private family photos to add immediacy and depth to the portrait of a woman most often remembered as an amoral five-time divorce: the author shows her hidden kindnesses at her carefully preserved Kenyan cattle ranch — a refuge from the later destructive Kenyan massacres. Still, Osborne unflinchingly exposes Idina's flaws — along with those of everyone else in the politely adulterous high society — while ably couching them in the context of the tumultuous times in which Idina resolved to find happiness in all the wrong places. The text, most lyrical when describing the landscapes around Idina's African residences, proves that an adventurous spirit continues to run in this fascinating family. 66 photos, (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The Bolter" is a biography of Lady Idina Sackville, cousin of the novelist Vita Sackville-West, written by Idina's great-granddaughter Frances Osborne. The idea was given to the author by Errol Trzebinski (author of a biography of Joss Hay, the 22nd earl of Errol, Idina's third husband), who persuaded Osborne "that not only was there a book in Idina, but it was one that ought to be written." ... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Certainly Osborne follows in the tradition of her class. One can't help but notice that these people were (and are) assiduous about writing biographies and appreciations of one another, painting one another's portraits, leaving behind sloughs of snapshots of one another laughing at picnics. They were aware, at every turn, of the obligation to make their own history — even if, at times, there wasn't anything particularly historic about them. Idina Sackville is memorable for having been married and divorced five times, beginning in 1913. Thus her nickname, "the bolter." But she was reviled — it's hard to say how widely — for leaving Euan Wallace, her astonishingly rich and handsome husband, and for deserting her two young sons, David and Gee, leaving them to the care of a chilly stepmother and a flock of indifferent caretakers. They wouldn't see her again for over two decades. In those days, that kind of behavior wasn't "on" (well, it still isn't). The English upper classes had condoned extramarital affairs for years, as long as marriages and property were kept safe. (The author includes a charming reason for the favored "cinq a sept" — 5 to 7 p.m. — hours for adultery: "It took some considerable time for a lady to unbutton and unlace her layers of corsets, chemises, and underskirts, let alone button and lace them up again. Lovers therefore visited just after tea, when ladies were undressing in order to exchange their afternoon clothes for their evening ones.") So it wasn't adultery alone that sent Idina down an unfortunate path. It was probably the stress of the Great War, coupled with the callow character of Wallace, who seems, from his diary entries at least, to have been an upper-class twit. The couple had married in 1913. Idina immediately got pregnant. The next year Euan was off to the war. He was wounded, came home for a while and got Idina pregnant again. When he next returned — for two months — Idina was seriously ill with a lung affliction. Euan wasn't up for that inconvenience and went for weeks without seeing her, preferring instead the company of her younger sister, Avie, and the predatory husband-hunter Barbie Lutyens, daughter of a famous architect. These young girls annexed Euan and, together with some others, whiled away their time playing tennis, riding horses and dancing to the gramophone. Idina lay sick at home, seething. She left no diary, but the author suggests that because her own mother had been deserted by her father, Idina determined that if anyone were to do the leaving in this marriage, it would be her. Euan seems to have been entirely surprised that anyone would want to leave him — him! — and insisted upon sole custody of their boys. He then dived directly into the arms of Barbie Lutyens. Idina went off to Kenya with the man who became Husband No. 2. The section dealing with World War I, held together by entries from Euan's diary, is the weakest part of the book. Gramophone, gramophone. Tennis, tennis. Rides, glorious rides. The thought occurs: Why, again, am I reading this book? Just what remarkable things are these people supposed to have done? It's slow going and disagreeably thin. After that first divorce, though, things pick up. English expatriates in Kenya were a raucous bunch, and society in Nairobi featured some names we're familiar with today, such as Baroness Blixen (aka the writer Isak Dinesen) and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton. We've been conditioned to think of their lives as glamorous, and maybe they were. The adventuring English upper class believed seriously in the consolations of adultery, alcohol, drugs and building fabulous houses. Idina built a charming one, but then that marriage blew up. Her third husband, Joss Hay, 10 years younger than she, was unfaithful from the start, but since it was mostly with Idina's best friend, she didn't seem to mind. She and Joss built a lovely house called Slains. They gave wild parties with wife-swapping. They went on safari. Idina had a daughter. Then Joss met an older woman with an even nicer house, and left. And so on, through Husbands Nos. 4 and 5. With No. 4, Idina built a really gorgeous place, Clouds, but she couldn't stop her bad habit of adultery, and her husband took potshots at all those he suspected. In any event, she vowed she would stay in the house after they separated, and she did. The author presents theories about all this: Idina craved true love; she was deeply insecure; she lacked self-confidence. But there's no real proof of any of this to be found in the text. She left no diaries, and her few letters are unexceptional. She had a very bad reputation and seemed to have been very glamorous. Is that enough to carry a whole book? For some, apparently it is. "The Bolter" got wonderful reviews in England. But nobody in this book seems to wonder what they're supposed to be doing in this life. They spend their time getting married and divorced, getting sloshed and doing drugs. I'm all for that stuff in principle. But in this case, these characters make those activities as momentous as mowing the lawn. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Published in England to unanimous acclaim (Frances Osborne has brilliantly captured not only one woman's life but an entire lost society--Amanda Foreman): the life of the beautiful, fearless Idina Sackville--descendant of one of England's oldest families--who was the cause of one of the great scandals of Edwardian England.
She was irresistible: slight, girlish, well dressed, and though not conventionally beautiful (she had a shotaway chin), she dazzled men and women alike. She made a habit of marrying (five times) whenever she fell in love and taking lovers whenever she wanted. But her notoriety was sealed when she left her husband and two young children in search of a new adventurous life and bolted to Kenya, where in the 1920s she became known as the high priestess of the Happy Valley set.
Osborne deftly pieces together the tale of her great-grandmother using Idina's never-before-seen letters; the diaries of Idina's first husband, Euan Wallace; and stories from family members. Osborne follows Idina from the champagne breakfasts and thes dansants of lost generation England to the endless rounds of parties and foothills of Kenya's Aberdare mountains, to the wild abandon of her role in Kenya's disintegrating postwar upperclass life--her parade of lovers, a murdered husband, chaos everywhere--as her own madcap world of excess darkened and crumbled around her.
About the Author
Frances Osborne was born in London and studied philosophy and modern languages at Oxford University. She is the author of Lillas Feast. Her articles have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, the Daily Mail, and Vogue. She lives in London with her husband, a Member of Parliament, and their two children.
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History and Social Science » Europe » Great Britain » 20th Century