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The Bolterby Frances Osborne
Synopses & Reviews
Thirty years after her death, Idina entered my life like a bolt of electricity. Spread across the top half of the front page of the Review section of the Sunday Times was a photograph of a woman standing encircled by a pair of elephant tusks, the tips almost touching above her head. She was wearing a drop-waisted silk dress, high-heeled shoes, and a felt hat with a large silk flower perching on its wide, undulating brim. Her head was almost imperceptibly tilted, chin forward, and although the top half of her face was shaded it felt as if she was looking straight at me. I wanted to join her on the hot, dry African dust, still stainingly rich red in this black-and-white photograph.
I was not alone. For she was, the newspaper told me, irresistible. Five foot three, slight, girlish, yet always dressed for the Faubourg Saint-Honoréeacute;, she dazzled men and women alike. Not conventionally beautiful, on account of a shotaway chin, she could nonetheless “whistle a chap off a branch. After sunset, she usually did.
The Sunday Times was running the serialization of a book, White Mischief, about the murder of a British aristocrat, the Earl of Erroll, in Kenya during the Second World War. He was only thirty-nine when he was killed. He had been only twenty-two, with seemingly his whole life ahead of him, when he met this woman. He was a golden boy, the heir to a historic earldom and one of Britain's most eligible bachelors. She was a twice-divorced thirty-year-old, who, when writing to his parents, called him the child. One of them proposed in Venice. They married in 1924, after a two-week engagement.
Idina had then taken him to live in Kenya, where their lives dissolved into a round of house parties, drinking, and nocturnal wandering. She had welcomed her guests as she lay in a green onyx bath, then dressed in front of them. She made couples swap partners according to who blew a feather across a sheet at whom, and other games. At the end of the weekend she stood in front of the house to bid them farewell as they bundled into their cars. Clutching a dog and waving, she called out a husky, Good-bye, my darlings, come again soon, as though they had been to no more than a children's tea party.
Idina’s bed, however, was known as the battleground. She was, said James Fox, the author of White Mischief, the high priestess of the miscreant group of settlers infamously known as the Happy Valley crowd. And she married and divorced a total of five times.
IT WAS NOVEMBER 1982. I was thirteen years old and transfixed. Was this the secret to being irresistible to men, to behave as this woman did, while walking barefoot at every available opportunity as well
as being intelligent, well-read, enlivening company”? My younger sister's infinitely curly hair brushed my ear. She wanted to read the article too. Prudishly, I resisted. Kate persisted, and within a minute we were at the dining room table, the offending article in Kate's hand. My father looked at my mother, a grin spreading across his face, a twinkle in his eye.
You have to tell them, he said.
My mother flushed.
“You really do,” he nudged her on.
Mum swallowed, and then spoke. As the words tumbled out of her mouth, the certainties of my childhood vanished into the adult world of family fal
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 thés 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.
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
An O, The Oprah Magazine #1 Terrific Read
In an age of bolters—women who broke the rules and fled their marriages—Idina Sackville was the most celebrated of them all. Her relentless affairs, wild sex parties, and brazen flaunting of convention shocked high society and inspired countless writers and artists, from Nancy Mitford to Greta Garbo. But Idina’s compelling charm masked the pain of betrayal and heartbreak.
Now Frances Osborne explores the life of Idina, her enigmatic great-grandmother, using letters, diaries, and family legend, following her from Edwardian London to the hills of Kenya, where she reigned over the scandalous antics of the “Happy Valley Set.” Dazzlingly chic yet warmly intimate, The Bolter is a fascinating look at a woman whose energy still burns bright almost a century later.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Frances Osborne was born in London and studied philosophy and modern languages at Oxford University. She is the author of Lilla’s 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.
Table of Contents
The marriages of Idina Sackville — Claridge's Hotel, Mayfair, 1934 — Edwardian London — Kenya, Happy Valley.
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