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 agethe 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 lovefive 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 worldthe world theyd assumed would last foreverto 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 ownthe first of manyand 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 everywhereas her madcap world of excess darkened and crumbled around her.
From the Hardcover edition.
Jazz Age celebrity 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. Brilliant and utterly divine.--Michael Korda, "The Daily Beast."
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Depending on who you ask, Idina Sackville was a hundred different things. Her lifelong friend Rosita Forbes claimed that not only was she a vibrant delight to her friends, “she was preposterously—and secretly—kind.” The poet Frédéric de Janzé wrote, “I is for Idina, fragile and frail.” And Frances Osborne’s mother, Idina’s granddaughter, raised her own children to believe that Idina was a bad, selfish woman. After reading The Bolter
, which assessment are you most inclined to agree with?
2. “Along with hunting, shooting, fishing, and charitable works, adultery was one of the ways in which those who did not have to work for a living could fill their afternoons.” Does this statement fit in with your own ideas about Edwardian England? How does it differ?
3. In Edwardian England, the upper classes could misbehave so long as they were not found out. As the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell said, “It doesn't matter what you do in the bedroom, as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” What do you think of this moral code of behavior?
4. Muriel, Idina’s mother, was an unconventional woman herself. How do you think Muriel’s decision to divorce Gilbert and follow her friend Annie Besant into Theosophy affected Idina’s worldview? How could her marriage to Euan be called an act of “rebelling”? Was she right to marry him?
5. World War I obviously took a toll on Idina and Euan’s marriage. Do you think the relationship would have turned out any differently had the war not forced them into such “strange wartime married life”? When Idina bolted with Charles Gordon, do you think things could have still been repaired with Euan, or was she right in thinking her marriage was a lost cause?
6. Is your opinion of Idina’s decision to be separated from her children at all affected by the double standards of the era’s divorce laws or the distant manner in which many upper-class parents brought up their children? What about Euan’s rigid ultimatums?
7. Frances Osborne writes that Idina’s passion for Kenya was to become “her longest love affair.” What do you think drew her to Africa?
8. Idina planned on having an “open” marriage with Joss, both of them were allowed to have lovers, provided that “nothing got too serious.” Do you think that an open marriage could ever work?
9. When asked whether she minded Alice de Janzé sleeping with Joss, Idina said, “But Alice is my best friend.” Idina knew that Alice would not take Joss away from her, but do you think that she really did not mind that relationship?
10. “Idina’s greatest sin was not her need for new sexual excitement but that she insisted upon marrying her boyfriends . . . thus shaking the traditional social structure grounded on lifelong marriages.” Frances Osborne suggests that it was a way to play up her role as a socially outlawed femme fatale. Do you agree? Or do you think Idina meant what she said when she wrote that marriage “is probably the only real solution to happiness”?
11. Idina was a successful and hard working farmer. She treated the people who worked for her well and, like them, went barefoot. How does this affect your view of Idina’s bad behavior?
12. Idina reconnected with her sons when they were adults and struck up a strong bond. To what extent could her relationship with them at this stage be considered mothering? Is it possible, do you think, for a woman to suddenly become a mother to her children after so many years apart? How do you think the relationship would have developed had David and Gee not been killed so soon?
13. In her glittering review of The Bolter, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that “Idina Sackville could have stepped out of an Evelyn Waugh satire about the bright young things who partied away their days in the '20s and '30s, and later crashed and burned.” In what ways do you feel that Idina was emblematic of her times? In what ways do you feel that Idina was a victim of her times?
14. Do you think Idina could ever have had a successful marriage? How different do you think Idina’s love life would have been if she had lived in the 1990's?
15. Who might be considered an “Idina” today? Or have we lost that compelling combination of sophistication and sin?
16. Do you think Idina made any good decisions in her life? Or, which do you think was the most unfortunate one?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Bolter, Frances Osborne’s brilliant biography of her great-grandmother, Idina Sackville.