The Bolter

( 33 )

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"She was irresistible. She inspired fiction, fantasy, legend, and art." "Some say she was "the Bolter" of Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit of Love. She "played" Iris Storm in Michael Arlen's celebrated novel about fashionable London's lost generation, The Green Hat, and Greta Garbo played her in A Woman of Affairs, the movie made from Arlen's book. She was painted by Orpen; photographed by Beaton; she was the model for Molyneaux's slinky wraparound dresses that became the look fo the age - the Jazz Age." "Though not conventionally beautiful (she ...

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Overview

"She was irresistible. She inspired fiction, fantasy, legend, and art." "Some say she was "the Bolter" of Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit of Love. She "played" Iris Storm in Michael Arlen's celebrated novel about fashionable London's lost generation, The Green Hat, and Greta Garbo played her in A Woman of Affairs, the movie made from Arlen's book. She was painted by Orpen; photographed by Beaton; she was the model for Molyneaux's 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 mother's money came from "trade"; Idina's maternal grandfather had employed more men (85,000) than the British army and built one third of the world's railroads." "Idina's 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-á-terre on Connaught Place overlooking Marble Arch and Hyde Park, as well as three estatesin Scotland. Idina had everything in place for a magnificent life, until the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the newlyweds' world - the world they'd assumed would last forever - to collapse in less than a year." "Like Mitford's 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 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 thi dansants of lost-generation England to the foothills of Kenya's Aberdare moutnains and the wild abandon of her role in Kenya's 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.

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  • Frances Osborne
    Frances Osborne  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Frances Osborne's notions about her venerable, staid family tree were shaken to the roots when she began reading the serialization of James Fox's 1983 White Mischief exposé of her aristocratic great-grandmother's drug and alcohol-fueled orgies. According to the book, Lady Idina Sackville's "Happy Valley" set of British expatriates dealt with the loneliness of Kenyan cattle country by excessive imbibing and promiscuity. Almost on the spot, Osborne decided to investigate her much-maligned ancestor. This fully illustrated biography reveals a woman far more complicated and sympathetic than stereotypical media concoctions. Now in paperback.

Michiko Kakutani
In The Bolter Frances Osborne, Idina's great-granddaughter, creates a vivid portrait of her scandalous ancestor and her relationships with family members, while conjuring a vanished world with novelistic detail and flair. She gives us a guided tour of the Edwardian era of country house parties and the baronial splendor (and wretched excess) that the rich and very rich enjoyed in the years before World War I, as well as the frantic, partygoing world of the 1920s, immortalized in Waugh novels like Vile Bodies.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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 divorcée: 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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Lady Idina Sackville must be among the last of the titled and scandalous Brits of the post-World War I era whose lives have not yet been recorded in biography. Osborne, her great-granddaughter, has filled that small gap with this gossipy story, which takes its name from a sad minor character that novelist Nancy Mitford is said to have modeled on Idina in The Pursuit of Love. The Mitford connection is pretty much it for a claim to fame. In 1919 Idina deserted a fabulously wealthy husband and two toddlers to marry a lover and buy a farm in her beloved Kenya, where she turned up again (and usually built another house) with each of her subsequent three husbands. Osborne recounts with gusto the byzantine sexploits of Idina, her husbands, and their many houseguests. She claims that Idina also served as the model for the vamp heroine of Michael Arlen's sensational 1920s best seller The Green Hat. VERDICT This is not a work of great depth; typical of the haphazard construction of the book, Osborne forgets to tell us if either Mitford or Arlen actually knew Idina. Still, those who enjoy stories (fiction or nonfiction) of the past's oversexed and idle rich (and there are lots of these readers) will love this book.—Stewart Desmond, New York City


—Stewart Desmond
Kirkus Reviews
Sordid tales of aspiration and debauchery among the minor aristocracy of Britain. Osborne (Lilla's Feast: A Story of Food, Love, and War in the Orient, 2004) doesn't mean to malign her great-grandmother, the perpetrator of much bad behavior and the protagonist of this book. Indeed, by her account Idina Sackville earns points for not being a "husband stealer" and for being what one friend called "preposterously-and secretly-kind." Yet Idina, daughter of the philandering Earl De La Warr, took up with odd company early on. Her parents were unintended role models. Idina's mother, writes Osborne, married the earl to gain a title, and the earl, known as "Naughty Gilbert," married Idina's mother for her money. Eventually, Idina married rich, too-one of the richest men in Britain, in fact, "rich enough for his social ambitions to withstand marrying a girl from a scandalous family." She spent months designing a Xanadu featuring a "rabbit warren of dozens of nursery bedrooms and servants' rooms," but, alas, never got to see the pleasure dome completed, since the marriage turned out to be loveless and lost. Idina moved on, as she would four more times, ending up in British East Africa, where she made a hearty game of spouse-swapping and wound up figuring in stories that, among other things, would yield the aptly titled 1987 film White Mischief, as well as Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love (1945) and other period books-to say nothing of plenty of tabloid tales. Osborne, who writes pleasantly and carefully, hints that Idina was a pioneering feminist, but this portrait makes her appear to be self-absorbed and sad, living out a boozy, wandering and generally feckless life. Of interest toroyal-watchers and certain strains of anglophiles, perhaps, but a sansculotte may wonder what the point is.
From the Publisher
“Engrossing and beautifully written. . . . [An] affecting story.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Intoxicating.” —People
 
“If notorious relatives make for the best dinner-party anecdotes, then Frances Osborne should be able to dine out for decades…. Enthralling.” —The Plain Dealer

“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. . . . Frances Osborne . . . conjure[s] a vanished world with novelistic detail and flair.” —The New York Times

“An engaging book, drawing a revealing portrait of a remarkable woman and adding humanity to her ‘scandalous’ life. . . . Ms. Osborne has succeeded in her stated aim, to write a book that ‘has in a way brought Idina back to life.’ And what a life it was.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Vibrant. . . . Osborne connects vast expanses of the dots that formed Idina’s reality: the gender inequalities in Edwardian England, the economic imperatives of colonialism, the mores of upper-class adultery, the differences between Idina’s aristocratic father . . . and her merely wealthy mother.” —Newsday
 
“Intelligent, moving, and packed with exquisite detail.” —Providence Journal
 
“[Idina Sackville’s] life story, speckled with the names of the rich and famous, is a miniature history lesson, bringing into sharp focus both world wars, the Jazz Age, and the colonization of Kenya. . . . Sackville’s passion lights up the page.” —Entertainment Weekly
 
“[A] rumbustious and harrowing biography that takes us from London to Newport to Kenya. . . . A feast for the Anglophile.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Brilliant and utterly divine. . . . A breath of fresh air from a vanished world.” —The Daily Beast
 
The Bolter is a biographical treat.” —Good Housekeeping
 
“Fascinating. . . . Paint[s] an interesting picture of Edwardian England, its social mores and rigors giving way to the wildness of pre-depression Europe.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“An engaging, definitive final look back at those naughty people who, between the wars, took their bad behavior off to Kenya and whose upper-class delinquency became gilded with unjustified glamour.” —Financial Times
 
“A sympathetic but evenhanded portrait of a woman driven by needs and desires even she didn’t understand.” —The Columbus Dispatch
 
“Truly interesting. Osborne paints an enthralling portrait of upper class English life just before, during and immediately after the Great War. Frivolous, rich, sexy [and] achingly fashionable.” —The Observer (London)
 
“Even today Lady Idina Sackville could get tongues wagging. . . . A lively portrait of the UK-born troublemaker, a woman who took countless lovers, raised hell in England and Africa, inspired novels by Nancy Mitford and carried around a dog she named Satan. . . . Through [Idina’s] story, we not only get a sexy and difficult-to-put-down read, we also get a good look at the shadow side of this prim and proper era and the real women who defied convention to live in it.”—Jessa Crispin, “Books We Like,” NPR
 
“A racy romp underpinned by some impressive research.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)
 
“Passionate and headstrong, Lady Idina was determined to be free even if the cost was scandal and ruin. Frances Osborne has brilliantly captured not only one woman’s life but an entire lost society.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
 
“Told very much like a novel, The Bolter introduces readers to a world where every rule is broken and creating a scene is the latest fashion accessory.” —The Daily Texan
 
“Not only is it a beautifully written, intriguing chronicle of a frenetic, privileged, and profoundly sad life, it catches a social group and the mad-cap lives they led—so luxurious, so wasted. . . . Superb.” —Barbara Goldsmith, author of Obsessive Genius and Little Gloria. . . Happy at Last
 
“Drawing on family letters, Osborne’s portrait creates sympathy not for Idina’s reckless behavior but for the emotional emptiness that provoked her far-flung, self defeating yet undeniably glamorous search for love.” —More
 
“Fascinating. . . . Beautifully written. . . . Frances Osborne brings the decadence of Britain’s dying aristocracy vividly to life in this story of scandal and heartbreak.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
 
“Sex, money, glamour, and scandal make Idina Sackville’s story hard to put down.  What brings that story to life is the courage of an incorrigibly stylish survivor. Searching for the woman behind the legend, Osborne [gives us] a heroine impossible to resist.”  —Frances Kiernan, author of The Last Mrs. Astor and Seeing Mary Plain: A life of Mary McCarthy

The Barnes & Noble Review
Say you're 13 years old and reading the Sunday paper when you're transfixed by the story of Idina Sackville, a woman so wild, so daring and dazzling and decadent that it seems sinful to let your little sister see it. And when a fight over the newspaper leads your parents to admit that Idina is, in fact, your great grandmother, what do you do? In the case of Frances Osborne, who suddenly found herself related to one of the most scandalous black sheep of one of England's oldest families, you become obsessed. And then, when you're old enough, you write The Bolter. The relative whose shocking life had caused her to be scrubbed from the family tree became Osborne's passion. And little wonder. Idina, though not a great beauty, was irresistible to men and women alike. She married five times (thus, the Bolter) and had countless lovers. She threw grand dinner parties and notorious spouse-swapping house parties. She had a farm in Africa, two abandoned sons in England, and an utter lack of interest in a conventional life. Though Idina's life was chronicled in the newspapers and scandal sheets of her day, Osborne, an author and journalist, brings depth and context to her infamous great-grandmother. Through interviews with family members and by poring over letters and diaries, Osborne gets beyond the salacious and sensational and introduces us to a real woman. Dense with detail, The Bolter can occasionally be heavy going. But Idina, as mesmerizing as she is doomed, saves it. --Veronique de Turenne
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307270146
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

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-Honoré, 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 falsehoods and omissions. Five minutes earlier I had been reading a newspaper, awestruck at a stranger’s exploits. Now I could already feel my great-grandmother’s long, manicured fingernails resting on my forearm as I wondered which of her impulses might surface in me.

“Why did you keep her a secret?” I asked.

“Because”—my mother paused—“I didn’t want you to think her a role model. Her life sounds glamorous but it was not. You can’t just run off and . . .”

“And?”

“And, if she is still talked about, people will think you might. You don’t want to be known as ‘the Bolter’s’ granddaughter.”

MY MOTHER WAS RIGHT to be cautious: Idina and her blackened reputation glistened before me. In an age of wicked women she had pushed the boundaries of behavior to extremes. Rather than simply mirror the exploits of her generation, Idina had magnified them. While her fellow Edwardian debutantes in their crisp white dresses merely contemplated daring acts, Idina went everywhere with a jet- black Pekinese called Satan. In that heady prewar era rebounding with dashing young millionaires—scions of industrial dynasties—Idina had married just about the youngest, handsomest, richest one. “Brownie,” she called him, calling herself “Little One” to him: “Little One extracted a large pearl ring—by everything as only she knows how,” she wrote in his diary.

When women were more sophisticated than we can even imagine now, she was, despite her small stature, famous for her seamless elegance. In the words of The New York Times, Idina was “well known in London Society, particularly for her ability to wear beautiful clothes.” It was as if looking that immaculate allowed her to behave as disreputably as she did. For, having reached the heights of wealth and glamour at an early age, Idina fell from grace. In the age of the flappers that followed the First World War, she danced, stayed out all night, and slept around more noticeably than her fellows. When the sexual scandals of Happy Valley gripped the world’s press, Idina was at the heart of them. When women were making bids for independence and divorcing to marry again, Idina did so—not just once, but several times over. As one of her many in-laws told me, “It was an age of bolters, but Idina was by far the most celebrated.”

She “lit up a room when she entered it,” wrote one admirer, “D.D.,” in the Times after her death. “She lived totally in the present,” said a girlfriend in 2004, who asked, even after all these years, to remain anonymous, for “Idina was a darling, but she was naughty.” A portrait of Idina by William Orpen shows a pair of big blue eyes looking up excitedly, a flicker of a pink-red pouting lip stretching into a sideways grin. A tousle of tawny hair frames a face that, much to the irritation of her peers, she didn’t give a damn whether she sunburnt or not. “The fabulous Idina Sackville,” wrote Idina’s lifelong friend the travel writer Rosita Forbes, was “smooth, sunburned, golden—tireless and gay—she was the best travelling companion I have ever had . . .” and bounded with “all the Brassey vitality” of her mother’s family. Deep in the Congo with Rosita, Idina, “who always imposed civilization in the most contradictory of circumstances, produced ice out of a thermos bottle, so that we could have cold drinks with our lunch in the jungle.”

There was more to Idina, however, than being “good to look at and good company.” She was a woman with a deep need to be loved and give love in return. “Apart from the difficulty of keeping up with her husbands,” continued Rosita, Idina “made a habit of marrying whenever she fell in love . . . She was a delight to her friends.”

Idina had a profound sense of friendship. Her female friendships lasted far longer than any of her marriages. She was not a husband stealer. And above all, wrote Rosita, “she was preposterously—and secretly—kind.”

As my age and wisdom grew fractionally, my fascination with Idina blossomed exponentially. She had been a cousin of the writer Vita Sackville-West, but rather than write herself, Idina appears to have been written about. Her life was uncannily reflected in the writer Nancy Mitford’s infamous character “the Bolter,” the narrator’s errant mother in The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred. The similarities were strong enough to haunt my mother and her sister, two of Idina’s granddaughters. When they were seventeen and eighteen, fresh off the Welsh farm where they had been brought up, they were dispatched to London to be debutantes in a punishing round of dances, drinks parties, and designer dresses. As the two girls made their first tentative steps into each party, their waists pinched in Bellville Sassoon ball dresses, a whisper would start up and follow them around the room that they were “the Bolter’s granddaughters,” as though they, too, might suddenly remove their clothes.

In the novels, Nancy Mitford’s much-married Bolter fled to Kenya, where she embroiled herself in “hot stuff . . . including horse- whipping and the aeroplane” and a white hunter or two as a husband, although nobody is quite sure which ones she actually married. The fictional Bolter’s daughter lives, as Idina’s real daughter did, in England with her childless aunt, spending the holidays with an eccentric uncle and his children. When the Bolter eventually appears at her brother’s house, she looks immaculate, despite having walked across half a continent. With her is her latest companion, the much younger, non-English-speaking Juan, whom she has picked up in Spain. The Bolter leaves Juan with her brother while she goes to stay at houses to which she cannot take him. “ ‘If I were the Bolter,’ ” Mitford puts into the Bolter’s brother’s mouth, “ ‘I would marry him.’ ‘Knowing the Bolter,’ said Davey, ‘she probably will.’ ”

Like the Bolter, Idina famously dressed to perfection, whatever the circumstances. After several weeks of walking and climbing in the jungle with Rosita, she sat, cross-legged, looking “as if she had just come out of tissue paper.” And her scandals were manifold, including, perhaps unsurprisingly, a case of horsewhipping. She certainly married one pilot (husband number five) and almost married another. There was a white-hunter husband who, somewhat inconveniently, tried to shoot anyone he thought might be her lover. And, at one stage, she found an Emmanuele in Portugal and drove him right across the Sahara and up to her house in Kenya. He stayed for several months, returning the same way to Europe and Idina’s brother’s house. Idina then set off on her tour of the few British houses in which she was still an acceptable guest, leaving the uninvited Emmanuele behind. This boyfriend, however, she did not marry.

Even before that, the writer Michael Arlen had changed her name from Idina Sackville to Iris Storm, who was the tragic heroine of his best- selling portrait of the 1920s, The Green Hat, played by Garbo in A Woman of Affairs, the silent movie version of the book. Idina had been painted by Orpen and photographed by Beaton. Molyneux designed some of the first ever slinky, wraparound dresses for her, and her purchases in Paris were reported throughout the American press. When Molyneux had financial difficulties, Idina helped bail him out. In return he would send her some of each season’s collection, delicately ruffled silk dresses and shirts, in which she would lounge around the stone-and-timber shack of the Gilgil Club.

A FARM HALFWAY UP an African mountain is not the usual place to find such an apparently tireless pleasure-seeker as Idina. Clouds was by no means a shack: by African mountain standards it was a palace, made all the more striking by the creature comforts that Idina—who had designed and built the house—managed to procure several thousand feet above sea level. It was nonetheless a raw environment. Lethal leopard and lion, elephant and buffalo, roamed around the grounds of its working farm, where “Idina had built up one of the strongest dairy herds in Africa,” according to a fellow farmer who used to buy stock from her. Idina took farming immensely seriously, surprising the Kenyans who worked for her with her appetite for hard work. Like them, too, she camped out on safari for weeks on end. But then, as Rosita put it, Idina “was an extraordinary mixture of sybarite and pioneer.”

Up at Clouds, Idina filled her dining table with everyone visiting the house. She made no distinction between her friends and the people working for her, “including the chap who came to mend the gramophone etc.” The gin flowed. She was “always most hospitable . . . absolutely charming and put one completely at one’s ease and I was bowled over by her,” wrote an acquaintance.

However, behind this hard work and high living lay a deep sadness.

When the poet Frédéric de Janzé described his friends (and enemies) in Kenya alphabetically, for Idina he wrote: “I is for Idina, fragile and frail.” When Idina is described, sometimes critically, as living “totally in the present,” it should be remembered that her past was not necessarily a happy place. Driving her wild life, and her second, third, fourth, and fifth marriages, was the ghost of a decision Idina made back in 1918, which had led to that fall from grace. On the day the First World War ended, she had written to her young, handsome, extremely rich first husband, Euan Wallace, and asked for a divorce. She then left him to go and live in Africa with a second husband, in comparison with Euan a penniless man. She went in search of something that she hadn’t found with Euan. And when, not long after, that second marriage collapsed, Idina was left to go on searching. In the words of Michael Arlen’s Iris Storm, “There is one taste in us that is unsatisfied. I don’t know what that taste is, but I know it is there. Life’s best gift, hasn’t someone said, is the ability to dream of a better life.”

Idina dreamt of that better life. Whenever she reinvented her life with a new husband, she believed that, this time round, she could make it happen. Yet that better life remained frustratingly just out of reach. Eventually she found the courage to stop and look back. But, by then, it was too late.

When she died, openly professing, “I should never have left Euan,” she had a photograph of him beside her bed. Thirty years after that first divorce she had just asked that one of her grandsons—through another marriage—bear his name. Her daughter, the boy’s mother, who had never met the ex-husband her mother was talking about, obliged.

At the end of her life, Idina had clearly continued to love Euan Wallace deeply. Yet she had left him. Why?

The question would not leave me.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

The Marriages of Idina Sackville viii

List of Illustrations ix

Claridge's Hotel, Mayfair, 1934 3

Book 1 Edwardian London 5

Book 2 Kenya—Happy Valley 131

Notes 30

Select Bibliography 319

Acknowledgements 323

Index 327

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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)

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2009

    A time piece into a period of English aristocracy history.

    The writing, coming from an English major, from one of England's finest institutions, was shockingly poor. The book was a satisfying airplane book. It rounded out the edges from a familiar upper crust society, decadent with morals, self-absorption, entitlement and grandiosity. Their meaningless and purposeless lives, heavy in judgement and criticism of others that they thought less of, their sense of entitlement to all good things, left me cold. I found The Bolter less than a sympathetic character. She made bad decisions, used people relentlessly, lacked depth and insight into her own behavior and actions, and was not at all surprised by her deserving reputation, her loneliness, loss and abandonment at the end of her life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    What more can be said?

    Osborne's book, in which she gathers the viewpoints of two branches of the family that haven't had contact in nearly a half-century, points out a few notable things about Idina "The Bolter" Sackville that the novels she inspired or the previous chronicles of her life apparently skimmed: her early life affected her later years. She grew up as a child of divorce -- which, back then, was more than just scandalous, it could lose you playmates overnight and force you to endure the whisperers that loved to bring up the scandal every time you ventured into any kind of major social setting. Idina's mother divorced her father to prevent him from wasting HER family's money on his live-in mistress, breaking an unwritten, accepted code among the American and European aristocracy: couples stayed together, even if they hated each other, because marriage for love was a 20th-century notion among their set; up until then, marriage was a contract uniting families of property and/or title, and affairs were just one of the ways couples endured being married. Idina, in a way, had been set up to fail -- her husband indulged his roving eye much like he was expected to do, but Idina, traumatized by her father's desertion, saw it differently. When the divorce came, the husband asserted his rights under the law at that time, married the sister of Idina's own sister's husband (a witch with a capital B who saw to it Idina was erased from her two sons' lives until, one by one, they sought her out as adults in the months before each of them died), which caused the two sisters themselves to be estranged until the sister got divorced years later. Idina would seek love, either romantic or parental, for the rest of her life, one of the few times she came close to finding it being in her relationship with her eldest son, who was enough like her that he was unable to fit into the world his father and stepmother had established after the divorce; he got on a religious kick that made even his father take notice and, ironically, it would be "Dina", with whom he had established secret ties, that would indirectly influence him to move away from religion and into art history. He went to Greece, married, periodically reunited with Idina, and died in the early part of the war. A daughter from one of Idina's later marriages would, ironically, end up having to break off ties with Idina because of the same whisperings Idina endured in her childhood.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 28, 2009

    Great Read!

    Interesting, fast-paced, and intriguing at every turn.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

    No text was provided for this review.

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  • Posted June 27, 2012

    Frances Osborne has written a fascinating biography of her great

    Frances Osborne has written a fascinating biography of her great-grandmother, the impossibly glamorous and notoriously wild Idina Sackville (uh-huh, related to the famous Vita Sackville-West) that reads like a naughty, often tragic, occasionally shocking novel. (Nancy Mitford wrote a novel based on Idina, called “Love in a Cold Climate” which I have yet to read but I will certainly do so now.)

    Booze, drugs, sex, booze, obscene wealth, booze, sex, fabulous clothes, multiple suicides, sex, broken hearts, gunshots in the night, lions and tigers and the Mau Mau uprising . . . oh my, indeed.

    This is the world of the 1920s British colonialists in Kenya – what was called the Happy Valley set, who partied like it was the end of times. If you’ve seen the film “White Mischief” you will recognize Idina as the character he called the ‘high priestess’ of the group. She painted her fingernails green, she named her puppy Satan and bathed in a bathtub filled with champagne while surrounded by her dinner guests. She married and divorced five times by 1945.
    Osborne says she wrote the book in part because she felt her grandmother, who was vilified by the family, to discover “what had made her bolt from a husband she loved? Was there a story behind it, or was it just some impulse, an impulse that one day might resurface in me?” Now that she has two children of her own, just as Idina did when she bolted from her first husband, in effect abandoning the children, this question feels urgent. She does, indeed answer this question, to her own satisfaction, and that of the reader.

    The journey towards understanding is an unnerving one. Were this fiction, we would be inclined to find it far-fetched. As biography, it is a true tragedy, with moments of high farce. Osborne was blessed with what appear to be boatloads of letters and diaries, from which she has been able to create a vivid portrait of the period, the mind-set, the politics and the people. It is a sad story, but one lived on such a grand scale, and told with such a clear voice, it is entirely involving.

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  • Posted January 17, 2011

    You have to read this!

    I like the fact that the author didn't try to get you to side with Idina in the choices she made, good or bad, she simply tells you about her life. I love the picture she paints of how life was for her.

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  • Posted December 8, 2010

    Eye Opening

    This book is an interesting read, and though it began a bit slowly, it did pick up toward the latter half of the book. What I found most compelling about the story is the secretive lifestyle of the Victorian-era English (and the few Americans the book touches on). While I'd always expected those (especially the upper-class) living during the Victorian age to be prudish and the picture of morality, I was stunned by the self-indulgent, highly promiscuous, and morally depraved behavior these "pillars of society" displayed. People have talked about the selfishness, as well as the outlandish and self-destructive behavior of those who were coming of age during 1980's and 90's....but I'll tell you, in my opinion (especially being one who was in her teens through her 20's during that time, and certainly not leading a "sheltered" life) that the latter portion of the 20th century couldn't hold a candle to what was going on during the early 1900's! Those folks took partying to a whole different level! So, if you'd like a peek into the over-indulgent, decadent lifestyles of the rich and famous of the Victorian age, this is book to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2009

    Learned more about Victorian era

    I found the information about life in the upper class Victorian era in Europe and Kenya very interesting. However, the story itself was not as compelling as I had thought it would be. The writer never delves deep enough into Idina's state of mind regarding her children or the choices she made. I kept waiting for more.

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  • Posted October 2, 2009

    I loved this book

    "The Bolter" was fascinating, compelling, and a really interesting book. I am impressed with the research that went into it from so many years ago, and would reccommend it to book clubs.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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