on 27 February 2009
Well I won't hold back on this... I loved this book. However I can understand why some people out there might not like it so much, but more of that later. The Bolter can be summed up pretty much by its full title `The Bolter: Idina Sackville - The Woman Who Scandalized 1920's Society and Became White Mischief's Infamous Seductress'. This book promises to be full of gossip and scandal whilst taking a look at just what was going on in the rich upper classes in the 1920's and 1930's. It does exactly what it promises on that front with some very insightful tales even of royalty. It also lifts the lid further on `The Happy Valley' (which I had no knowledge of prior to this book - but I have been looking up on the web like mad) in Africa where bed hopping, drug taking, suicide and murder along with attempted murder all took place.
These things were great, Frances Osborne makes a lot of affairs and bed hopping very easy to keep up with and digest. She also brings in some really interesting social history such as what could and couldn't constitute the rights for divorce and what counted as adultery. She looked at the women suffragettes which were something that Idina and her mother Muriel were very much involved with. It also looks at how war affected people not just in terms of rations but in terms of love and affairs of the heart. All this was wonderfully written and all over too quickly. However for me it was the background on Idina herself along with her childhood, parents and the society she grew up in and how they made her into the character which she became that I found so fascinating.
Yes she was a sexual predator in some ways, no she couldn't be faithful, married and divorced five times, loved to party and left her sons and husband but deep down her story is of struggle and tragedy and how people react to that. Plus she in historical terms as Frances (who is her great-granddaughter) finds, from her family alone regardless of society back in the day, is blamed for this and getting the real insight your opinion is changed. Her first marriage to her true love wasn't a happy one after the war and he ended up marrying his sister's best friend Barbie. Some of the names in this book are wonderful. If all the things that happened to her happened to most people they would have given up aged about 21. However Idina is incredibly strong and fights and pushes to get what she wants which you believe is actually a quite settled life just with lots of sex.
This book also did something that very few books tend to do nowadays (unless I am having trouble keeping up) which is to make notes. There are some wonderful quotes such as when Idina describes why she married one of her husbands `he had broad shoulders, a long attention span and an endless supply of handkerchiefs' and facts that I felt I wanted to chase up and learn more about. I also laughed and smiled quite a lot too thinking that anyone who loves the words and works of Nancy Mitford would be right at home with this. It does appear she very much borrowed from Idina and her real story for her own fiction. I also actually felt very solemn when the book ended and quite moved.
All in all a marvellous book which I would recommend to Mitford fans and particularly people who wouldn't normally pick up a non fiction novel
on 8 June 2009
I did not think I would enjoy this book as I had to read it for my book club. But the more I read the more I liked it.
Its the tale of a woman during the first world war and after. Her life seems to be fairly normal but then she becomes a scarlet woman after she bolts from her first marriage.
She runs away from her first marriage and sets off on a life of debauchery and many more marriages. But she pays a heavy personal price for that life.
Set in both England and Kenya among the upper classes who did not need to work, they just partied and had fun.
That fun often went way beyond what was accpetable and the life of Idina Sackville is a glimpse into a world I had no idea existed.
This is well worth the read and all the more riveting because it opens a door into a completely different world.
At the end of the book you can decide whethe r she was pushed into that life by circumstance or whether she was never the sort to settle quietly into the role of a good wife.
I brought this book having seen "White Mischief" and being fascinated by that period. Apart from knowing of "The Bolter" through the Mitford book "Love in a cold climate" (which I recall more from the televised version in '80's) I knew nothing of Idina.
I was a bit concerned that as the author was her great-grand daughter she would either try to whitewash Idina's behaviour or embelish it for greater effect. In fact she did neither, instead she sought to understand her but in doing so encountered the fact that the morals of the day were more difficult and more complex than today's society. Whilst Idina married her first husband for love she had to accept that he would bed other women, so she worked hard to hold his interest without being critical of his behaviour. Nowadays, I doubt if any sector of society would readily accept that level of infidelity almost from the start of a marriage. Idina also signed the equivalent of a pre-nup agreement so leaving her extremely wealthly husband could not have been an easy decision. Add to this the fact she left her very young children and agreed to her husband not to see them again, even through she was their main carer and he had hardly seen them in the previous year. All in all Idina's decision does seem very reckless, thus the author's seeks not only to find out why but to explain it to us. Of course after the decision was made Idiana had to live with the consequences and the fact that she was now of great interest to the world media. Unlike today Idina did not have a publicist to handle things for her and her decision to exile herself to Kenya may have been partly to remove herself from this media interest. The fact that at no stage does she appear to consider amending her sexual behaviour reflects its acceptability within the crowd she inhabited and her own belief in herself.
Part of me admires Idiana's strength, but I wonder whether it comes from being afraid of showing her own weaknesses, especially if she was still in love with her first husband when she left him.
Whatever your reason her buying this book you will find Idina's life story to be an interesting one. She had too much style to be deemed "a ladette of her day" but maybe, but by not being willing to let men have it all their own way, she could be viewed as a feminist.
Using documents and photographs that have never before been available, along with private diaries and interviews with some of those who knew Idina Sackville, author Frances Osborne creates a lively, readable, and well researched biography which attempts to understand what aspects of Idina Sackville's early family life might have helped create a person so flamboyant, sexually adventurous, and hedonistic that she became world famous. For over thirty years, Idina Sackville had done exactly what she wanted, becoming famous on three continents for her outrageous sexual exploits, her nudity at parties, the bed-hopping games she invented for house parties, her drinking, and even her occasional experimentation with drugs. Her friends, especially in Kenya's Happy Valley, equally amoral, participated in several shootings or attempted shootings, the highly publicized murder of one of Idina's ex-husbands, the subsequent trial for that murder involving another member of Happy Valley, several suicides, and cases of drug addiction, one of them leading to death.
Beginning with Idina's earliest background, the author, Idina's great-granddaughter, explores the family history. Idina's father, Gilbert Sackville, the 8th Earl of De La Warr, possessed an eight hundred-year-old title but very little income. Her mother, Muriel Brassey, was the non-aristocratic granddaughter of an unbelievably successful man of trade. After a few years of marriage, when Muriel tired of paying for her husband's indiscretions, however, she shocked society by suing for divorce, almost unheard of among the aristocracy. This, combined with her involvement in socialist causes and the suffrage movement further alienated her from "polite" society and tainted the futures of her children. The author believes that this had a major impact on the future course of Idina's life.
Marriages among the aristocracy were frequently marriages of convenience, allowing both husbands and wives to take lovers, often from among their married friends. Married lovers, unlike lovers who were single, did not expect to divorce their husbands and marry their lovers, thereby preserving everyone's family assets - and if a pregnancy resulted, the child could be incorporated into the woman's already existing family. When Idina eventually met and married a wealthy, and titled, young Calvary officer, David Euan Wallace, as much of a party animal as she was, World War I intervened. Eventually, she divorced him to escape to Kenya with someone else, forced to leave her two young sons behind, though she claimed to her dying day that she loved Euan. Eventually, she would have four more marriages and divorces and would become the "undisputed Queen of Happy Valley" in Kenya, her bed referred to as "the battleground."
Most readers will become so involved in the story that they will probably ignore the sometimes awkward descriptions, the simple conclusions, and the possibly incorrect motivations attributed to the characters. A fascinating sociological study of the mores of aristocratic England and a personal study of Idina Sackville, who was both its victim and its most celebrated example, The Bolter will fascinate those interested in this period and in the unstated rules of aristocratic life.
on 23 May 2008
I cannot help thinking that Idina "The Bolter" was not very interesting as a person. Her actions often seem so mindless, ill-thought through or simply horrible - like leaving her two young children behind to run off with some chap. Also, she doesn't really come through as a proper person, the occasional soundbites ("Simply heaven, darling") are hardly the sort of stuff to make her real and complex. But despite all that, I still enjoyed the book very much. It provides a unique insight into an era where people were totally and utterly different from today. Their daring, their irresponsibility, their disregard for their own well-being often leaves one gasping. I think Frances Osborne managed to paint a vivid picture of an era, even though the main character, Idina, remains opaque. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
The author of this book disovered purely by chance that she was related to Idina Sackville, a woman who spent much of her life involved in, and causing, scandal. Thankfully, she decided to try to discover more about her and this is the result, a sympathetic but honest appraisal of her life from Edwardian London to Happy Valley in Kenya. Idina was herself the child of divorced parents, who had an unconventional mother and found herself frowned upon as a suitable bride when she became a debutante. However, glamorous and outgoing, she made an impressive match when she married the incredibly rich and handsome Euan Wallace. Their early married life was interrupted by the First World War and, as children came and they were separated by events and change, it affected them. Idina was unwilling to put up with Euan's affairs and the marriage could not be saved.
In hindsight, it is easy to see where, and how, things go wrong. This divorce was shocking at a time when marriages between members of the aristocracy had different boundaries. Affairs were commonplace, but divorce was not. When Idina walked away from her marriage she had to leave behind her two sons. What follows are the stories of four more marriages. Charles Gordon, Josslyn Hay (infamously murdered in Kenya), Donald Haldeman and Vincent Soltan. Gossip surrounded Idina, with rumours of scandalous behaviour at the beautiful homes she created in Kenya. Much of what happened seems shocking, even today, with you feeling pity - not only for Idina herself, who seemed to need somebody to cling to in order to prove her attraction - but also for her children. This is a moving, and often tragic, account of a life - however, it was certainly a life lived to the full. Lastly, I read the kindle version of this book and it contained no illustrations.
on 28 January 2009
I eagerly picked up this book, ready to devour an era long passed, and indulge in all it's scandal and luxury, and maybe on that level, I wasn't disappointed. But I just felt that although the author clearly has a lovely style of writing, the book was more of her personal search of her family history, and this has been put before the need to retain the reader's interest.
I just didn't feel as though the actual version of events lived up to the title, or the blurb. I felt as though there was something missing, and at the end of the book, I wasn't left feeling as though I knew or understood either Idina or her contemporaries. I think the exploration of the characters reached only very shallow water, and the chronology was sometimes disjointed and clumsy.
Maybe I am being harsh, I don't know, but all in all whilst I did enjoy this book on some level, it wasn't as satisfying as I had hoped.
on 13 May 2016
I enjoyed reading this book, it is an 'easy read' - ideal for taking on holiday for instance. The insights into the early colonial set-up in Kenya are also interesting. However, ultimately the subject/s of the book - the privileged British upper classes - are not an endearing subject matter. The degree to which they squander their status, education and money (whilst retainng their sense of superiority) is rather repulsive. So, although I'm glad I read it - it isn't a book that I will remember for long.
on 6 August 2012
I recently read `The Temptress: The Scandalous Life of Alice, Countess De Janze' by Paul Spicer; a book so compelling and beautifully written that I was sorry when it ended. For that reason, I picked up `The Bolter.' Notorious socialite Idina Sackville features in Spicer's book, so I was looking forward to learning more about her. Sadly, though Sackville is fascinating, Frances Osborne's biography of her is not.
The first 100 pages or so are mainly concerned with Idina's first marriage to Euan Wallace. It's clear that Osborne is virtually transcribing events from terse entries in Euan's tiny travel diary (an object Osborne describes in unnecessary detail in chapter 5). She seems to recount - in painstaking chronological order - every occasion, every visit, every telegram sent and letter received between the time Idina and Euan married and the time they divorced. She tells us what time they went to a dance, how many times they danced and with whom, and what time they arrived home. She tells us what they had for breakfast, what time they played tennis, who they went for a drive with later that afternoon. Though she frequently hints at the impending collapse of the marriage, it's an age before we get there. The narrative quickly devolves into a mere list. If you watched `Days of Our Lives' for 6 months and recorded in succinct sentences every single thing that happened, you couldn't come up with something more mind-numbingly boring.
What's more frustrating is that Osborne fleshes out the bare bones of Euan's diary with wordy embellishments at every opportunity, as though she were writing a novel. For example, "at twenty to one precisely Idina grazed her lips on Euan's moustache," "Idina, glowing... watched Euan walk towards her. His cap was straight, his shoulders still square, feet stepping briskly forward," "ashen sandwiches, scones and transparent jam were arranged around the gently diminishing stacks of an empty cake platter..." These details are not only unnecessary but annoying. It is fictionalisation, because of course there is no way Osborne could know that Idina "grazed Euan's moustache" or that "his cap was straight." The tone is patronising and twee, as though she were writing a wartime romance novel instead of a biography. I don't think Osborne has a gift for synthesising research in a way that makes a fluent and readable narrative. Her process didn't give me any insight into Idina and Euan's marriage. Its demise is still a mystery to me. She would have been much better editing Euan's diary heavily, skipping the flowery language, and just telling a compelling story of a brief and doomed marriage.
I can see why this book made it on Oprah's summer reading list. It's chick lit, replete with cutesy details about sexual excitement ("even the married women became more predatory in a near-frantic need to prove themselves still able to attract a new man"), pretty clothes ("she dressed for Paris: a tunic coat, a single row of buttons running down over her left breast to just below the knee") and food ("a feast of coffee, croissants, des oeufs pour les anglais, spread out over a thick, white, starched tablecloth that hung to the floor.") It's `women's writing' in the grand tradition of `Eat, Pray, Love" or books about the transformative power of French cooking and holidays in Tuscany (incidentally, I am a female reader). Osborne wants us to connect with Idina, and to think of her as a mid-century Carrie Bradshaw; fun, flirty, liberated. To this end, she makes some nauseating generalisations about women, such as "The worse a woman behaves, the better she needs to look in order to hold her head high" and "One of the things a woman does when she wants to know how much a man loves her is see how large a piece of jewellery she can persuade him to buy." (This is news to me.)
She also wants us to think of Idina as a desperate romantic, deep and emotional. On the brink of divorce, Euan's "face was still the same one that [Idina] had spent years wanting to reach out and touch" she writes. As the couple sits down to talk, by a window overlooking Hyde Park (which Osborne describes in mournful detail), "burdened with a saucer and a cup full to the brim with scalding liquid... and a sandwich plate," Idina farewells her husband in a pitiful and largely fictionalised conversation. Euan sums it up briefly in his diary thus: "Important discussion with D after tea, explains much thank goodness." No mention of teacups or the "dulling green autumn grass" and "bare-armed trees" of Hyde Park.
This is what's wrong with Osborne's writing. I think it misrepresents Idina and Euan. They both had extra-marital affairs, and by all accounts Idina and others of her set were infamously pragmatic about marriage and sexual relationships. I just don't think Idina Sackville was the simpering, melancholy romantic that Osborne wants her to be. I think she was jolly and unflappable and amoral, and thoroughly British in her attitude to emoting.
The constant description is wearying. Cold beer is "glacial" and shiny cars are "gleaming." No book should have more than one description of a generic white tablecloth. It's as though Osborne wrote this with a thesaurus in one hand. She describes "cigarettes tipping out of long, black holders slid between grey gloved fingers" and writes "Gin fizzes saw out the afternoon until teatime, when sundowners of ferocious spirit blends kicked in..." She wants to immerse her reader in the ephemera of the era, and the mood of each moment ("The pace of their chatter quickened as the alcohol flowed through their veins") but this tactic falls flat. I think we're supposed to giggle and clink our cocktail glasses in glee. Instead I find myself longing for some actual story, some narrative, and some plain masculine verbs. She spends a lot of time describing the scene, rather than telling the story of the person in it with whom we're invested: Idina.
Osborne describes Idina as a romantic at heart; insecure and desperate to hang on to her husbands, especially the first. I think this is wishful thinking. Idina is Osborne's great grandmother - her first husband (Euan) is Osborne's great-grandfather. Osborne makes much of her own vested interest in this story, by writing the first and last chapters of the book in the first person and explaining how she came to write the book. Unfortunately I don't think this adds anything to the story. If anything, it makes the narrative too sentimental. Osborne wants to believe that Euan was the love of Idina's life. She suggests that Idina was heartbroken over the divorce, that they had been desperately in love, asserting that when she died, with a photo of Euan "gazing at her" from beside the bed, Idina said "I should never have left Euan."
In concluding Osborne writes "this book has in a way brought Idina back to life. And with her long, manicured fingernails resting on my forearm, her family is finally coming together." The metaphor is typically clunky and ridiculous, and Osborne's fantasy of being guided by her long-dead great grandmother to bring her "back to life" and unite her disparate descendants is grandiose and unconvincing. Unfortunately, the book doesn't bring Idina to life for me. I don't feel acquainted with anything but the minutiae of her busy social life and dizzying succession of shallow marriages. When I call Idina Sackville to mind, all I can think of is the biographer's endless catalogue of insignificant, fictionalised details that ultimately shed no light on her character : "long, manicured fingernails," "whisky flowing through her veins," "pea soup, Dover sole" and "pure-white, starched tablecloths." There must have been more to her than this.
on 13 May 2015
Full marks to Osborne for the tireless effort and research she deployed in producing an attempt at understanding her recalcitrant ancestor. It must have been a painful journey for her but once the cat was out of the bag I can see she needed to go on it. She didn't shy away from unpleasantness or make excuses, but presented the facts, as she could fathom them, with credit worthy honesty and a certain objectivity that only time can engender.
Idina did come over as a bit of a car crash, displaying the excesses and extremes that act as a magnet for mainstream folk to gawp at. You get the impression that her life was a toxic mix of insecurity, high living, social privilege and deep unhappiness. A life perhaps not well lived, but certainly very lived.
An interesting insight for those studying the social mores of post Edwardian colonialism. (Or for gawpers).a