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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 Bolteris a fascinating look at a woman whose energy still burns bright almost a century later.
The subtitle of this book is “The story of Idina Sackville, who ran away to become the chief seductress of Kenya’s scandalous ‘Happy Valley’ set.” It’s true that Idina Sackville (a cousin of Vita Sackvile-West and the great-grandmother of the author) had a fascinating life; during her lifetime she “bolted” from five husbands and three children, settling down in Kenya. She wasn’t a particularly beautiful woman, but her sexual exploits were legendary, and she inspired characters for several books, namely the Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s novels.The author, Frances Osborne, is a great-granddaughter of Idina; unfortunately, she imposes herself too much into Indina’s story. She also focuses too much on Idina’s sex life and not enough on Idina’s experiences in Kenya, which in itself is an interesting place and worthy of more than just a sketchy description. Because Idina is an ancestor of the author, I kept getting the feeling that she was trying to explain away or downplay Idina’s behavior. The salaciousness of Idina’s life eventually becomes tedious, as the reader begins to wonder what the point of it all was for Idina.It seems as though Idina’s life was mostly comprised of social visits and the like, and the author gives monotonous details of what she did every day. And it’s not as though Idina ever saw the error of her ways or tried to redeem herself (except for perhaps trying to fix her fraught relationship with her elder son, David). There’s no moral to the story, no reason for me to feel any empathy with Idina, especially since she spent most of her life persuing what she thought was happiness and love. The Happy Valley set was made up of a bunch of unlikable characters, but the author tries to paint them in a rosy light. In addition, the author’s prose style is a bit choppy. I can see why she would want to write about Idina and her set, but maybe she was a bit too close to her subject matter to be really objective about it.read more
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The Bolter by Frances Osborne is a Virago biography of Idina Sackville of Happy Valley fame. Osborne has written a sympathetic biography of her great-grandmother. The title is a reference to the Mitford character in Pursuit of Love.Idina Sackville and her crowd of bright, young things had too much time, too much money, and a sense of entitlement which can still shock today. Think of a modern biography where the main characters are Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears and Lindsey Lohan and you get a fairly accurate picture of the crowd Idina ran with. Most of them were a waste of good air that could have been breathed by someone else.Idina was the daughter of the 8th Earl De La Warr and Muriel Brassey. Daddy was a Sackville with the title and little money. Mother was a commoner with lots of money whose family built railroads. They married for practical reasons. Muriel wanted to be a countess and the earl wanted cash. Apparently, Idina's moral compass was formed early when the earl ran off with a can-can dancer and her mother embraced, literally, the Labour Party leader George Lansbury and Theosophy, a hybrid version of Hinduism and Buddhism which advocated "abundant recreational sex within marriage as being healthy for women." Idina liked the abundant recreational sex idea. Not so much the "within marriage" concept.Although she was very bright, Idina disliked school and preferred to expend her energy in looking like a fashion plate at all times. She wore clothes so well that Paris designers offered her their clothes for free if she would wear their line exclusively. She wasn't classically beautiful because she had a weak chin. Since she carried herself like a beauty, the lack of a firm chin didn't seem to matter.Idina married and divorced five times. Her first husband was Euan Wallace who was handsome, had a title, and one of the largest fortunes in the UK. They married young and appeared happy spending lots of money. The problems arose when they were separated. Apparently, neither could manage not having a bed partner for even a short span of time. The bed-hopping began with discreet affairs on both sides, an acceptable Edwardian custom when so many marriages were marriages of convenience. As long as no one officially found out, (Don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses) and as long as there was an heir and a spare, the upper crust didn't much care who was sleeping with whom. This lovely facade of gentility collapsed with WW1. Suddenly, life became too short for such pretense and young people took their pleasure where they could. Well, high society kids did. And here the hypocrisy of society is really exposed. The shop girl who went to bed with her soldier lover was a harlot, but the upper class girl did the same with no backlash. By the end of the war, the habit of secretive bed-hopping became out-in-the-open bed-hopping. When Idina was ill after the birth of her second child, Euan couldn't bother to spend any time with her because he was sleeping with multiple women, most of whom were Idina's friends. Her sister Avie enabled Euan's infidelities by throwing him in the path of her best buddy Barbie Lutyns. Poor Euan couldn't resist the girl and couldn't resist quite a few others. When Idina, upset because his behavior was so open, decided to leave him, Euan asked her to reconsider for the sake of propriety. The one catch was that she would have to give up her own lover Charles Gordon.Here the author Osborne tries to understand her great-granny. Idina "bolts" before Euan begins divorce proceedings. She refuses to be cast as either the wronged woman or the adulteress. Because she openly rejects the hypocritical rules of her class, she is the one condemned by the very people who are doing the same thing. She gives up all rights to her two little boys (aged 3 and 4) and runs off to Africa wth Gordon who is now husband number 2.In African, Idina builds three separate houses, has three separate dairy farms, and four husbands. Though she does farm, (well, watches the African workers work) she also has sex with anyone who crosses her path, drinks herself into a stupor, uses drugs, Husband two leaves her and she marries Josselyn Hay, Earl of Errol, famous for being murdered by the husband of his mistress. This marriage produces lots of orgies and a daughter who is dumped on Idina's family in England. Joss is really a wretched man, good for nothing I can find. He spends Idina's money and beds her best friend under their own roof.. Idina doesn't care because if Joss is with Alice, he is not off sleeping with someone else and, therefore, won't desert her. So, Idina and Alice wait patiently while Joss services the local highbred ladies and then comes home to them. Alas, Joss falls in love with a house and does leave Idina for Molly Ramsay-Hill, her house Oserian, and her millions.What does Idina do? She marries a great white hunter, basically the same old, same old. I kind of liked him, though, because when he finally got tired of Idina's many lovers he took pot shots at them. She had to keep a watcher in a tree who would let her know when he saw a cloud of dust raised by a jeep coming toward the house. She would get her current bed partner out the back. When she had enough of husband number 4's threats, she divorced him and married a bush pilot. WW2 was too much of a strain for this marriage and after this fifth divorce Idina took only lovers. Maybe it dawned on her that she and marriage were not a good combination.Idina has a brief reunions with her two sons, but not with her daughter. She develops cancer, leaves her farm and settle near Mombasa with a sailor lover, the one man who does not leave her. She survives the Mau Mau uprisings, but not the cancer. She is dead at 62.I didn't find Idina a tragic character. Although it would be nice to think, poor woman, her dad deserted her and her husbands were basically losers, she was her own worst enemy. She chose to be so promiscuous that sometimes, in an alcoholic or drug-induced haze, she couldn't remember which guest she had slept with. She bought into the 'live in the moment' selfish lifestyle. She was uninterested in her children and was just lucky that she could briefly reconnect with her sons. Her friends were a waste of space. Her lovers a bore. Her antics revealed the stunted development a person who never got past the "me,me" stage.Having said all this, I did enjoy the book. It had the fascination of watching a train wreck when the only victims are not-very-nice people. There is a very touching "Afterword" in the paperback edition of the book that shows Idina to be more than just a hedonist .The author received a letter from the daughter of Idina's last husband. For eight years Idina raised her and her little brother and was a loving step-mother. Idina's letters to the girl reveal a woman who had a loving heart and a very generous spirit. The tragedy is that Idina usually gave her heart to a jerk and when it got stomped on, she always found another jerk.read more
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My two favorite books in teh world are Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate where the narrator's mother is a woman of dubious reputaion know by all and sundry as The Bolter. So imagine my delight to read the biography of the model for this character. Idina Sackville was born into the British aristocracy (and yes, she was a cousin of the writer Vita Sackville-West) She dazzled men with her sex appeal and apparently made a habit of marrying a lot of them including. teh heir to a Scottish industrial fortune, a white hunter, the Earl of Erroll, and two others. She was the ringleader of the notorious group who lived in "Happy Valley" in Kenya, and generally providd fodder for the tabloids of her day. Through it all, she appears to have been big-hearted, fun-loving and incredibly generous.This book, written by the subject's great granddaughter, is written with both affection and understanding of the society that both attracted and repelled Idina Sackville.This is a fun read.read more
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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 divorcee: 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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved