Imagine picking up the newspaper and reading about the scandalous doings of an upper-class wife in Happy Valley, Kenya and finding out that the woman in the article was your great-grandmother! That is what happened to writer Frances Osborne in her teens. She happened to be reading an article about the book White Mischief, a new book about the murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol. The article mentioned his first wife, Lady Idina Sackville and the outrageous life of a group of English settlers in Kenya. Too her surprise, her mother told her that Lady Idina was her great grandmother, a skeleton in the family closet, that had never been revealed.
Intrigued, Frances kept digging for information. As she researched, she must have been reminded of that old adage, that one should be prepared when researching the family tree, that you might not always like what you find. Happily for those of us who love reading about Scandalous Women, she kept on researching.
The result is a book called The Bolter. The nickname stands for women who loved too much and cared too little. Everything about this book is intrguing, from its topic and story to the relationship of the author to the woman that the book is about. The inspiration for a character called The Bolter in Nancy Mitford's novel, The Pursuit of Love, Lady Idina Sackville was born in 1893 to the Earl de la Warr(the family gave their name to the state of Delaware) and his wife Muriel, a rich heiress. When Idina was about five years old, her father ran off with a can-can dancer, only returning long enough to father his heir, before decamping for good. Furious at the way her husband was now spending her money on his mistresses, Idina's mother divorced him for desertion, which was a terrible scandal at the time. Little Idina suddenly found herself without her usual playmates, as the aristocratic world was closed to her. Her mother found a new calling, devoting herself to supporting Labor politician George Lansbury (grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury) and the theosophist movement. She also became an ardent suffragette.
Lady Idina Sackville grew up, like most women of her class, with very little education apart from snaring a rich husband. At the age of 20, she married Euan Wallace, the son of a rich Scottish landowning family. The couple were only married a few short months before war was declared and her husband went off to serve with his regiment. He returned home long enough for Idina to give birth to two sons, David and Gerard in 1914 and 1915. The cracks in the marriage soon appeared. On leave during the war, Euan left Idina, who was seriously ill, alone while he continued to party. He spent his time with her younger sister Avie, and her best friend Barbie Lutyens, the daughter of noted architect Barbie Lutyens. Barbie, whose family was constantly trying to make ends meet, set her cap for Euan. By the time, Idina was feeling well enough to join her husband in his social rounds, the damage to their marriage was done. Idina threw herself into an affair with Charles Gordon and when the war was over, told her husband that she wanted a divorce. But her decision came at a terrible cost.
Her husband demanded custody of their sons, as well as insisting that Idina was never to contact them again, feeling that it would confuse them to have their mother coming in and out of their lives. Indina agreed never to see her young sons again, probably thinking it wouldn't be permanent, and high-tailed it off to Africa to live a Bohemian life style, ripe with intrigue, freewheeling sex and other adventures that a lady of good breeding may dream about, but would never entertain if she valued her family. She soon realized her mistake when her second marriage fell apart. Unfortunately, her ex-husband remarried to Barbie, who had been waiting in the wings. They soon had three sons of their own, and Barbie took Idina's place as her sons mother.
Soon Idina was causing more scandal in Kenya. There, she swiftly acquired a racy reputation, possibly not unconnected to her habit of receiving guests while stark naked in a green onyx bath. Idina turned up the heat in Kenya with after-dinner games, including a sort of 'blind man in the buff' where you had to identify body parts through a hole in a sheet. Idina wasn't beautiful, but she knew how to make the most of the attributes she had. She was impeccably dressed for all occasions, the type of woman who still looked cool and collected despite it being 100 degrees outside. Her second husband couldn't take her infidelities and another marriage bit the dust.
But Idina wasn't finished yet. Her third husband was Josslyn Hay, 8 years younger. Heir to the Earl of Errol, one of the oldest peerages in Scotland, Josslyn was cash and land poor since the ancestral estate Slains Castle had been sold. Josslyn and Idina fell madly in love, although Idina knew that the only way to hold him was to not require fidelity. When Idina and Joss met, he was already having an affair with an American heiress, Alice de Janze. Idina and Alice soon became good friends, and Idina turned a blind eye to their affair. Joss and Idina married in 1923, and moved back to Kenya. They bought a farm that they called Slains, and had a daughter Diana, who inherited the earldom after her father's murder in 1941.
Upper-class society of Twenties Britain was scandalised. Respectable married women were allowed to take lovers after they had provided 'an heir and a spare', but acquiring new husbands was simply not playing the game. Idina became a social outcast. And in Kenya, the British settlers who were not part of the Happy Valley set of drug-addicted, wife swappers were outraged, feeling that the publicity embarrassed them all, and made them laughing stocks. It was hard enough dealing with the growing unrest among the natives of Kenya against the white settlers without having a group of decadent aristocratics mucking things up. However, Idina, while she may have partied as hard as the rest of them, truly loved Kenya. She took life on the farm seriously enough, since it was her only real means of support. She had very little money of her own, and unfortunately apart from her first and fourth husbands, neither did the men she married.
But thats what makes this such a juicy ride. Osborne's great grandmother is driven to lead a reckless wild life with few regrets. While she does eventually meet her young adult sons, the meeting is just that, not a reunion, but a bit of a reality check. She has to settle for being their friend, since she abdicated the right to be their mother. Frances Osborne does a remarkable job of writing about her great grandmother. She doesn't judge her life but just lets it unfold for the reader to decide how they feel about this rather intriguing woman who traveled the world with a black pekingnese called Satan. The book is compulsively readable, the reader can certainly understand why Osborne found her great grandmother so amazing, despite her bad behavior.
If Idina had lived in the sixties and seventies, a more open period of sexuality, her life would have been different. Instead, she lived in an age, when sexual hypocrisy reigned. Part of her problem was that she married every man that she fell in love with! It doesn't take Dr. Phil to realize that she continued to marry men who were very like her father. Ironically the unconditional love and happiness that she was seeking, she finally found with her children. Unfortunately she found it too late, both of her sons died during World War II, and her daughter Diana, who had been brought up in England mainly by her sister, Idina briefly reconnected with before her tragic early death in 1953.
Idina never got over her love for her first husband, she kept his picture by her bedside until her death.