9780307270146

The Bolter

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780307270146

  • ISBN10:

    0307270149

  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 6/2/2009
  • Publisher: Knopf

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Summary

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-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' 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 may 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 thé 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.

Author Biography

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.

Excerpts

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 theSunday Timeswas 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.

TheSunday Timeswas 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 ofWhite 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

Excerpted from The Bolter by Frances Osborne
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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