I remember when The Bolter came out, and just from the cover alone I thought that I must read the book. Years later I’ve come back to it for research, but overall I found myself totally sucked in.
Reading all the background information, statistics, and oral history of the 1940s-1960s in Britain, I became keenly aware of how the (near?)equality I take for granted as a woman in the 21st century was not so easily come by—most histories of this era pinpoint the availability of the Pill (in 1961 in the UK) as when real emancipation began for the modern woman. Recording oral histories from working-class people in UK towns like Preston and Barrow, one of the women was still so ashamed of having had an abortion, she made the interviewer turn off the tape and continue anonymously. Whose is the sexual prerogative? Who has to deal with the consequences? What happens if they don’t deal with them at all?
In this frame of mind, I was amazed—in some ways heartened, in some ways disgusted—with the 360-degree turn from Edwardian morals to the racy, fast ways of the 1920s as described in The Bolter. They’re not called the Roaring Twenties for nothing, and while the story of Idina Sackville and her five husbands, five divorces, innumerable lovers, and three children represents a small minority, these people were at least as carefree and sexually liberated as anyone the 1960s produced (I was going to say minus the drugs, but they were all in fairly advanced states of alcoholism and some were cocaine addicts). The author, Frances Osborne, has a personal stake in the story as Sackville was her great-grandmother, the infamous woman of scandal who was never spoken of in the family because the devastation she (inadvertently) wreaked on the following generations was so great. Ergo, Osborne succeeds extremely well in providing the background for Sackville’s life, rooted deeply in the Edwardian era, as well as the most juicy and gossipy events of Sackville’s life in and out of Africa (she of the so-called Happy Valley fame). But she doesn’t neglect the stories of Idina’s children. Halfway through the book, I read on the back cover that it was a “tragic” story and I thought, “well, not really,” but by the end, I certainly would agree with that.
Idina Sackville was born into a moneyed, high-class set which quickly took a turn for the more unorthodox facets of late 19th century life. First of all, the morals of the day were set by King Edward VII and those who spent the hours between cinq à sept having affairs with their friends’ wives. These hours were chosen very deliberately because it was the time when a society woman was changing from her afternoon gown into her tea gown. Easy adultery to slot in to one’s schedule. And it was usually married women as if they became pregnant there wouldn’t be the scandal that there would with a single woman. In any case, it was accepted and even expected. When Idina was four, her father left her mother and ran away with a cancan dancer. Her mother cited adultery and abandonment and won her hard-fought divorce. The unconventional Muriel then turned to politics as a strikers’ friend and a suffragette, pumping her family fortune into these (worthy) causes, and surrounding the household (Idina’s older brother Buck and younger sister Avie) with Theosophist friends such as Annie Besant who advocated “abundant recreational sex within marriage as being healthy.”
Idina Sackville grew up striking if not beautiful, charming, forthright, and eventually claimed the hand of David Euan Wallace, a good match in many ways but neither of them was built for monogamy. His diary is an eerie picture of wartime Paris, where fine goods shops were left bereft and people were drinking alcohol out of tea pots. He was serially unfaithful to his Cocotte and eventually met Barbie Luytens through Idina’s younger sister, Avie, who would break up the marriage and become Euan’s second wife. During the war, the idea was to give servicemen on leave the best possible time they could have as uncertainty loomed, and Idina did as much bed-hopping as her husband. Then, after the war, not wishing to be left like her mother, she asked Euan for a quiet-ish divorce in 1919, despite the fact she would have to leave his life, and her two sons’ (David and “Gee”) forever.
The next chapter of her life then began, in Kenya where she wanted a farming life with husband number two, Charles Gordon; the marriage didn’t last, the scandal did, as did her connection to Kenya. Euan married Barbie in 1920; Idina was on safari. After her second divorce, she briefly returned to London, where the Twenties had begun; “having lived independently as soldiers, nurses, and land girls during the war, the surviving young were moving out of their parents’ home into flats as soon as they could afford to. These became places for smaller impromptu gatherings where friends drank vast amounts of alcohol and experimented with morphine and cocaine and played the gramophone to learn the latest dance steps before hitting the floor at Ciro’s, the Café de Paris, the Savoy, and the archetype of them all, the Embassy. There was a vogue for appearing naked as the hostess of your own gathering (and you thought it was just combined to Josephine Baker!). By the time she returned to Kenya in 1923 with a third husband, Josslyn Hay.
Idina and Joss seem to have been the original swinging couple. From the beginning Idina, apparently amicably, shared him with the married Alice de Janzé, though she was not the woman who would eventually lead to the disintegration of their marriage. Joss seems to be at least as oversexed as Idina, having been expelled at fifteen from Eton for sex with a housemaid. Nevertheless, their farming life at Slains was something of a success. Idina ran around the farm barefoot and photographs show her in a sleeveless, wraparound dress. They had a mirror on the ceiling of the bedroom so they could see the different positions. “All had been brought up to regard . . . extramarital sex a normal course of behaviour. The key criterion between good and bad behaviour was distraction and remaining tight-lipped about others.” Nevertheless, this monied set’s ways irritated the rest of Kenya’s white farming population, who used Idina as a scapegoat and a trendsetter. Idina and Joss had a baby, Dinan, who Idina continued to bring up even when the marriage ended in divorce in 1929. (A disgruntled husband’s very public horsewhipping of Joss “was a far greater scandal for the Kenyan administration than just another irritating story of adultery and elopement.”)
Marriage number four in 1930 was to Donald Haldeman; they lived in a new farm in Kenya called Clouds. Meanwhile, things were not going so well for Idina’s estranged son David; an educated, very bright young man, he felt distanced from his father and stepmother. He was definitely leftist politically and deeply religious. Yet he agreed to meet his mother for the first time since he had been four years old in 1934. The two did not agree on much but seemed to love each other’s company. David’s desire to become a religious hermit was redirected toward a fascination with ancient Greece. The marriage to Donald had dissolved, Dinan was living with Idina’s brother’s family. In 1938, David was engaged to another unconventional woman, Pru Magor. Just before the war broke out, Idina married her fifth husband, “Lynx,” an RAF pilot.
The next few years were bleakly full of death, not just worldwide but for Idina’s personal circle. Joss was murdered in 1939, a mystery never solved. In 1940, Idina’s first husband Euan died of stomach cancer. Alice de Janzé had attempted a murder-suicide and had to stand trial when it failed; eventually she did succeed in killing herself. David was enjoying a distinguished and brave career in Athens with the Foreign Office. Then he grew disillusioned at having a desk job and wanted something more front-line heroic. In 1943 he died, fighting with his Greek friends and freedom-fighters. Idina had met her son Gee for the first time in thirty years in Mombasa where he was stationed, but he preceded David in death. At this time, Idina was already suffering from ovarian cancer, and she died, having become estranged from her remaining child Dinan, in 1955. Dinan became the Countess of Errol, inheriting Joss’ title, and had several children of her own.
So, yes; it all ended quite tragically. But then, as Idina herself said, the one thing she feared most was growing old. The book is as rip-roaringly populated with drama and scandal as Idina Sackville’s life was. David Wallace’s life was surely almost as interesting as his mother’s, and his part of the story buoys up a rather lackluster section of the book. Unfortunately, if you’re reading the book to get any idea of life in Kenya except for the privileged few of “Happy Valley,” you will find it completely lacking in that area. But it’s an excellent book.