I didn’t want to like Idina Sackville, the “bolter” of the title. How could I? On page 18 of the book is a heartbreaking photo of two little boys, Idina’s sons Gerard and David, whom she left in their father’s custody when she divorced him in 1919. The boys have the watchful look of children who aren’t quite sure who will be there the next time they reach up to hold someone’s hand. Idina managed to rack up five husbands and uncounted amorous partners, and most of us know of her because Nancy Mitford gave a character that nickname in Love in a Cold Climate.
Frances Osborne is Idina Sackville’s great-grand-daughter, and you can hardly blame her for being fascinated. Her family inherited letters, photographs, and the diaries of David Euan Wallace (always known by his second name), Idina’s first husband. Having already written one biography, Osborne certainly recognized that she had the material for another one. What’s impressive is that The Bolter manages to portray a human being instead of just the central figure in a mass of lurid between-the-wars gossip.
Heaven knows, there’s plenty of that to go around, though. Readers of James Fox’s 1988 White Mischief already know Idina as the former wife of Joss Hay, the Earl of Erroll, murdered in Kenya in 1941. (The case was never solved.) This is the Kenya of the beautiful Rift Valley and the libidinous, alcohol-fueled social life of its upper-crust English settlers. (You know, source of the old joke, “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”) Yes, there’s an episode of one man horse-whipping another, yes, there’s extravagance and sex games and morphine use. And, yes, Idina seems to have had an almighty sex drive and very little discretion. But some of that was the era and the milieu.
She was the daughter of Earl De La Warr, and her own parents divorced in 1902, when she was nine. Those were the days when aristocratic adultery was an accepted corollary to more-or-less arranged marriages, and a divorce caused a real scandal in a family. Children as collateral damage were hardly considered, and Idina’s chances on the marriage market were limited by her parents’ failed marriage. Luckily, she fell madly in love with the handsome, rich Euan Wallace. Unluckily, it was 1913 when they married. Osborne spends a lot of time on this marriage, in part because she has Euan’s diaries to call on and maybe because it seems to have set a pattern for Idina. Once the “heir and the spare” were provided, both Idina and Euan had affairs but the understanding seems to have been that these would not affect the marriage itself. Until they did. Or maybe it was the war. Or maybe they simply didn’t know how to forge a relationship. I must say, I feel middle-class even thinking that: it’s so clear that the definition of “marriage” was very different in that world.
Only Idina’s ideas of relationships never did improve much. She moved to what was then East Africa with her second husband, Charles Gordon, planning to farm. This is where her appeal as an open-minded, energetic, warm-hearted woman emerges: she embraced her new home with enthusiasm. Also a lot of new men, more of whom she married. There’s some heart-breaking business toward the end of the book when she encounters her grown sons and daughter, clearly wishing to make up for lost time.But that never works, does it? What’s remarkable about this book is that Osborne makes you care.