I do love a good biography and this is one of the most interesting ones that I have read, dealing with, what would seem to be, the scandalous life of Idina Sackville as related here by her great granddaughter, Frances Osborne.
To clarify, a “bolter” is a word applied to a woman who, despite the duty expected of her in a marriage, decides to leave, regardless of the scandal that may ensue and is particularly used with regard to the upper classes in Britain at the start of the twentieth century. It is a term very much of its era and I think it is derisory, implying that the woman, like an unmanageable horse, is prone to flighty impulse and is unable to be tamed. The fact that she is “bolting” implies that she is extremely irresponsible and selfish rather than having a strong-willed attitude and her departure would certainly never be tinged with romantic notions.
Luckily for Idina, her story is told with a lot of sympathy by her relative, Frances who discovered her relationship to Idina quite by chance after reading a newspaper article. She soon becomes fascinated with the woman who lived an amazingly scandalous life and tries to understand the ostensibly reckless actions of her ancestor at a time when she knew that she would be vilified for them.
I don’t like to be prejudiced but I wasn’t sure that I was going to like this book: after having read the blurb, I had this preconceived notion that a woman who had married five times and left her children to pursue what is pretty much a hedonistic and, some might say, immoral life might not sit easily with me. It’s not that I disapprove really – each to their own way of life – but my life is very different from hers and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to relate to it in an empathetic way that would bring me enjoyment.
Luckily for me, Frances Osborne (former wife of Chancellor George Osborne but don’t hold that against her) writes less of a glorification of a life of apparent decadence and more an examination of Idina’s motivation for choosing the path that she followed.
There is no doubt that her life is quite enthralling to read about. I mean, she was married five times (FIVE times!) and all to great loves. She lived in Kenya which sounds exotic even if the reality may have been different and this gave her the freedom to avoid the judgements of English society which implies that she was indulging in behaviour which would have received disapproval.
And it is true: there is some saucy sexual behaviour to titillate but mainly, this book is about a woman searching for something, something to fulfil her and Frances proposes that this could have been found quite simply in something that she had already gained in her first marriage to Euan Wallace.
Her first marriage was one of social hustle and bustle. At the time, it was generally accepted that the husband would embark on affairs whilst the long suffering wife would endure them but not that the wife would also indulge in overt affairs. How dare she! When Idina becomes very ill and is housebound, Euan’s attention soon wanders and this causes the end of the marriage for Idina. She requests a divorce, having already started an affair with Charles Gordon, husband number two and Euan agrees – on one condition: that she gives up David and Gerard, their two sons and her access to them. She agrees.
Three more husbands follow, one of whom, Joss Hay, she meets in Kenya who is a charismatic philanderer who ends up being murdered by a jealous husband. None of her subsequent marriages compare to her first and ultimately, Osborne suggests that Idina, in looking for love and security had it right in front of her and let it go when she abandoned her two boys.
It is important then that the book begins with Idina meeting with David as an adult and later in the book, we see how that relationship develops. But unfortunately, there is no happy ending here as it seems that Idina is destined to lose everyone she loves. Idina eventually dies in Kenya and despite the scandal and the marriages and the exoticism and eroticism of it all, this book really contains a sad tale of a woman devoted to heady pleasure which never actually gains her happiness, the transient delights of this world merely providing a diversion, an attempt to fill a void empty of truly fulfilling love.
If you liked this review, please visit my review of The Peacock Emporium by Jojo Moyes in my book reviews of British fiction, in which book a character called Athene also demonstrates the behaviour attributed to “The Bolter”.