The Bolter by Frances Osborne

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The Bolter by Frances Osborne

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Idina Sackville (1893-1955), the five-times married socialite, member of London 1920s society and part of the Happy Valley community in Kenya for a while, written by her great-granddaughter.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: December 2008
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084807

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Life in London just after the Great War must have been jolly, even frightfully good fun, what – for the right (or the wrong?) people. The early 1920s were the years of the bright young things, the men who had been lucky enough to return from the fighting still in one piece, determined to make up for years of tedium in the trenches by whooping it up with the equally pleasure-loving gals barely out of their teens, just as willing to throw morals and discretion to the winds and party round the clock. This was the age when women thought nothing of receiving invited company while in the bath and slowly getting dressed in front of them. One hostess even greeted her guests walking down the staircase of her Belgrave Square mansion wearing a string of the family pearls – and nothing else.

Born in 1893, Idina was one such person, the ultimate good-time young woman. By the age of 30 she had already seen off two husbands. Her five marriages lasted between four and eight years, and all ended in divorce. For a while, she was also part of the Happy Valley set in Kenya, whose wayward behaviour and sense of fashion outraged their more staid elder expatriates, and where Idina put herself beyond the pale by allowing herself to be seen in shorts. It might be noted that not long after she divorced No. 3, he paid for his roving eye by getting himself murdered, though it proved impossible for the courts to pin it on the most obvious suspect.

Becoming a byword for scandal was not the only price she paid. Both her sons were killed on active service in the Second World War within a year of each other, while her daughter suffered from never being sure of her paternity and effectively disowned her mother. Idina herself contracted cancer at the age of sixty and, living up to her desire never to grow old, died two years later.

While reading this book, part of me was repelled by the sheer vapidity of Idina and some of her peers with their useless lives, and part of me was fascinated by the author's portrayal of the age. In some ways, it is almost like P.G. Wodehouse but without the humour, and with a large helping of veiled eroticism and tragedy instead.

Frances Osborne is the great-granddaughter of Idina, and until she was in her teens her wicked ancestor's name was barely mentioned, as her mother did not want Frances to regard her as any kind of role model. Only when she was aged 13 and she began to ask questions, her curiosity prompted by a magazine article, did her father tell her mother that Frances and her younger sister had to be told. To some extent this biography was a kind of odyssey, a journey of exploration into her family history and its most notorious member. It says much for the author's sense of fair play that she manages to be remarkably objective about this skeleton in the family cupboard.

For a historical look at the pre-war era, you might enjoy and find as an ideal complement to this title We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh.

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Booklists.jpg The Bolter by Frances Osborne is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2009.


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