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Book Review: The Bolter by Frances Osborne

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There is nothing unique in a biography of a misbehaving socialite. Brittany, Paris, Lindsay, we've been there and done that. However, with The Bolter Frances Osborne takes us into new territory, by delving into the past. Osborne filters her examination of the life of Idina Sackville through a peculiar lens, that of family. Osborne's connection to her notorious great-grandmother had been concealed through the calculated omissions of family lore. In 1982, at the age of 13, the author read a newspaper article about a book, recently released, on the unsolved murder of the Earl of Erroll during WWII. The article showed a photo of a woman in a dropped-waist tunic, standing framed by the curve of two enormous elephant tusks. The woman was Idina Sackville, wife to the much younger Earl, and great-grandmother of the author. When Osborne, adolescent curiosity piqued by the article's references to glamour, intrigue, and — one presumes — illicit sex, questioned her parents, her mother revealed the family connection to the woman in the photo. When Osborne asked about the secrecy, her mother commented, "you don't want to be known as 'the Bolter's' granddaughter."

Idina Sackville was a Bolter. Women who left their marriages in the social earthquake that struck the British upper classes following the First World War were tagged with this moniker and with its connotations of scandal and thrill. Following the example set by the king and his crowd, the Edwardian nobility accepted adultery as a common pastime: "Along with hunting, shooting, fishing, and charitable works, adultery was one of the ways in which those who did not have to work for a living could fill their afternoons." Although adultery (referring only to women who were married) was common, divorce was not. As with everything else in society, illicit sex was governed by a set of unspoken rules. "The boundary between respectability and shame was not how a woman behaved, but whether she was discovered." Divorce dragged this code of behavior into the sunlight and fractured the lines of property and inheritance; as such, it was seen as an attack on the social structure. A vast dichotomy existed between men and women in the circumstances under which one might obtain a divorce. A man simply had to prove that his wife was unfaithful. A woman had to prove not only infidelity, but that the infidelity was "incestuous or that he had committed bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, or had deserted her for two years or more."

Idina, however, had been a child of divorce, her mother refusing to simply roll over when her husband moved from their home following the birth of Idina's younger sister in order to live with a can-can dancer. Thus, when Idina's first husband Euan, Osborne's great-grandfather, began to follow the example of his set, Idina had no intention of being the one abandoned. "Unlike her mother, Idina was not going to allow herself to be left while her husband was out having fun elsewhere. If Euan wasn't going to be there, Idina needed somebody else to be."

Osborne's closing sentence to chapter 4 reveals an intriguing double edge. The obvious interpretation is that Idina needed somebody else to be in Euan's place. However, the sentence can be read another way. Kurt Vonnegut's famous piece of writing advice is that from the beginning of a story, the author should "make the characters want something, even if it's only a glass of water." Early in the third chapter, Osborne establishes that "what Idina wanted from life was adventure." From this vantage, it seems probable that Idina also wanted somebody else for herself to be, another role to fill if that of devoted society wife was to be taken from her.

Indeed, Osborne's Bolter comes across as a woman playing a role, playing at life. Entries in Euan's journal written in Idina's hand reference her by a series of pet names as though she were assigning a role for herself in her husband's life. This casting failed. While her husband, in the disheveled glow following the Great War, racketed around the countryside with a group of young, unmarried friends, including frequently Idina's sister, Idina took a lover.

Osborne lays out the conflict central to Idina's life, the warring desires for stability and adventure. "Like Euan, Idina could have simply drifted from lover to lover. But she feared the future, and what old age might bring." The wreckage of Idina's first failed marriage included two young sons; the oldest David was Osborne's maternal grandfather. While modern custody arrangements tend to favor the mother, in Edwardian England, roles were reversed. "Euan was, after all, the one with the money to support them and give them the best lives they could have. Besides, no gentleman wanted his children living in another man's house."

Ultimately, Idina chooses the divorce, and leaving behind Euan and her sons, moves to Kenya with her new husband, Charles Gordon. It is with this second marriage, that Idina's life begins to spiral into a chaotic combination of serial monogamy and licentiousness. Given that Idina became notorious for sexual adventures that included after dinner games to arrange partner swapping for the night, greeting visitors to her house in an onyx bathtub and then dressing slowly before them, paneling the ceiling of her bedroom with mirrors, it is somewhat incongruous that she attempted, and failed at, marriage five times.

Despite the tantalizing subject matter, The Bolter reads like a standard biography, dense with historical detail and reporting. For those looking for a light breath of scandal, the book may drag with its periodic forays into dry exposition and analysis. Still, Osborne does a good job of seating the events of Idina Sackville's life within the historical and social context. Though occasional bumps in Osborne's prose, and digressions into exposition slow the narrative, some of the digressions provide fascinating details well worth the detour. I now know why James Bond's boss is called "M."

Osborne's relationship to Idina proves to be both asset and liability. With her family background, she has access to source material and context that would have been unavailable to another biographer. However, a whiff of hero-worship taints the objectivity of the narrative, and I could have done without the rather sentimental happy family conclusion. Yet, the overall effect of the biography is compelling, particularly in a time of societal warfare over a woman's role in the home. While The Bolter does not quite live up to its promoted shock value in this jaded era of tabloid exploits and internet sex videos, it does provide an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of a troubled and complex soul.

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