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Book Review: The Bolter by Frances Osborne

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.

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