- The Bolter
- Knopf, 320 pp.
Dame Alysoun Had Nothing on Idina Sackville
Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue
She’d been respectable throughout her life.
Married in church, husbands she had five,
Not counting other company in youth;
But thereof there’s no need to speak, in truth.
In company well could she laugh and chat.
The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she’d learned the old, old dance.
— Geoffrey Chaucer, PROLOGUE to The Canterbury Tales
Critics can be dismissive about biography. Some see it as a kind of stepchild to history. They rail at its speculative approach, accuse biographers of building upon their own experience, even call it “inauthentic,” a kind of semi-fiction. Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Every great man has his disciples and it is always Judas who writes his biography.“
Yet, biography continues to be popular with readers. Many of us depend upon it for a more complete picture of a figure’s origins, details of early life, and revelations regarding the circumstances of their emergence. We look to biographers to bring us intimate knowledge of those we admire, to learn from their greater access to previously unavailable records, private diaries and journals.
Frances Osborne’s recent work, the saga surrounding the life of the once notorious Idina Sackville is, in many ways, the epitome of what some critics are most suspicious of: the substitution of one’s own story to accord with the biographer’s needs. For Osborne is writing of the life of her great-grandmother. Herself a descendant of the great Sackville family, one of England’s oldest, she discovered rather unexpectedly during her adolescence that she was related directly to a Sackville who’d scandalized England’s polite society as well as finding notoriety on the Continent in the early part of the 20th century.
Known as “the high priestess” of the “Happy Valley Set,” Idina Sackville was a wild beauty, who — in her shocking heyday— had married and divorced five times and was to become the model for writers like Nancy Mitford and Michael Arlen, painted by Orpen, favored portraitist of the era, photographed by Cecil Beaton, and soon depicted by Greta Garbo in a silent motion picture.
The outrageous antics of this lady topped most every other report during those wild, roaring years, all played out while she still remained a part of the chaos of that world. Certainly, depicting such a life would challenge any biographer; but for one herself so embedded in her great family’s reputation, it can call into question her objectivity. What’s so striking is that Osborne overcomes her own position in bringing to the fore situations and circumstances that would scarcely have been dug out by another biographer possessing a different agenda.
She introduces a woman who may have upset those around her by her promiscuity, even nymphomania, drug use; but also gives us access to a fearless beauty with gifts of intelligence, wit, and extraordinary powers to attract the opposite sex. Then too, she reveals that her antics as combined with her endowments were nevertheless insufficient in her hunt for love and lasting affection. Despite her continued scandalsheet popularity, her successes in public performances during her career, her courtships, her marriages, her frantic partying, her serial pairings, she remained dissatisfied and unfulfilled in “her deep need to be loved and to give love in return.”
Osborne reveals, in short, a woman whose expectations for life were never to be met. And though she struggled on seeking to find her ideal, and always without concern for society’s reproof, she got instead nothing but censure, criticism, and worse — ridicule.
Her first marriage comes at an early age. It was to remain the love of her life. She encountered a dashing cavalry officer, Euan Wallace, who was not only regarded as one of the best-looking young men in England, but was certainly the richest (at some two million pounds in those times.) She knew she had met her special mate; she fell for him instantly as one caught by a fever. They were a perfect match for some six years; they were seen together at the toniest celebrations, at the theater, and during their lavish travels on the Continent.
Soon they were blessed with two fine sons, the potential heirs to the great Wallace fortune. Among their many fashionable residences was a seven-storey house in Cannaught Place overlooking Marble Arch and Hyde Park. Euan had inherited three estates in Scotland as well; and Idina chose one of these, his Kildonan, which surrounded the south Ayrshire village of Barrhill, an hour’s drive or so from Glasgow, for their home away from town.
She even oversaw the razing of Old Kidonan Mansion, and hiring of a prominent Glaswegian architect, James Miller, to replace it with a baronial structure with five wings and sixty-five rooms. And that was on the first storey alone. There was even something known as the “flower room” in the house. All required sporting activities were provided for. Outside were a squash court, tennis court, and more. Unquestionably, theirs was the grandest way of living. They remained the most chic, and the handsomest couple of British society.
But everything collapsed when her husband, in the custom of proper upper-class gentlemen, chose to take lovers and spend time away from Idina, wining and dining them. And that was when she bolted. There was no holding her down. Until then she had loved and had loved well. Yet full devotion was what she demanded in return, needing to know always she was wanted above and before any other. And that was no longer forthcoming from her womanizing husband, Euan Wallace.
Their split was the talk of London and soon became the engine for Nancy Mitford’s novels among others, one which dubbed her as The Bolter, which provided the caption under her adventures through all the years — the one who ran, and went on running once she was no longer the cynosure of her marriages. She would not stand for being abandoned by a husband for other lovers. It proved the tragic element not just in her marriages, and divorces, but in each one of her many affairs.
Worst, perhaps, was that her first failed union and her desertion of it resulted in the loss of access to her young sons. To get his divorce, Wallace offered her a generous settlement, but stipulated that she never see them or even communicate with them again. She kept that promise, remaining distant and silent for many years. She was to meet one of her sons only when he had already reached his maturity. Fifteen whole years elapsed before she learned, quite by chance, that David Wallace, her elder son, was troubled, in need, and had expressed his wish to meet his mother.
It is exactly at his point in the story that Osborne sees fit to open her account. An introductory passage sets the tone:
On Friday, 25 May 1934, the forty-one-year-old Idina Sackville stepped into Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair shortly before a quarter to one. Her heels clipped across the hallway and she slipped into a chair in the central foyer. The tall, mirrored walls sent her back the reflection of a woman impeccably blond and dressed in the dernier cri from Paris, but alone. She turned to face the entrance and opened her cigarette case. In front of her, pairs of hats bobbed past with the hiss of a whisper — she remained, it was clear, instantly recognizable.
Idina tapped a cigarette on the nearest little table, slid it into her holder and looked straight ahead through the curling smoke. She was waiting for the red carnation that would tell her which man was her son.
The biographer goes on to acquaint us with the circumstances of her own discovery of Sackville’s history, which occurred in 1982, some thirty years after Idina’s death. And it was quite by chance that thirteen-year old Frances Osborne, reading the Sunday papers, happened upon an article and then a photograph of a figure “encircled by elephant tusks,” a woman posed on a hot and dusty African plain, accompanied by two native Kenyan men, “while at the same time looking like she’d just stepped out of a Faubourg Saint-Honore salon.” The Sunday Times was then serializing a book called White Mischief, which was about the murder of a British aristocrat in Kenya during World War II. Young Osborne saw the caption that identified that woman as one Idina Sackville. She knew only that this was her mother’s family name. And when Frances and her sister Kate confronted their parents, they confessed they’d kept her existence a secret. It was indeed a photograph of their own great-grandmother, never before so much as mentioned. Their mother explained why.
“I didn’t want you to think her a role model. Her life sounds glamorous but it was not. You can’t just run off and… You don’t want to be known as the Bolter’s granddaughter.”
Osborne’s mother also told them that, to their great dismay, she and her own sister, upon their coming out in London society, had themselves been known as “the Bolters’ granddaughters.” There was no point in inflicting that misery on her own children. And certainly, not when many in the reading public were still aware of Nancy Mitford’s scandalous depiction of her.
Yet Frances Osborne never forgot that story. As she grew older, she took it up to study.. She decided her mother had been right to be cautious :
Idina’s and her blackened reputation glistened before me. In an age of wicked women she had pushed the boundaries of behavior to extremes. Rather than simply mirror the exploits of her generation, Idina had magnified them. While her fellow Edwardian debutantes in their crisp white dresses merely contemplated daring acts, Idina went everywhere with a jet-black Pekinese called Satan…
And that was merely at the beginning! The biographer researches Idina’s life in Edwardian London: her childhood, her early loss of her own parents preoccupied by their worldly affairs. All of it brings sharply into focus the motivation driving her great-grandmother’s restless ways.
She reports on the deterioration of Idina’s first marriage, her smashing disillusion over her husband’s disloyalty; as well as her own frantic bedhopping to ease the pain. She shows how soon enough she was to meet with yet another smashing looking, and willing candidate, an impoverished but well-connected Charles Gordon, and how quickly he was smitten by the irresistible force that was young Idina Sackville. In her eagerness to get away from the swirl of decadent London society, and still having some money of her own, she married him and whisked him off to Kenya, where she envisioned a rustic, simpler way of life, farming.
Idina’s search did not disappoint. She loved Africa instantly. There was ample unpopulated land; it could be bought and built upon. She and her new love would make a world for themselves. And though this marriage and her others after it were to dissolve, her adoration for the grandeur of Kenya and her love of life in East Africa never waned.
After each marital failure — and when more scandals broke around her — she escaped to Kenya. Inevitably she returned over the years to her beloved land. As time went on, it was sometimes alone, yet she persisted, hoping always to find her miracle, a soul mate.
Osborne has told us a fascinating tale here. Perhaps it touches on early Feminist dreams. Her troubled “Flapper’s” parties, the mad displays of cross-dressing, the morphine in drugged sessions, the show of abandon amongst her London gadabouts and African Happy Valley Set never served her. Yet who knows? Idina Sackville, in her peculiar way, may actually have paved some bit of the path towards equal sexual rights for women. Certainly, the concept was no given during her lifetime, even as the upper-class males around her, protected securely by the walls of archaic divorce laws, cavorted in their extra-marital affairs.