Decline and fall of a flapper
Frances Osborne's The Bolter lovingly lays to rest the ghost of the eternally frivolous but diehard manhunter Idina Sackville, says Robert McCrum
The Observer, Sunday 4 May 2008
by Frances Osborne
At heart, The Bolter is a work of family exorcism by the great-granddaughter of a scandalous Edwardian woman, Idina Sackville. Like all such family reckonings, it contains both less, and more, than meets the eye. Perhaps nothing is more seductive than the fascinated contemplation of distant shames. In coming to terms with an exceedingly high-spirited skeleton in her ancestral cupboard, Frances Osborne also paints an enthralling portrait of upper-class English life just before, during and immediately after the Great War. 'In an age of wicked women,' writes Osborne, 'Idina pushed the bounds of behaviour to extremes.' How can we not read on?
The child of conventionally irresponsible, moneyed parents from a family dating to the Conquest, lovely, weak- chinned Idina haunted the bars and ballrooms of Edwardian London like a character in fiction. She was inseparable from a black Pekingese named Satan, cultivated an immaculate, more than slightly dangerous, image and married one of the youngest, richest and best-looking of the available millionaires a year before the Great War broke out.
After her marriage fell apart, she lived the life of a flapper until the crash of 1929 ended her revels. Twice divorced before she was 30, she fled to Kenya, the spiritual home of the damned and the beautiful. There, in a dissolute spiral of house parties, gin-fuelled country club binges and long weekends of wife- swapping, Idina became the focus of the Happy Valley set, a complicit witness to the thrilling excesses first described by James Fox in White Mischief.
Idina was, in fact, only a spectator at the 'Jock' Delves Broughton murder trial, but she was certainly close to the principals. In Kenya, her bed was apparently known as 'the battleground', she welcomed her guests from a green onyx bath and encouraged the kind of heartless gaiety typical of her class and generation. In this version, her life was certainly the stuff of fiction. Painted by Orpen and photographed by Cecil Beaton, she lived in a world that, on Osborne's account, lay somewhere between Wodehouse and The Waste Land, but was probably closest to the Waugh of Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust.
So, with half an eye on her market, Osborne writes that her great-grandmother's life was 'uncannily reflected' in 'the Bolter' of the great Nancy Mitford novels, Love in a Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love and Don't Tell Alfred. This makes commercial sense, but it's slightly misleading. Osborne presents no real evidence that Mitford was writing more specifically than about a familiar Edwardian type. Idina Sackville was the kind of woman who excited gossip and her behaviour was, no doubt, shocking to her family, but if she can be found between the pages of a novel, it's a now forgotten interwar bestseller. In her day, Idina Sackville inspired the fictional character of Iris Storm, the tragic heroine of Michael Arlen's bestseller The Green Hat. This was a role that would be played by Greta Garbo in the film version, A Woman of Affairs. 'There is some taste in us that is unsatisfied,' says Iris Storm. 'Life's best gift is the ability to dream of a better life.'
To her family, possibly, Idina Sackville was a 'bolter', but she was also a tragic figure of a young woman whose life was broken by the catastrophes of 1914-18. It is in its evocation of these seismic years that Frances Osborne's book becomes truly interesting.
The Edwardian England in which Idina Sackville came of age was a fun palace of champagne breakfasts, boating regattas and thé dansants, but it was also cruelly oppressive to unmarried women. If you were single, you were chaperoned until you found a husband. If you were divorced, you were beyond the pale.
Idina was unmarried, at first; her mother, Muriel de la Warre, was divorced. In this socially perilous situation, it's hardly surprising that, as Osborne writes, in her rather breathless prose: 'Idina threw herself into the rounds of bals blancs with abandon. Nobody forgot a dance with her.' Soon, she had landed a fiancé, a dashing cavalry officer named David Euan Wallace, an heir to one of Scotland's richest families and a close friend of Stewart Menzies, the fabled British intelligence chief, and model for 'C'.
For a few months, the newlyweds enjoyed a late-Edwardian idyll, dinner at the Ritz, nights out at the theatre, dancing to ragtime on the gramophone until the small hours. Briefly, it seems, Idina was happy and fulfilled. Then the war came. Wallace was dispatched to the Western Front where, as a junior officer, he was lucky to survive. Occasional leave was frantic and distressing. Slowly, Idina's perfect match unravelled, pulled apart by loneliness, boredom and desperation. Osborne, who has done a prodigious amount of valuable social research, is particularly good on the strangely opulent life of the home front, the comforts of infidelity, the cabaret nights of the women left behind and the caprices of soldiers on leave looking for a good time.
Rather contradicting the title of her book, Osborne makes it clear that it was Wallace's 'Edwardian friendships' with girls named Barbie, Dickie and Avie that wrecked his marriage to Idina. At least to start with, she was less a 'bolter' than a 'bolteree'. Once the war was over, not surprisingly, Idina found a lover of her own, the first of many, and plunged into a jazz-age haze of morphine, cigarette smoke and American cocktails. At the age of 25, a full-blown flapper with two small children, cruising the streets of London in her Hispano-Suiza, her life was already emotionally derailed.
Frivolous, rich, sexy, achingly fashionable, but not (you suspect) too bright, she remarried and set sail for Kenya and Happy Valley. Osborne notes that her great grandmother once again 'had bolted'. On the evidence of her book, Idina's behaviour looks rather more like a desperate expression of a quest for 'the dream of a better life'. I think it is commendable that, in the absence of hard evidence about Idina's feelings, Osborne does not indulge in speculation, but sometimes the reader does long to know more about the emotions seething beneath the surface.
In Kenya, this already sad tale becomes sadder and darker. Osborne paints a picture of an abandoned woman, tormented by unsatisfied sexual appetites, becoming a social outlaw. She was, writes Osborne, reported to have had 'lovers without number' and would teach her men 'how to touch the four strategic points on a skirt that would make a pair of stockings slide to the floor'. On her rare interludes in London, her friends were Oswald 'Tom' Mosley, one of the most promiscuous men in a madly promiscuous age, and Tallulah Bankhead, who taught her how to bathe in champagne. (Just open a case and pour.)
The closing 100 pages of this compelling biography slide into a minor key. By the time war broke out again, in 1939, Idina was on her fifth husband and still living the life of Riley in the heady highlands of Kenya. Such a creature was ill-suited to the age of austerity and by 1955 she was dead, from cancer. She left behind half-a-dozen hairbrushes, several pots of cold cream, scent bottles with silver trimmings, nail files, a glove-stretcher, a cocktail dress and a large, black taffeta bow. After her death, a tender portrait of her first husband was found by her bedside. In reporting this touching detail, we can see that Frances Osborne has probably made her peace at last.
Goddess of Mischief
By DOMINIQUE BROWNING
Published: June 30, 2009 in Sunday Book Review. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com
Alcohol. Cocaine. Promiscuity. Nymphomania. Wife swapping. Divorce. Profligate spending. Sixties swingers? Merely rocking in their cradles. The beautiful and damned of New York’s Roaring Twenties? Neophytes vomiting on the sidewalks. It was the British colonialists in 1920s Africa, the Happy Valley set, who took partying to mythic heights, or depths, depending on your perspective. They didn’t stop until their lives were in smithereens. And the internationally celebrated and reviled high priestess of this crowd — as James Fox called her in “White Mischief” — was Idina Sackville (yes, English majors, related to Vita), a rich, smart, slender, blue-eyed, tawny-haired, elegant, narcissistic fashion plate of a woman who painted her nails green, and had a black Pekingese named Satan and a green onyx tub filled with Champagne from which she entertained her dinner guests. She was divorced five times by the end of World War II.
When she was 13, Frances Osborne, author of “The Bolter,” a weirdly rumbustious and harrowing biography that takes us from London to Newport to Kenya, discovered that this insanely glamorous character was her great-grandmother. Osborne became haunted by the feeling that her ancestor was “beneath my skin”; this was mixed with revulsion when Osborne became the mother of two boys and fully appreciated the profound mess Sackville had made of her own life. Naturally it was only a matter of time before she began to dig up family secrets. Everyone knows that British attics, having belonged to generations of the same inbred aristocratic families, are much better endowed than our impoverished American ones — we move around too often and we have tag sales. Out of countless trunks and boxes of letters and diaries pours the unremittingly sad story of a legendary woman, and an unnerving portrait of upper-crust London and colonial Africa in the early 20th century.
Devotees of Nancy Mitford’s “Love in a Cold Climate” will instantly recognize “the Bolter.” She is a seductive, charming, mysterious shadow of a character, but that’s fiction for you. The truth is tawdry. In an “age of bolters,” Sackville was notorious. The book opens with a surreal scene in 1934 at Claridge’s Hotel. A 19-year-old boy is seeing his mother for the first time in 15 years. He has had to find out his mother’s name, for Sackville had abandoned her rich, charming, handsome (and philandering, but everyone was) husband and her two sons, ages 4 and 3, to live on a farm in British East Africa.
Osborne’s descriptions of life in upper-class Edwardian London, “an age overflowing with millionaires,” are bracing. Adultery is commonplace. The country enters World War I, and while husbands and entire families of sons are obliterated on French battlefields, Sackville’s set is desperate for fun, injecting morphine, attending “bottle parties” and downing vats of White Ladies, whiskey sours and Bronxes. (“The Bolter” does double duty as a history of cocktails.) Osborne vividly describes a social class unhinged by too much money and too much death. By 1921, “nudity was all the rage.” Women were dancing on tables, wearing transparent dresses. One hostess greeted her guests “wearing nothing but a famous string of family pearls which reached her pubic hair.”
Sackville’s husband falls in love with the architect Edwin Lutyens’s daughter, prompting Sackville’s first bolt. From there the narrative moves to Mombasa, where Osborne deftly sketches in the milieu of a colonial empire, with its 600-mile Iron Snake, the Uganda Railway, which would make it possible for the British to control Egypt and the Nile. “All that was needed was farmers,” Osborne writes, “for no fewer than two and a half million acres needed tending to. . . . Given the unwillingness of the indigenous people to surrender their lands, all the better, went the thinking, that the territory should be occupied by men who knew how to handle a rifle.” With the end of the war, Britain was flooded with soldiers who wanted a new life; Africa was “an earthly paradise” whose landscape was “genuinely familiar, indeed almost Scottish,” and would provide food for a hungry Europe.
Africa became Sackville’s true love. Over the course of five marriages, she would build — and leave — three farms, working side by side with the African laborers. “Like the local Kikuyu tribesmen and much to their amazement,” Osborne writes, “she both walked and rode barefoot” over thorny fields. But she also kept servants, rode out on safari for weeks at a time and partied hard. She thrived on sexual adventure and set up a mirror over her bed so as not to miss anything. Osborne is fascinating on the social rounds of this new African empire. We catch glimpses of the Sitwells; Cecil Beaton; Stephen Spender; and Beryl Markham, Karen Blixen and their lover Denys Finch Hatton. People met at weekend house parties, races and livestock auctions. Sackville was a magnet. Within several years of her arrival, there were so many partners changing beds that it became a political scandal, with the British government appalled at the inability of the colonial administration to control the miscreants. “The joke ‘Are you married, or do you live in Kenya?’ was doing the rounds.” The Crash of 1929 seems to have done little to stop the dizzying frivolity. The spending never stops. And the houses! The extravagance of the furnishings!
At some point, as the Happy Valley crowd sank into an addled haze, I wanted to cover my eyes — probably during the “sheet game”: men would hide behind a sheet strung across the room, circles were cut into it through which a woman would grope a hand, a nose, an elbow, to identify the owner; as the alcohol content went up, the holes in the sheet were cut lower, and the men unbuttoned their trousers.
Sackville is finally reunited with her eldest son, but the chaos does not end. World War II arrives and Sackville’s newfound connection to her family is cut short. The last decades of her life are unbearably sad; she seems cursed. It can be hard to appreciate Sackville’s incessant charm, her ability to engage and seduce anyone she wanted, her generous and kind nature, and her capacity for lifelong friendship. But the reader falls under her sway, too.
Osborne’s mother had kept Idina Sackville a secret from her children, scarred as she had been, during her own adolescence, by scandalized whispers: “I didn’t want you to think her a role model. . . . You don’t want to be known as ‘the Bolter’s’ granddaughter.” Well, actually, she does. To her credit, Osborne doesn’t sanitize her family’s shenanigans (though we don’t hear much about Sackville’s relations with the Africans except for rumors that some fled for fear of being asked to bed their mistress). Yet none of it would have been broadcast if it didn’t add to some sort of ultrasmart cachet; there’s a faint whiff of bragging in these pages. Enough time has passed that a notorious relative simply casts a sequined halo of glamour over her descendants, an inherited chic. Osborne is still haunted — and thrilled. Which leads to a problem American readers may have with this book: the tedium of meaningless names dropping to the ground. After a while, I couldn’t keep track of all the families. I have the distinct feeling that any British readers even remotely related to the upper classes (a relatively small club with an outsize reputation) would experience a tribal frisson of recognition; these are, after all, the grandparents of their classmates. “The Bolter” is a feast for the Anglophile; followers of the charmingly bizarre blog An Aesthete’s Lament will find long-lost soul mates. But give me love in a cold climate any day