The Bolter: Wildlife in Kenya (National Post Book Review)

Hollywood of course.

In the twenties and thirties,  British nobs were doing exactly the same thing in Happy Valley, Kenya, a place so notorious that people used to ask “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”

Happy Valley is the titillating terrain of The Bolter, Frances Osborne’s tale of her great grandmother Lady Idina Sackville, an icon of debauchery, who tore through five marriages, and set her own standards of eyewidening behaviour. She welcomed guests as she lay in a green onyx bath, then dressed in front of them.  Guests were made to swap partners, often ending up in her bed which was called “the battleground.” Although there was no People magazine or a 7/24 news cycle, word of mouth among the privileged classes dribbled down and  made Idina infamous. She was credited with inspiring a series of dissolute heroines from the poet Nancy Cunard to Iris March in Michael Arlen’s twenties’ bestseller, The Green Hat, which was made into a movie with Greta Garbo. Add countless bright young things of the Lost Generation,   Hemingway’s Brett Ashley, to Nancy Mitford’s The Bolter, a woman who no sooner married than moved on.

Idina grew up with a tarnished spoon in her mouth. Her father came from an ancient family, her mother from  rich industrialists. But after two children were born, Gilbert Sackville skipped off with a cancan dancer. Such affairs were common enough among the gentry who blinked and carried on. But Muriel Sackville decided to divorce him. Now this was breaking the upperclass code, a broken family undermined the stability of society. It also diminished a daughter’s chances of making a good marriage at a time when women’s survival depended on a male meal ticket. Idina, a chinless woman with a clotheshorse figure and lots of what used to be called “come on” might have found herself as marginalized as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth –  damned for her outsider status.  But she was lucky. She caught the roving eye of rich-rich Euan Wallace, a playboy with an inexhaustible bank balance.

Now right here the title of the book trips up the author. How much jollier it would have been if Idina had been Nancy Mitford’s babytalking flapper throwing husbands away like Kleenex. In fact, Idina’s life is one long slide into oblivion – she was rejected by her most of her husbands, she ran through her fortune, her sister betrayed her,  her children were lost to her,  her sons died in World War II. The wastrels of Happy Valley enabled her self destruction along with their own. Her best friend was the American heiress Alice de Janze who cuddled a lion cub in her lap, shot her lover, then shot herself, and that was before they got married. Joss Erroll, Idina’s second husband, went through life with an open fly and was murdered by one of the many men h e had cuckolded.

Osborne’s take on her ancester is that Idina was an early feminist, struggling to find herself. Perhaps. But the central fact of Idina’s life was her addiction to sex  to which Osborne makes only fleeting references.  Apart from the single reference to Idina welcoming guests in her bath, specifics are wanting on the bed as battleground.  Addiction is obsession, and without any exploration of  the need for sex that shaped her character, Idina remains elusive. I had hopes for full disclosure after being told that the newly wed Idina “completed her introduction to sex: an activity not only  for which she discovered she had a talent, but which she clearly found so intensely enjoyable that it rapidly became impossible for her to resist any opportunity for it.” A mouthful for one word: nymphomaniac. That’s what Idina’s second husband called her.  Did Euan abandon her because she was too sexually demanding?

Euan’s diary, often quoted, reveals nothing. I don’t suppose it’s pleasant to rummage in an ancestor’s dirty laundry but I think the reader is owed a few juicy details from a life lived for sex. Was Idina versatile? Of the high romantic school “Would you like to Sin/With Elinor Glyn/on a tiger skin?”

Idina is upstaged by Euan’s second wife, Barbie, a socially ambitious woman  with a calculator for a heart who took over Idina’s sons. Now there’s a novel: Barbie and Euan bought a haunted property with a curse which said no heir would live to inherit. Between them they had five sons: four were lost in World War II while one died too young.

A loose end. While her brothers are accounted for, Diana, the child of Joss and Idina vanishes at the end, her early death unrecorded. I wonder why.

Osborne prefers to dwell on Idina’s need for love, the kind encountered in a Harlequin Romance,  kiss but no grope. Style is Barbara Cartland  “At the beginning of 1917 Euan and Idina were dangerously in love. Dangerously because at any moment Euan might ride into a hail of bullets…” I’ve never read about so many  handsome rich men and beautiful women.  Joss Erroll was the goldenest of golden men, Barbie was glamourous the way women never again were.  You’d  sure never know it from the small smudgy pictures of women in bosomless dresses and men in plus fours. But then times change, styles change, cameras change…

Something else. The story’s creepy. Happy Valley denizens are as attractive as frog spawn.  An earlier book, White Mischief by James Fox which was  about Joss Erroll’s murder, was  also creepy and so was the movie made from it. I think it’s because the people are so stubbornly willful.  They never reveal their vulnerabilities. I suppose it’s the old devil stiff upper lip.  Victorian morality may have been necessary to maintain the empire and keep the Windsors on the throne, but it also crushed the happy sensuality which redeems the shabbiest story and makes the most wayward people alluring.

The Bolter by Frances Osborne. 300 pages. Knopf Canada $35

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