Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review

For any Anglophile, THE BOLTER, is a delicious read. Most of us are curious about the relatives in our past, so it was not unusual for English author Frances Osborne to write about her infamous great grandmother. Idina Sackville of the socially impeccable Sackvilles of Great Britain. However, it is to be noted their behavior was not always impeccable, just their lineage. The home place was Knole, that incredible estate in England, and where master gardener/garden writer/novelist Vita Sackville West lived during her childhood. Idina's father, deserted his wife and 3 children, when Idina was 4. Being a leader in the Woman's Suffrage Society, her mother seemingly was a good role model. However she seemed to have emotionally abandoned her daughter when Idina entered her teens. Perhaps that was the only way the mother, Mrs. George Lansbury, could cope with her female offspring. Her behavior was constantly outlandish and she was always in the papers. Sadly, Idina was an amoral wastrel...and she never experienced a tad of guilt.

England had its own Jazz Age in the 1920's and Idina Sackville was one of the leaders. Promiscuous behavior was agreed upon with her mates before each of her five marriages and her many, many liaisons. Alcohol, drugs and nymphomania were the recreational ways to pass one's time in a certain set of wealthy British young people. Of course, they scandalized all the rest of Britain, and Idina loved it all. The resulting publicity and gossip about her behavior, such as receiving her guests in her green onyx bathtub filled with champagne, and then dressing in front of her many guests, was the stuff for legend and for The Tatler. She was not conventionally pretty, having a pronounced sloping chin, but she dressed with great style; money was not a problem, and she certainly was a tolerant person, which in her case, was a questionable attribute.

A biography about a wealthy shallow silly uneducated woman, living a life of discontent is not everyone's cup of Darjeeling tea. However, Idina's life, which is carefully documented and objectively written by her great granddaughter, (who is married to the Chancellor of the Exchecquer and quite conventional herself) is immensely readable and one does keep wondering, 'when will Idina grow up?' Alas, she doesn't.

Still, her story is haunting and Osborne's writing about Africa is lyrical. There is a wealth of photography to further enhance our understanding of a very complex English woman living during a very chaotic time in her privileged African society. Her behavior was not common, however, it wasn't quite uncommon either. Happy Vally in Africa had more than its share of marital discord. The participants all put on a happy face about it. For awhile. Until the murder....

Idina flitted from London to Paris, to Kenya to Newport many times, always accompanied by lovers, and sometimes the current uncomplaining husband, with the current uncomplaining lover in tow.

However Africa was her one true love (it never rejected her), and she was a very important player in the infamous Happy Valley. Finally returning there to live until her death, in 1955, from cancer, she entertained like there was no tomorrow. She had 2 sons from her fist marriage, whom she was not permitted to see when she divorced their father. A daughter, by another husband lived with her as a child, but in adulthood completely rejected Idina. She loved children, but she loved her own personal lifestyle more. Still, she was known to be bright: her personal library was immense and she loaned books to everyone. Considered to be a loyal friend, and when motivated, she was incredibly hard working.....toiling daily, side by side in the fields with the Africaners.

Another older book WHITE MISCHIEF, by James Fox was written about the murder of her third husband, Josslyn Hay in 1941, and it was also about Idina, for she was the Queen of the Happy Valley group. That book is not for the faint of heart; umm, it is entertaining. She knew, of course, Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton, and of course, Beryl Markham. They were all good friends.

There was a grassed runway close to her house so she could fly away anytime she wanted. She was a bolter in more ways than one.

Certainly she was bored. Being intelligent as she was, one wonders why she was so clueless about why her life of dissatisfaction clung to her always. Mostly she tried to be "happy" and this included long safaris several times a year into the African countryside, where she felt most comfortable as a human being.

Happiness eluded her, in spite of wealth, possessions, and peerage. In the great American novel, THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes people who were much like Idina and her circle. They were confused self-indulgent people who "smashed up thins and creatures, then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together." alas, we all unfortunately have encountered some of these people--their range is vast. And toxic.

THE BOLTER is a jolly good read for those who like to know the inside stories about the upper class British folk; they have entertained us for centuries, and obviously will continue to do so.