Monday, 12 April 2010

The Bolter by Frances Osborne

I picked this up second-hand recently and, being a bit of a Mitford completist, thought I'd like to read the story of the model for the Bolter of The Pursuit of Love.  Idina Sackville's life story is certainly fascinating; married five times and separated from her two elder children by the terms of her first divorce, she sought greater freedom as a colonial farmer in Kenya, where she was a key member of the Happy Valley set and married, at least for a while, to Lord Errol.  The story of his sexual peccadilloes and consequent murder have been retold in the book and film White Mischief.  Elegant, alluring and sexually voracious, Idina also made a surprisingly effective farmer and created what sounds like a truly beautiful house and garden - Clouds, high up in the Kenyan mountains with colubus monkeys in the garden and a view across the Great Rift Valley.

Overall, though, I found Osborne's retelling of her life rather limited.  Osborne is Idina's great-granddaughter, and from the age of 13 had absorbed her family's mythology about Idina: that she was a scandalous woman and a wicked mother who abandoned her two little boys for entirely selfish reasons.  In telling the story of Idina's divorce from her first husband, Euan Wallace, Osborne is pretty fair-handed: both had been unfaithful and their marriage, like many others, was irreparably damaged by the First World War.  Both were in their early twenties and prone to seeing life in black and white terms; an older couple might have come to some accommodation, and Idina certainly negotiated open marriages with subsequent husbands that were, at least for a while, successful.  The insistence that Idina should not see her boys came from Euan and Idina accepted this as the best thing for her children.  Osborne has found out how many divorces there were in the immediate post-war years, but doesn't tell us whether this sort of custody arrangement was typical.  Under the prevailing divorce legislation, children were viewed as the property of their father, once over the age of seven, and custody arrangements routinely excluded the divorced mother; even if Idina had been able to take her young sons with her, they would most likely have been returned to their father's care once they were seven.  In its historical context, Idina's behaviour becomes less selfish, less "bad" and more usual.  Euan's decision to spend the year after his divorce working in America, leaving the boys in the care of their governess in Eastbourne, does not attract any authorial criticism.

Idina made contact with both her sons (who were, tragically, killed in World War 2 within a year of each other) as young adults, and appears to have had a reasonable relationship with her daughter Diana, the child of her marriage to Lord Errol; Osborne is careful to explain that it was normal to send children back to England for their schooling and considered unhealthy for them to grow up in the African climate.  Osborne, however, cannot leave Idina-the-bad-mother alone, and closes the book with the following:

 "Sitting here at my desk in my hillside farmhouse overlooking the vast stretch of the Cheshire Plain, I can hear my two small children scampering back indoors.  It is time I stopped writing and went to them."

The parallels with Clouds are obvious, but Idina's circumstances allow Osborne to assert herself as the better mother, achieving the hillside house with the glorious view and keeping her two children.  Possibly she is reassuring herself that she is not just as bad as Idina for spending years of their precious childhood shut away writing this book.  Osborne's monovalent reading of her subject, with no obvious awareness of how this reading has been informed by the biographer's own situation, wastes opportunities to explore other aspects of Idina's life (how did she learn to run a successful dairy farm, for example?) or indeed to celebrate Idina as a woman who found a way, in a deeply conservative section of a conservative society, to live life as she wanted.

To Osborne's credit, the paperback version includes a coda describing Idina's relationship with her stepchildren, the children of her fifth husband Lynx Soltau, who made their home with her at Clouds for eight years and with whom she kept in touch until her death in 1955. Idina's stepdaughter Ann McKay wrote to Frances Osborne after the first edition of the book was published, with warm memories of her time with Idina who, clearly, mothered her and her brother very effectively until well after her marriage to Lynx ended.  This testimony disrupts the reading of Idina as a bad mother that the main narrative articulates, although Osborne attempts to mitigate the bad Idina model by suggesting  that Idina's need for sexual love arises from her frustrated mothering instincts.  Heaven forfend that she should just have liked sex! and presumably it is possible to like sex and also be a good mother, as Idina was to her stepchildren.  It is interesting, however, that nobody had mentioned these children to Osborne during her research; clearly the stereotype of Idina was thoroughly embedded in many memories.

While I've got my hatchet out, I will mention that Osborne is occasionally repetitive.  Do you know that children in the colonies were made to wear a pad to protect their delicate spines from the fierce heat?  I do, because Frances Osborne told me so twice in this book.  She's also over-fond of the device of telling the reader, in the last sentence of a chapter, what is going to happen next: "Having herself bolted twice, Idina would now find out what it felt like to be bolted from" (175).  I'll leave the inelegant phrasing alone, but Joss Errol's bolt is more of a drift,  and anticlimactic.  Idina Sackville deserves not only a more rounded portrayal, but also one that is better written.


  1. I can hear my two small children scampering back indoors. It is time I stopped writing and went to them.

    Was that really her last line?? Ugh. That is nauseating.

  2. That's really it! Very, very shabby.