There’s nothing I like better than picking up an interesting volume on the cheap, and “The Bolter” has been on my wish list for quite a while since I read about it on many friendly book blogs. And 50p from the charity shop seemed a bargain to me!
I somehow, rather dumbly, hadn’t registered that this was a Virago (although not a VMC) until I actually found my copy, so that was a double score. The subject matter promised to be intriguing too – the scandalous life story of Idina Sackville (cousin of Vita Sackville-West) as told by her great-granddaughter.
The book was an easy read, and frankly if it had been fiction would have been a little unreal and unbelievable! Idina Sackville came from a privileged background but grew up emotionally damaged. Her first marriage, to Euan Wallace, failed during the First World War, despite both parties indulging in the Edwardian habit of taking regular lovers. In fact, Osborne portrays Idina (and most of the people in her circle) as sexually motivated, voracious characters who don’t seem to want to (or be able to) control their physical urges! The War brought many changes to society and destroyed many a marriage, which couldn’t survive the separation and the infidelity. Idina took the radical (at the time) step of divorcing her husband rather than attempting to reconcile and put up with a false relationship. In doing so, Idina lost custody and contact with her two sons and this choice blighted the rest of her life.
After the split from Euan, whom she never seemed to stop loving, Idina moved to Kenya and a succession of (mainly younger) husbands and lovers. Her attempts to build a home and a new life kept falling by the wayside as marriage after marriage failed. Eventually, Idina was reconciled with her two sons, just before both were tragically killed in the Second World War. Idina never really recovered and died of cancer at a relatively young age.
This was in some ways an odd book. The facts of Idina’s life were hidden from Osborne while she was young and when she did find out about her errant great-grandmother she obviously became fascinated. She makes pilgrimages to Idina’s house in Kenya and gathers all the diaries and mementoes of a family that was decimated by War and disease. Osborne is obviously wanting to revise the image of Idina, who was considered scandalous and shocking, but I have to confess that about halfway through I found myself wondering about these people.
The story *is* tragic – the amount of death and sadness *is* tragic – but I keep coming back to a phrase my daughters use – “First World Problems” (often applied to the nearest shallow teenager moaning about breaking a nail – “Nightmare!”). There’s a terrible amount of self-indulgence on view here, which could only come from an upper-class setting. If you were middle or lower class there’s no way you would have been able to get away with this kind of behaviour and in a certain sense many of Idina’s problems are brought on herself. You can make excuses and say it was how people were in that milieu at that time, but they really have no idea about the realities of life. The character I warmed to most in the book was Idina’s son David Wallace, who had more sense of the hypocrisies of his family’s existence. The bed-hopping, drinking and drugging in Kenya left behind a trail of mental breakdowns, death and suicide which can’t be justified on any level.
The other major crime for which Idina was judged, of course, was the abandonment of her children. This is even nowadays a taboo – it’s fine for a man to bolt, but for a woman to leave her children is a cardinal sin. Frankly, however, aristocratic parents at the start of the 20th century had little to do with their children who were farmed out here and there to nurseries, boarding schools and relatives. So in real terms, Idina’s children were probably not missing an awful lot. More damage could potentially have been done to Dinan, Idina’s daughter by a later marriage, who was left with her aunt to go through her teenage years. And it’s interesting that Idina only really sought reunion with her children later in life when she was in decline and they had grown up – she had left the difficult task of bringing them up to someone else and came back into their lives at a later point when it was convenient to her.
In many ways, too, I felt that Osborne never really got under the skin of Idina. There is no real understanding of her motivations and also no real justification for her actions, despite all Osborne’s attempts to rehabilitate. A lot of the writing is Osborne’s take on things and she embellishes a lot of situations for which the only source is a short few words in one of her forebear’s diaries.
I did enjoy this book to a certain degree and I had some sympathy for Idina as she was very much a product of her class and time. But I found it hard to justify all the excess that was going on out in Kenya and the human wreckage it caused. It did turn out to be an intriguing read but not quite in the way I expected!