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Review: The Bolter, Frances Osborne

Idina Sackville was one of the most scandalous British women of the 20s – her reputation was so destroyed that her great-granddaughter, the author of this book, wasn’t even told they were related until a coincidence forced her mother to reveal the truth.  Idina married not just once but five times, divorcing most of her husbands; her need for intimacy caused her to cheat on many of them and lent her character to a number of infamous seductresses depicted in fiction.  Throughout, however, it’s clear that Idina is a woman who simply needed to be loved, who was treated unfairly by the rules of her society, and whose life gives us a perfect lens for looking at this period in history for women.

I’ve seen this book around for what seems like a year now, and one day I finally saw it on the library shelf and decided it was time to read it.  That decision was a good one, because in many ways this book was fascinating.  Idina epitomizes the raciness of the 20s and the post-war era, but because she didn’t remain safely in the bonds of marriage, she was completely ostracized.  From a young age, she learned that men leave, because her father left her mother and they divorced – which meant Idina’s mother couldn’t introduce her into society.  Instead, an aunt had to do it.  She seems to have adored her first husband, but after the honeymoon period his attention wandered to other women, especially when Idina fell ill and couldn’t satisfy his needs effectively.  And so she fled, divorcing him and leaving two small boys that she was forbidden to ever see again, thus starting the cycle of scandals that defined her life.

What struck me most about this book was how hypocritical Idina’s society seemed.  The author relates plenty of stories about just how the Edwardians were emerging from the strict Victorian era, and how in particular the two world wars started to shake the foundations of marriages and morals, especially in the higher echelons of society and particularly as these started to break down.  It was fairly typical for aristocratic married couples to take lovers, but it was kept safely under the guise of marriage.  Divorce became less and less scandalous over the course of the period, but Idina pushed the limits with her many husbands – most of whom were younger than her and by quite a bit as she aged.  Yet we also got stories of women who greeted their guests while arising from their baths and one particular story of a woman who went to her own party clothed in nothing but pearls.  For married women, this seems fine; for Idina, a divorcee, not so.

Truly the saddest part of the book was the way that Idina’s many marriages and divorces robbed her of all chances of happiness.  Through the author’s eyes, she seems to have just wanted love and affection.  Otherwise, why marry?  Why divorce?  Why not just take lovers under the safe cover of marriage if all she needed was physical?  Her attempts to regain contact with her children at the end of her life show that she started to regret her choices and excerpts from her letters at the end of the book are heartbreaking.

This wasn’t a perfect book, though; I did feel that Idina remained an elusive, mysterious figure throughout.  I struggled to get a true feel for her and her decisions don’t always make the most sense.  I’m not sure what would have done the trick; I think I would have preferred more excerpts from letters by her.  At the start of the book, they’re mainly from her husband, with a few interruptions from Idina, and I felt that trend continued.  At times the author reimagines scenes, with speech quotes, which make it clear she did have access to personal records, and I think I’d have preferred straight quotes from letters to get a feel for Idina’s voice and character from the woman herself.  I certainly felt for her, but I didn’t get that connection I was craving.

If you’re looking for a interesting social history through the lens of one woman embodying an ever-changing society, The Bolter is definitely a book for you.  It’s less a portrait of a woman and more a portrait of a time; regardless, it’s fascinating.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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