Sara Wheeler

Lust in a hot climate

Sara Wheeler on Frances Osborne's biography of Idina Sackville

Lust in a hot climate
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The Bolter

Frances Osborne

Virago, pp. 316, £

This sprightly book recounts the life of Idina Sackville, the author’s great-grandmother. A glamorous aristocrat with a penchant for scandal, she married and divorced five times and was a protagonist of the Happy Valley set, the coterie of dim and adulterous cocktail-swiggers who achieved notoriety in inter-war Kenya (pronounced Keenya). Idina was not beautiful — according to Frances Osborne she possessed ‘a shotaway chin’ — but she had what it took. Painted by Orpen and photographed by Beaton, she epitomised the androgynous, indifferent chic of the age.

Her father, the eighth Earl de la Warr, abandoned the marital home when Idina was four for an actress he met at the Bexhill-on-Sea music hall, leaving the cuckolded countess to seek refuge in the arms of George Lansbury. Osborne explains, ‘Among a significant tranche of the Edwardian upper classes, adultery was rife.’ One wonders where it is not rife. Idina ‘came out’ in the hot, turbulent summer of 1911, embarking on the husbands swiftly thereafter. They were, in order: the wealthy Cavalry officer Euan Wallace; Charles Gordon, languorous and reckless; Joss Hay, who became the Earl of Erroll; Donald Haldeman, the son of a shirt-maker; and the only non-Scot, RAF pilot Vincent Soltau, known as Lynx. It was with Gordon that the 25-year-old Idina moved to British East Africa, soon to become Kenya, and she never really left. ‘This was to become her longest love affair,’ Osborne writes nicely. She ignored her three children for decades, stabling them in England with relations.

The author, whose sole husband is the shadow Chancellor, cleverly featured another great-grandmother in her first book, the entertaining Lilla’s Feast. She has researched this new one with admirable diligence, expertly conjuring the smoky glamour of Ciro’s in the heady years before the first war; the pioneering spirit of East Africa during the soldier-settler land raffles; and the fabled Clouds, the home Idina built on a ridge of the Kipipiri, overlooking the flamingo-circled lakes of the Rift Valley. Idina herself floats through the narrative in a haze of silk and Patou, trailing a pet serval on a leash or bouncing over the tracks of the Aberdares in her Hispano-Suiza. She bathed in champagne, and so did her friend Tallulah Bankhead, and she could be relied on to produce ice from a thermos when picnicking in the Congo with Edwina Mountbatten.

One husband complained that she was a nymphomaniac, and, on Osborne’s evidence he was right: the five marriages were just the start of it. But she was capable of work. ‘She had by now’, says Osborne, when the story reaches 1940, ‘built up one of the strongest Guernsey herds in Africa’ (though this, one imagines, was not a hotly contested field). As Idina’s friend Rosita Forbes put it, ‘she was an extraordinary mixture of sybarite and pioneer’. When Joss was mysteriously shot in his car in 1941 Idina was devastated, although the couple were long divorced. She attended every day of the Nairobi trial of Sir Jock Delves Broughton, Joss’s lover’s husband, who was eventually acquitted. The episode seemed to mark the start of a decline, and Idina died of cancer at the age of 62 in her cottage outside Mombasa, a ‘tattooed former sailor’ boyfriend at her side.

Osborne’s prolixity with cliché suits this ludicrous story (money is spent like water, inconveniences are avoided like the plague and hatches are battened down wherever necessary. The years, inevitably, are war-torn.) The book’s title is after Nancy Mitford’s Bolter, the narrator’s errant mother in The Pursuit of Love and its sequels, and Osborne would have been wise to study the Mitford style. The anachronisms are unfortunate — Tom Mosley ‘parading his pecs’, for example (ghastly image). There is no sense of an inner life, not even an indication that Idina had one, and the reader might wish for the development of a theme or two, to brake the narrative gallop.

Overall, though, Osborne writes in a pleasant, breezy style, and The Bolter is a highly recommended light read — providing you can follow the tangled family trees, the shifting alliances and, above all, the shagging. How did they keep it up (so to speak)? When they were not actually at it, they were glugging morphine, attacking their spouses’ lovers with rhino-hide whips or shooting at one another. What the Keenyans made of it, one can only imagine.

Sara Wheeler is the author of Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton.