Frances Osborne first met her great-grandmother in the pages of Nancy Mitford’s novels The Pursuit Of Love and Love In A Cold Climate, as the heroine’s absentee mother. In The Bolter, Osborne suggests, not always convincingly, that Mitford’s real-life inspiration endured an undue measure of heartbreak over her self-selected exile from London society.
A plain girl but a quick study, Idina Sackville married above her station to handsome heir Euan Wallace, but was separated from him during World War I. They grew apart, and while they both took advantage of the permissiveness of their set to take other lovers, Euan’s neglect rankled Idina, especially when he spent four months stationed in England chaperoning a set of younger single women instead of tending to his very sick wife. Once well, Idina telegrammed for a divorce and left her two young sons for British East Africa (later Kenya), where she became a fearless leading light of the “Happy Valley” aristocrats, eventually marrying and divorcing four more times.
Why did Idina bolt, and how did British society maintain its fascination with her in spite of the supposedly unforgivable thing she did? Osborne, whose interest was piqued by a newspaper photograph and the disapproving words of her own mother, posits that in spite of witnessing her parents’ scandalous divorce, Idina both entered into and dissolved her own first marriage heedless of the consequences, holding a candle for Euan for all her gaiety. Yet Osborne’s personal connection to “the bolter”—whom she never met in real life—seems to nudge her in the direction of this tempting but simplistic explanation for Idina’s behavior. True, the morass of mores which governed the extramarital affairs of Edwardian London may have ensnared Idina, but she had to have known the depths of the envy that would accompany stories about her from Africa, even as she lobbied behind the scenes to see the children she left behind. Osborne relies too heavily on Euan’s diaries (Idina often wrote in them, until she was slowly crowded out by his new “set”) and speculation on her wild ancestress’ feelings, against the evidence that Idina broke up marriages she claimed to hold sacred and defied the counsel of her friends. Instead, The Bolter slights the rebellious spirit that must have inspired Mitford in the first place.