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The Bolter: Edwardian Heartbreak and High Society Scandal in Kenya
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Group Reads Archive > The Bolter by Frances Osborne (2013 Reading Challenge)

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message 2: by Val (last edited Jan 05, 2013 12:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val The first chapter is all about the author and why she wrote the book; that belongs in an Afterword. I'm not that keen on her writing style either as there are a lot of subordinate clauses, including a few dangling participles. The story may well be fascinating, but this book gets relegated to the bottom of the 'currently reading' pile because the first two chapters put me off.

Susan | 774 comments I found this a very sad read indeed. Of course, I understand that upper class parents, especially in the Edwardian era, had little contact with their children - but these people really took it to the limit! I have read another book about some of the scandals in Happy Valley - I think it was "White Mischief" and I felt that was a more interesting read than this one. However, obviously the author was related to Idina Sackville and so had a more sympathetic relationship with the 'Bolter'. Overall, I think decadent was more the word I would use, rather than glamorous. However, much of it was fascinating and I felt more sadness and sympathy than anything else for all the people involved as one tragedy after another unfolded. It was like watching the disasters of today's celebrity marriage/baby/divorce unfolding - disasters you could foresee and didn't understand why they couldn't.

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I read this a while ago and will re-read it later in the year...I remember really enjoying it and certainly felt pangs of pity for 'the bolter' but ultimately she was a very selfish woman. I'm torn a feminist I think 'good for her!' and question why we demand that women 'be' a certain way but a woman I'm ashamed for her. It's a really complex thought process. - I'm looking forward to the re-read.

message 5: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I have read a bit more of this now and would agree that it is a sad story.
I suppose she was a bit of a feminist in thinking that there was no reason she couldn't behave in the same way her husband(s) did, but it doesn't really seem as if many of her actions are driven by conscious decisions; they seem more motivated by spur of the moment, that seems like fun at the time ideas than anything thought out and planned. If you burn your bridges you can't go back, so you might as well make an adventure out of going forward.
Her lack of contact with her children is more pronounced than most upper- or middle-class Edwardian parents, although I gather from the introduction that she does regret that later and try to rectify it to some extent.

Susan | 774 comments I agree that she was justified in her anger at her first husband - although ultimately he wasn't doing anything that was not fairly typical behaviour for the time and his class (as the book states, once the wife had had two sons - heir and spare - as Idina had, she was free to take lovers herself). I can't get past the fact she left her children - she just seemed so selfish and regretted it herself at the end of her life, obviously. The scene where she meets her younger son is just tragic. I'm not sure there was anything other than a childish desire to be the most attractive/daring woman in a room in her decisions to take lovers either.

message 7: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val The book suggests that what she did 'wrong' was to get divorced and marry her lovers, rather than simply stay in the marriage and have sex with them. She does seem to have chosen men who were better as lovers than husbands, since none of them (so far) were particularly interested in being faithful.
I can't understand or empathise with her decision to abandon her children; if she wanted to be free of the marriage, why didn't she divorce him rather than agree to be the guilty party?

Susan | 774 comments As you say, Val, she was simply impetuous. She would have been better to have stayed in the marriage and taken lovers - in that way she could have protected and kept an eye on her children. As you say, none of the marriages she made were really the love of her life, were they? Most women in the aristocracy who had children by other lovers passed them off as her husbands. The fact she simply went off and married someone - bolted in fact - suggests little thought for anyone other than herself.

message 9: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val There can't be all that many situations where marital infidelity is the best option, but hers does seem to be one of them! Heir, spare, affair.

I have read this now. She doesn't lose custody of her daughter, but she divests herself of the responsibility pretty quickly, which makes some of her protestations about missing her children a bit feeble.

Susan | 774 comments I hate to suggest affairs as a problem solving solution Val - but you did wonder why any of the people you meet in the book actually did get married. When her fourth husband actually wanted to be faithful and was jealous she disliked it. As she was incapable of fidelity it seemed a bit much to divorce Euan on those grounds really. Heir, spare, affair indeed!

message 11: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I'm not seriously suggesting it as a solution, but abandoning her children is so much worse than abandoning a marriage to which neither party is truly committed that almost anything would be better. The ending of the book is contrived, but the author does neatly point out that she knows what is important.

There is a point in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust where unfaithful wife Brenda Last switches from being merely self-centred and pleasure seeking to hateful. I don't want to include spoilers for those who haven't read it, but she gets her priorities wrong.

Susan | 774 comments I knew what you meant Val, but I thought it was a valid point. A Handful of Dust is a very raw novel, isn't it? I think Evelyn Waugh took his divorce very hard and, despite his faults, took the idea of marriage seriously. Idina was not a cruel person, but she was selfish and overly concerned with what people thought about her.

message 13: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val You know when I'm not serious Susan, but when reading it back I also wondered what others might think!
I would agree with you that Idina was not cruel, but she must have been both selfish and thoughtless to act the way she did.
Waugh was often very scathing in his novels, but there is usually a lot of humour as well. "A Handful of Dust" doesn't have much, unless you count the fact that the main characters are all obsessed with something or someone and none of them get what they want (which serves them right).

Susan | 774 comments No, Handful of Dust is a very personal book and hard to read as you can feel his bitterness towards She-Evelyn as the book progresses. Well, a good author uses personal trauma to good use I suppose!

message 15: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val It is hard to read, although I suppose pouring all that bitterness into his writing may have been cathartic for him.

message 16: by Ally (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Was Idina part of Evelyn Waugh's inspiration for A Handful of Dust? or is that just a good comparison?

I loved that book...sooo funny but yes, very bitter too. Was Idina part of his circle at all?

Susan | 774 comments As far as I know Ally, A Handful of Dust was based on his first wife She-Evelyn (as opposed to He-Evelyn). I don't think he knew Idina, although he probably knew of her. Idina was certainly the inspiration for The Green Hat, which I still haven't read.

message 18: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I too assume he would probably have known of her.
Nancy Mitford made use of Idina's story and Evelyn Waugh was friends with Nancy.
There are only a few hundred families in the British aristocracy and they tended to socialise with each other. Evelyn Waugh associated with that social set and liked gossip.

Susan | 774 comments Yes, she was "the Bolter" in the Mitford book, wasn't she? I think A Handful of Dust is less funny and more savage than Waugh's normal novels, making it quite uncomfortable at times. Of course, Waugh was friends with Nancy and with Diana Cooper, so I am sure he heard all about it - and read about the murder of husband number 2(?) in Kenya.

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I'm only just at the switch to Kenya, so my thoughts might change as I continue reading, but right now I just feel bad for Idina. She was raised in such a way that she thought and expected certain things which were out of the norm for the majority of society making her not fit in. Additionally, while affairs were normal, there was the expectation that at least in public the marriage appeared solid, which Euan wasn't doing (as shown during his ceremony at Buckingham Palace and in not visiting Idina when she was ill). So yes, she acted poorly by leaving him and her children, but she wasn't the only guilty one in that. She was raised to be in a lot of ways and then her husband was more interested in having fun than in keeping up appearances as well. It was a bit doomed from the start I think. (I hope that all made sense. I'm on my phone so it's hard to go back and make sure it makes sense typed out.)

I'm interested to read all the Kenya stuff now though; see if my opinions change. (They might given the comment about her daughter. I feel she was kind of bullied into leaving her sons, but if she just kind of abandons/ignores her daughter...)

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I can't edit, sorry.

That's not to say I think she's blameless so far, but rather that in a lot of ways she had no chance. She was always outside of society in so many ways that when it came time to conform and to put up with things other people would, she didn't. She had a mother who divorced and a grandmother who travelled, she never stood a chance long term, at least in terms of marriages, I think.

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments Okay, I'm now done and feel much the same way. I think Idina was a victim of circumstance in a lot of ways. Like I said before, growing up how she did, in a lot of ways she was doomed from the start. I think she made a lot of bad decisions in life too though. She didn't want to be alone and that caused most, if not all, of her problems. I think she truly loved her children. With he daughter she initially did what all parents did, it sounded like, having her get her education in England, and then the war parted them further. I do think she made bad decisions but I feel bad for her as well.

Susan | 774 comments Not sure I agree that she was bullied into leaving her sons Bronwyn. Her first husband was happy to keep the marriage going in name and they would have continued as most aristocratic couples did - having affairs. As the book itself states, once a woman had provided the 'heir and spare' they were able to even have children by other men, which were accepted. She was not willing to live in her first marriage, which was her choice, obviously, but she would have been aware that she would have lost her children by her actions.

message 24: by Val (last edited Jan 28, 2013 12:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I agree, it might be hypocritical to have multiple affairs and remain married, but it was socially acceptable. I think Idina made impetuous decisions, some of which she later regretted, but she was only thinking of herself when she made them.
Many parents did not send their children 'home' from East Africa for their education, as it was considered a healthy climate in comparison to India, Malaysia, etc., they were more likely to send boys than girls, they very rarely sent them that young and even those who did send them 'home' decided they were probably safer out of Europe during the war and arranged to get them back.

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments Maybe bullied isn't the right word, but it still wasn't solely her fault. Yes, you could have affairs and stay married, but for her it was more than the affairs. She wanted love and wanted to travel, neither of which she was going to get from Euan and the latter she wouldn't be able to do with a man at all then even if she did have love. I think a lot of it is that she was in the wrong time for what she wanted to do. Now no one would think of keeping one parent out of the lives of their children for basically no reason. Now everyone gets divorced (and even then, slightly later than Idina's though).

Additionally, like I said before, it's not like Euan was really keeping up his end of the arrangement either. If he couldn't even be bothered to act properly in public for the sake of the marriage, why shouldn't she bolt?

I also think the whole way in which we think of her is colored by her reputation and the title of the book. Can we really think of her as anything but being the woman who left, even when that wasn't always the case? Also, why are we getting upset at her for acting a certain way just because she wasn't acting as the times dictated? Is it really better to live in a society full of unhappy marriages and countless affairs just to keep up appearances? Just because it's socially acceptable doesn't make it right. She did as she was brought up to do, always living slightly outside of society. She tried to conform to society by going out in society and marrying Euan (who I do think she truly loved), but her only attempts at behaving properly for society didn't work out so no wonder she didn't really try again!

On the bit with her daughter, she kept Dinan in Kenya with her until she was eight. And even then it's described the clothing and protective gear that children had (generally) to wear (that spine pad sounds really odd...). So even if more kids were kept in East Africa it wasn't always the case. Ann and Tom were only there so long because of the war, it sounded like, and then they went off to boarding school in Tanzania. And if she'd kept her daughter we could get wrapped up in discussing how she kept her isolated and not around other children, around such a "bad" group of adults, etc. in "Happy Valley". She couldn't win no matter what I think. :/

Susan | 774 comments No, I agree the marriage breakup was not solely her fault. I do think her marriages (after her first marriage) were simply acts of impulse and not given any real thought of 'forever'. Did she want love, or simply to spite her first husband? Did she simply crave being seen as attractive and able to gain - if not keep - a man? As a mother I do find it difficult to accept she left her first marriage and, therefore, left her two little boys for another woman to raise. I know the upper classes had nannies, etc, and so had less day to day contact with their children, but I don't think I could do that no matter how unhappy I was. She could have lived apart from her husband, married in name only, and left when her children were grown. Your instinct is to protect your child and your children must come first in every decision you make.

message 27: by Val (last edited Jan 29, 2013 02:39AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val She was not the only one at fault, although the divorce laws of the time meant someone had to be the guilty party. Both Euan Wallace (the boys' father) and Josslyn Hay (Diana's father) had plenty of affairs themselves. I gather that her wild house parties stopped when she divorced Josslyn and married Donald Haldeman. (He was the one who wanted her to be faithful.)
I can feel sorry for her, as she did regret some of her bad decisions later and did make some effort to re-establish contact with her children once they were adults, but I can't sympathise with her.
East Africa was not divided into separate countries then, so travel between Kenya and Tanzania would just have meant a (long) train journey or an internal flight completely within British territory, so is not as dramatic a separation as leaving your small child / children several thousand miles away in England.

Susan | 774 comments I think that I might have felt differently about Idina had I read this when I was younger and more idealistic. Now, reading books like this one, it just make me feel depressed and sad.

message 29: by Val (last edited Jan 29, 2013 05:06AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I think I would have felt differently about her if I had read it before I had children myself. She could be seen as a bit of a doomed romantic, falling desperately in love with one wrong man after another and rushing off across the world in search of love and adventure, but I think that even when younger I would have told her that if she didn't want the responsibility of children she should make sure she used a reliable contraceptive (or made sure the man did, since this was before the pill). It is perhaps significant that the one man she later regarded as her true love was Euan, the one she actually lived with for the shortest time, so she may have become a bit disillusioned with romance herself as she got older. (He is also the first and the one who divorced her, not the other way around, so that may not be the only reason.)
I'm obviously not very romantic myself: I though Elizabeth Smart was more selfish than romantic as well.

Susan | 774 comments My husband always says I'm not romantic Val - mind you, he's a divorce lawyer, so you think he'd have lost any dreams of romance years ago!

message 31: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I would assume he always tries to ensure that any children suffer as little as possible from the break-up and get some contact with both their parents Susan.

message 32: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I am going to give this book an extra star for generating a lively discussion.

Susan | 774 comments Of course the law does try to give both parents access, but it is also very biased on the side of the woman in my opinion.

message 34: by Val (last edited Jan 29, 2013 11:56AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val At the time "The Bolter" was set the man often got custody of the children, but then only wealthier people could afford to get divorced and they could also afford nannies to look after them. I think that changed after WW2 so the woman usually got custody (perhaps it needed a welfare state). It is much better if the children don't lose contact with one of their parents, but even now the courts would be reluctant to let a parent take them out of the country. Euan might still have got custody under current family law when Edina decided to go to Kenya, although she would be allowed to see them when she came back to the UK.

message 35: by Ally (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I feel that, looking back with hindsight, its difficult to understand the type of culture that existed then. Today it has been recognised that it's morally unacceptable to deprive a child of its mother (...its a different debate as to whether thats all for the good!!!) but I'm a little with Bronwyn when she says that Idina was 'forced' to leave her children. Just because it was the 'rules' of the culture doesn't make it less of an emotional wrench. I do agree that she made her that many women would NOT have contemplated, but its not 'true' choice if the best options are unavailable for consideration. In a detached way you can reconcile it all with an academic assessment but essentially, the emotional debris is clear to see in the lives of Idina and those around her and those kept far away.

message 36: by Ivan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ivan | 561 comments I don't know that having extra marital affairs was ever socially acceptable. It was common, but frowned upon and certainly not something to be open about; one had to be discreet. And, as always, it was more "acceptable" for a man than a woman. It was a topic that didn't come up in polite society. I found all these people to be rather shallow and selfish. None of them seemed remotely interested in their children or the least bit nurturing.

Beth (bibliobeth) | 27 comments Hi everyone, just been reading your opinions, it's great that this book has provoked such a good discussion. For myself, I did feel sorry for Idina, and think she was quite passionate and impulsive by nature. I think she often did things without thinking things through properly or determining what the consequences would be, although I too couldn't understand how she could leave her children and go halfway across the world. As for her lovers/husbands, I think she was desperately in love with the idea of being in love, and probably didn't ever feel fully satisfied with anyone, or didn't find anyone who matched her high standards?

Janice (JG) For me, the most interesting parts of this sad story were the author's descriptions of the mores of the times, and how those times changed... ie the accepted (discreet) philandering of spouses, which became open marriages, which became simply living together. Also, interesting to be reminded that the reason there was less actual intercourse between the unmarrieds was because of the threat of pregnancy and that scandal. Life before Roe v. Wade and birth control pills.

I also learned the extent of British colonialism in Kenya, which I hadn't really recognized for what it was. A little shocking, yep.

message 39: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val Kenya was an important colony at the time and lots of Europeans owned land in the Highlands, which had a fairly pleasant climate and were good for growing coffee. It was never a very well managed colony, partly because many upper class families thought it was a good place to send their most embarrassing members.

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