Using letters, diaries, and family legend, Frances Osborne explores the life of Idina, her enigmatic great-grandmother, following her from Edwardian London to the hills of Kenya, where she reigned over the scandalous antics of the 'Happy Valley set'" - Back cover.
This book, written by the subject's great granddaughter, is written with both affection and understanding of the society that both attracted and repelled Idina Sackville.
This is a fun read.
The author, Frances Osborne, is a great-granddaughter of Idina; unfortunately, she imposes herself too much into Indina’s story. She also focuses too much on Idina’s sex life and not enough on Idina’s experiences in Kenya, which in itself is an interesting place and worthy of more than just a sketchy description. Because Idina is an ancestor of the author, I kept getting the feeling that she was trying to explain away or downplay Idina’s behavior. The salaciousness of Idina’s life eventually becomes tedious, as the reader begins to wonder what the point of it all was for Idina.
It seems as though Idina’s life was mostly comprised of social visits and the like, and the author gives monotonous details of what she did every day. And it’s not as though Idina ever saw the error of her ways or tried to redeem herself (except for perhaps trying to fix her fraught relationship with her elder son, David). There’s no moral to the story, no reason for me to feel any empathy with Idina, especially since she spent most of her life persuing what she thought was happiness and love. The Happy Valley set was made up of a bunch of unlikable characters, but the author tries to paint them in a rosy light. In addition, the author’s prose style is a bit choppy. I can see why she would want to write about Idina and her set, but maybe she was a bit too close to her subject matter to be really objective about it.
Idina Sackville and her crowd of bright, young things had too much time, too much money, and a sense of entitlement which can still shock today. Think of a modern biography where the main characters are Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears and Lindsey Lohan and you get a fairly accurate picture of the crowd Idina ran with. Most of them were a waste of good air that could have been breathed by someone else.
Idina was the daughter of the 8th Earl De La Warr and Muriel Brassey. Daddy was a Sackville with the title and little money. Mother was a commoner with lots of money whose family built railroads. They married for practical reasons. Muriel wanted to be a countess and the earl wanted cash. Apparently, Idina's moral compass was formed early when the earl ran off with a can-can dancer and her mother embraced, literally, the Labour Party leader George Lansbury and Theosophy, a hybrid version of Hinduism and Buddhism which advocated "abundant recreational sex within marriage as being healthy for women." Idina liked the abundant recreational sex idea. Not so much the "within marriage" concept.
Although she was very bright, Idina disliked school and preferred to expend her energy in looking like a fashion plate at all times. She wore clothes so well that Paris designers offered her their clothes for free if she would wear their line exclusively. She wasn't classically beautiful because she had a weak chin. Since she carried herself like a beauty, the lack of a firm chin didn't seem to matter.
Idina married and divorced five times. Her first husband was Euan Wallace who was handsome, had a title, and one of the largest fortunes in the UK. They married young and appeared happy spending lots of money. The problems arose when they were separated. Apparently, neither could manage not having a bed partner for even a short span of time. The bed-hopping began with discreet affairs on both sides, an acceptable Edwardian custom when so many marriages were marriages of convenience. As long as no one officially found out, (Don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses) and as long as there was an heir and a spare, the upper crust didn't much care who was sleeping with whom. This lovely facade of gentility collapsed with WW1. Suddenly, life became too short for such pretense and young people took their pleasure where they could. Well, high society kids did.
And here the hypocrisy of society is really exposed. The shop girl who went to bed with her soldier lover was a harlot, but the upper class girl did the same with no backlash. By the end of the war, the habit of secretive bed-hopping became out-in-the-open bed-hopping. When Idina was ill after the birth of her second child, Euan couldn't bother to spend any time with her because he was sleeping with multiple women, most of whom were Idina's friends. Her sister Avie enabled Euan's infidelities by throwing him in the path of her best buddy Barbie Lutyns. Poor Euan couldn't resist the girl and couldn't resist quite a few others. When Idina, upset because his behavior was so open, decided to leave him, Euan asked her to reconsider for the sake of propriety. The one catch was that she would have to give up her own lover Charles Gordon.
Here the author Osborne tries to understand her great-granny. Idina "bolts" before Euan begins divorce proceedings. She refuses to be cast as either the wronged woman or the adulteress. Because she openly rejects the hypocritical rules of her class, she is the one condemned by the very people who are doing the same thing. She gives up all rights to her two little boys (aged 3 and 4) and runs off to Africa wth Gordon who is now husband number 2.
In African, Idina builds three separate houses, has three separate dairy farms, and four husbands. Though she does farm, (well, watches the African workers work) she also has sex with anyone who crosses her path, drinks herself into a stupor, uses drugs, Husband two leaves her and she marries Josselyn Hay, Earl of Errol, famous for being murdered by the husband of his mistress. This marriage produces lots of orgies and a daughter who is dumped on Idina's family in England.
Joss is really a wretched man, good for nothing I can find. He spends Idina's money and beds her best friend under their own roof.. Idina doesn't care because if Joss is with Alice, he is not off sleeping with someone else and, therefore, won't desert her. So, Idina and Alice wait patiently while Joss services the local highbred ladies and then comes home to them. Alas, Joss falls in love with a house and does leave Idina for Molly Ramsay-Hill, her house Oserian, and her millions.
What does Idina do? She marries a great white hunter, basically the same old, same old. I kind of liked him, though, because when he finally got tired of Idina's many lovers he took pot shots at them. She had to keep a watcher in a tree who would let her know when he saw a cloud of dust raised by a jeep coming toward the house. She would get her current bed partner out the back. When she had enough of husband number 4's threats, she divorced him and married a bush pilot. WW2 was too much of a strain for this marriage and after this fifth divorce Idina took only lovers. Maybe it dawned on her that she and marriage were not a good combination.
Idina has a brief reunions with her two sons, but not with her daughter. She develops cancer, leaves her farm and settle near Mombasa with a sailor lover, the one man who does not leave her. She survives the Mau Mau uprisings, but not the cancer. She is dead at 62.
I didn't find Idina a tragic character. Although it would be nice to think, poor woman, her dad deserted her and her husbands were basically losers, she was her own worst enemy. She chose to be so promiscuous that sometimes, in an alcoholic or drug-induced haze, she couldn't remember which guest she had slept with. She bought into the 'live in the moment' selfish lifestyle. She was uninterested in her children and was just lucky that she could briefly reconnect with her sons. Her friends were a waste of space. Her lovers a bore. Her antics revealed the stunted development a person who never got past the "me,me" stage.
Having said all this, I did enjoy the book. It had the fascination of watching a train wreck when the only victims are not-very-nice people.
There is a very touching "Afterword" in the paperback edition of the book that shows Idina to be more than just a hedonist .The author received a letter from the daughter of Idina's last husband. For eight years Idina raised her and her little brother and was a loving step-mother. Idina's letters to the girl reveal a woman who had a loving heart and a very generous spirit. The tragedy is that Idina usually gave her heart to a jerk and when it got stomped on, she always found another jerk.
”As long as a high-society married woman followed these words of property protection and kept absolute discretion, she could do what she liked. In the oft-cited words of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.’ The boundary between respectability and shame was not how a woman behaved, but whether she was discovered. If so, her husband could exercise his right to divorce: for a man to divorce his wife, she had to be proved to have committed adultery.” (page 21)
Life in Kenya among the British elite evolved into what came to be described as Happy Valley for the free flowing alcohol, drugs and casual sex. But there is not much emphasis on these topics. It’s just the way these people lived, men and women alike. And Idina was not the only one who had these casual sexual encounters. All of her spouses did as well.
The descriptions of the Kenyan landscape were breathtaking and Idina developed her farm to be the idyll that many of us might long for. Her life may seem chaotic to the casual observer but Idina was quite happy with her existence even though she cut herself off from her children. During WWII she attempts a reunion with them all that is somewhat hopeful but tragedy ensues.
Could not put it down. Highly recommended.
Booze, drugs, sex, booze, obscene wealth, booze, sex, fabulous clothes, multiple suicides, sex, broken hearts, gunshots in the night, lions and tigers and the Mau Mau uprising . . . oh my, indeed.
This is the world of the 1920s British colonialists in Kenya – what was called the Happy Valley set, who partied like it was the end of times. If you’ve seen the film “White Mischief” you will recognize Idina as the character he called the ‘high priestess’ of the group. She painted her fingernails green, she named her puppy Satan and bathed in a bathtub filled with champagne while surrounded by her dinner guests. She married and divorced five times by 1945.
Osborne says she wrote the book in part because she felt her grandmother, who was vilified by the family, to discover “what had made her bolt from a husband she loved? Was there a story behind it, or was it just some impulse, an impulse that one day might resurface in me?” Now that she has two children of her own, just as Idina did when she bolted from her first husband, in effect abandoning the children, this question feels urgent. She does, indeed answer this question, to her own satisfaction, and that of the reader.
The journey towards understanding is an unnerving one. Were this fiction, we would be inclined to find it far-fetched. As biography, it is a true tragedy, with moments of high farce. Osborne was blessed with what appear to be boatloads of letters and diaries, from which she has been able to create a vivid portrait of the period, the mind-set, the politics and the people. It is a sad story, but one lived on such a grand scale, and told with such a clear voice, it is entirely involving.
Kenya holds many promises, many disappointments and many heartbreaks for Idena not least of which are her three subsequent marriages. Her third husband is Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Errol - whose murder was the inspiration for the book and film White Magic in which Idena plays a leading role. Weeks after this tradgedy her first husband, Euan, dies at the early age of fourty-eight - to her immense distrress at having had no opportunity to reconcile their past differences. When Alice de Janze, Joss' ex-wife and Idena's constant friend, committs suicide this proved the end of the Happy Valley set. The life as she had always known it in Kenya was over for Idena.
Do take the time to read this immensely interesting and informative book. You will find it as compelling a read as I have.
For a good number of upper class Edwardians, marital fidelity was of little importance. It went along with the expensive clothes, weekends in the country, heavy drinking and endless dancing. So long as the wife produced an ‘heir and a spare’ who were indisputably the husband’s get and neither did anything embarrassing, both partners were free to indulge themselves with other lovers, so long as they always came home. That was the problem with Euan- he didn’t come home. He didn’t come home when his wife was ill, recovering from surgery, to see his children. He had absolutely no interest in his family- at least until Idina decided to leave. He more or less blackmailed her into leaving the boys with him, and agreeing to not communicate with them. Suddenly, Idina was persona non grata- she had bolted from her marriage. She became the barely disguised protagonist of two novels and a film because of her unthinkable actions. It was this that she became most remembered for.
While not conventionally beautiful, she was alluring. Always elegant, even in the African bush, she went through husbands (five in all) and lovers (countless) like potato chips. She had partner swapping parties at her home in Africa. She was not well thought of by the more proper set. But that was not all she was; she was a smart working owner on her African farms. She spent a lot of her days clearing ground and taking care of herds. She was always generous. She brought up the two children that one of her husbands left with her, even after divorcing the husband, becoming the only real mother they knew.
Reading the book, the strongest impression is that she led a rather empty life. Lots of drinking, never a lasting relationship. Not raising her own children, although she did raise her daughter (by a different husband) until the girl was of an age to go to boarding school. But when one looks at the lives of the upper class people who despised her, she doesn’t come out as bad. They drank just as much, many used drugs, they had sex with just as many partners (just more discreetly), and they never did a lick of work in their lives. Idina actually comes out as a more rounded person. The book, written by Idina’s great-granddaughter, brings this sad member of Britain’s Lost Generation to life.
Update: I have just finished this book for the second time. I am still held in the grip of this fascinating woman's personality and character. Even the second time round I am still feeling some empathy with Idina, despite the heartbreaking choices that she made in her married life, and despite some of the choices she made thereafter.
Book 1 deals with Idina's early life, her childhood and her first marriage and its subsequent breakdown. The Second Book deals with Idina's life in Kenya and her next set of marriages - making it five in total - and five divorces (we don't count her many, many lovers).
The 1920s and 1940s were a somewhat liberating time for women - many deciding to break free from the constricting structure of Edwardian life in England, and following their own path - sometimes towards happiness, sometimes towards self destruction.
The author Frances Osborne is the great-granddaughter of Idina - a woman not mentioned in family circles and one who was not regarded as a role-model. The author takes us through her own journey of discovery and presents for us a woman with all her foibles, a woman of strength and frailty, a woman not of her times, a woman who draws us back into her web and keeps us within her grip as her life unfolds before us.
Read this in conjunction with Paul Spicer's "The Temptress" and James Fox's "White Mischief".
The whole arrangement became known as the “Happy Valley Set” (geographically incorrect, because Slains was on a mountainside). There must have been some synergy involved, since the group included a whole bunch of interesting characters: Beryl Markham, who supposedly spent her teenage years wandering naked through the forest, became the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west, and got a pension from the Royal Family after the becoming involved with the Duke of Gloucester; Karen Blixen, who ended up being Meryl Streep to Robert Redford’s Dennis Finch-Hatton; and miscellaneous others who would have been notorious rakes or shameless women anywhere else but were just run of the mill for Happy Valley. I just wonder how much was real and how much exaggerated. The scandals of the upper class (Idina wasn’t particularly wealthy, but she had a title) have always been fodder for sensation-lovers. They still are, of course – which is why I read this book. I’m not sated yet; Nancy Mitford’s novel series The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred features “The Bolter”, a thinly disguised Idina, as a main character, and I’ll have to check these out.
Idina Sackville-Wallace-Gordon-Hay-Haldeman-Soltau was either a Bright Young Thing, living the fast and loose lifestyle of the beautiful and privileged during the interwar years - or, I think, a generous yet vulnerable woman who loved to fall in love yet feared to be left behind. The author, surprised to find out at thirteen that she was related to the infamous 'Bolter', is equally biased, but I think that's only fair. The tangled web of affairs, friendships and family ties are difficult to keep straight, and I was shocked by how many of Idina's former friends and lovers chose to end their own lives, yet Idina is more than just a scandalous reputation - Frances Osborne makes her come alive on the page and in the imagination.
I started thinking she was a silly toff who selfishly abandoned husbands and children, but ended up admiring her and seeing her as a victim of her times.
The only frustration is the unevenness of the narrative because there are more letters and witnesses from some of the periods than others. But that's better than the author just making up "missing" bits.