20 March 2012

Woman of the World

The Bolter
by Frances Osborne 

My interest in the white colony that sprang up in the Kenyan highlands  between the world wars was first triggered by reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and grew stronger after I discovered, many years later, the photography of a later resident of the locale, Peter Beard. However, it wasn’t till I read about the hijinks of Happy Valley as recounted in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Millennium that I grew fascinated with the place. It was a purely literary fascination, but none the weaker for that.

Since then I've read James Fox’s White Mischief and quite a few other things written about the place. They all contained glancing references to the wicked Idina. Her exploits were only ever hinted at in these accounts, which suggested that they were too outrageous to recount in full. This, of course, only served to inflame my curiosity. As you may imagine, I snapped The Bolter up as soon as I saw it.

It kept me reading, certainly. But although I did stay up until the wee hours yesterday finishing it, the reading was sometimes an effort. Considering the story it has to tell, this is a book that should never be boring, yet parts of it are. The first half, which deals with Idina’s early life and her marriage to Euan Wallace, the first of her five husbands, is a farrago of parties and adulteries among the British aristocracy and plutocracy of the Edwardian era – booze and bed-hopping against a background of balls, race-meetings, country-house parties and neglected, almost forgotten children shunted about from one stately home to another while their parents cavorted in London and the fashionable capitals of Europe. The Bright Young Things seem utterly superficial and tedious, and the lives they led make one want to turn Socialist out of sheer revulsion. The second part of the book, which covers the Happy Valley portion of Idina’s story, is much better, with more depth to the narrative and more detail in the portrait of Idina herself.

Frances Osborne’s writing is adequate but frequently marred by personal sentiment, hackneyed pop psychology and cliché turns of phrase. However, the subject matter overcomes the author’s inadequacies, and some of the latter half of the book is genuinely affecting.

Osborne’s personal relationship to Idina (who was purportedly the model for the Bolter in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love) is both a strength and a weakness of this book; on the one hand, it has given the author access to much material that is unavailable to others, and created an emotional connexion that adds intimacy and immediacy to her portrait of her great-grandmother; yet it also places the book in a funny generic location, halfway between history and memoir. The balance between the two is repeatedly upset in the final chapters, not always with the most convincing of results.

As for my prurient curiosity regarding Idina's exploits, it was partly satisfied, though I have a feeling that the full story of the goings-on in Happy Valley will never now emerge.

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