Friday, April 5, 2013

Book Review - Frances Osborne's The Bolter

The Bolter: Edwardian Heartbreak and High Society Scandal in Kenya by Frances Osborne
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 2008
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

"Every now and again you come up against a book that has a real and unexpected impact on your life. The Bolter was one of those books for me. Knowing that I like to vacation in the 1920s, a friend gave me the book to read for fun back in the fall of 2010, at the same time that my grandmother, previously hale and hearty, wound up in the hospital, not once, but repeatedly. Opening “The Bolter”, I was incredibly struck by Frances Osborne’s comment that she hadn’t known that Idina Sackville, aka the Bolter, was her great-grandmother, until a chance television program sparked the revelation. The combination of events got me thinking, hard, about how little we know about our own families, about the secrets our grandparents take with them.

And that was how The Ashford Affair was born…" - Lauren Willig

Idina Sackville was was born in 1893. Raised in affluence amid a family of loose morals, she herself grew up to be not only unconventional, but some might even say scandalous. In a time when divorce was not prevalent, she went on to marry five times, it might have been six if her daughter hadn't begged her to not marry again and return to her maiden name. The first bolt to Africa left behind her very small children with her ex and his new bride. She would grow to love Africa, so much so that despite numerous divorces and reclamation of her property, she would set up three separate homes there over the years. Her parties in the Happy Valley became notorious for the booze, drugs and bed jumping. Her life became the stuff of fiction and parody in her own lifetime, with Nancy Mitford, among the many authors to take on Idina as a subject, immortalizing her as "The Bolter" in her books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Despite making the rift valley in Kenya "happy," her life wasn't that glamorous, and one has to wonder if she brought down the misery on herself in the end.

So, I fully admit that, seeing as this is the book that inspired Lauren Willig to write The Ashford Affair, that logically, "Ashford April" should have started with this book... rarely can it be said that I am logical, and therefore this is the second book reviewed this month. I just felt that Wigs on the Green was a nice transition between a month of Mitfords and a month of Ashford. I really liked the concept of this book more than the actual execution of it. I should have known I was in for trouble just by the fact that this book was recommended by Oprah's magazine, O. Oprah's selections tend to be... how shall I put this... books that I avoid like the plague. There is some sort of dynamic and polar opposites between me and Oprah. I have long ago accepted it, she, well, she doesn't even know I exist. But she was sneaky, instead of that "O" sticker, there was a little red band at the bottom that I didn't even bother to read the reversed out type on. Well played Oprah, well played.

The first hurtle that I couldn't get past was that every single person in this book was unlikable. They weren't just mildly annoying, but full on, me banging my head against the wall declaring that they deserved all the ill will that befell them because of their lack of morals or likability. Supposedly Idina could transfix anyone and endear them to her, so that despite all that she had working against her, the scandals, the affairs, that to those who personally knew her, she was the life of the party and a wonder to behold. Yet this never came across in the stories I read about her. Instead her great-granddaughter, who is obviously lacking in this ability to transfix anyone, has to repeatedly say it over and over as if to assure us, that despite appearances to the contrary, Idina was likable. OK... guess I'm going to have to take her word for it because rarely have I met someone who I wanted to throttle as much as India.

On top of Idina, the book is peopled with too many other characters that you don't care for because of their odiousness. Sometimes it feels like Frances Osborne goes out of her way to highlight the bad traits so that her book comes across as unbiased. Instead I felt like she just really hates her family. Then the odd rants about people other then Idina where wearing... I picked up the book because it was about Idina, not because of her son David, or anyone else. Excise David, sure she was Idina's son, but guess what, he died, so the end. In fact, they all die. And I couldn't give a damn. They all led lives that I found amoral and depraved, and they all deserved what they got. Sure she inspired some great fiction... but that's the thing about fiction, it makes this more palatable. Truth is harder to digest.

Next rant... Kenya. I picked up this book because of the "chief seductress of Kenya's scandalous 'Happy Valley set'." That meant to me, that the book was about Idina and Kenya... well... Kenya doesn't even get a look in until 130 pages after lugubrious family history and the destruction of her first marriage, that really she just gave up on in my opinion. Plus, once Idina gets to Kenya, she has a tendency to leave it quite rapidly again. It's only in her 3rd and 4th into 5th marriages that she actually spends any length of time there. Those sections of the book I found interesting. It was how the members of this little community lived and interacted that fascinated me. How they all got together at house parties and lived for the races in Nairobi. So, at least I did get some of what I expected to get in this book, but it was too little too late. These passages where not able to redeem themselves for the history of Idina's father's affairs, or her mother's political fervor. Some probably view it as backstory. I view it as too much exposition and not enough of what I wanted.

Yet all issues pale to that which angered me and put a fire in my belly that just wouldn't quit. Inaccuracies abounded in this book. If one or more facts is glaringly, obviously, 100% wrong wrong wrong... how can we take anything the author says at face value. The first error, which she later repeated, proving that it wasn't a typo, was about the political affiliations of one Oswald Mosley. For those who don't know, Oswald Mosley was the founder of the Blackshirts... those same Blackshirts that where parodied by Nancy Mitford in Wigs on the Green. The Blackshirts are Fascists. Who does Frances Osborne say Oswald Mosley's affliations lie with? The Communists. Because Communists and Fascists are the same right? NO! They HATE each other. Google Oswald Mosley and you will get quite a few politically incorrect jokes that Mosley said about Communists. In fact, Diana Mitford, sister of Nancy and Jessica, eventually married Oswald, after being his mistress for quite some time, and Diana's Fascisim led to a prolonged silence between her and Jessica, because Jessica was a Communist.

If this error wasn't enough, Osborne goes on to say that in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, the one with a character based on Idina, that when the fictional Bolter arrives to visit her daughter Fanny at the end of the book that Fanny is delivering her 1st child... not her 3rd, which is actually the case... but her first. These errors indicate a problem that might run deeper in the book. These are just two errors that I, who is not an afficianado of Africa or the Happy Valley set picked up on. Where there are two glaring errors, there are probably more. So how can I believe ANYTHING this author says? It shouldn't be shelved in biographies, but in fiction... Osborn in fact could conceivably make the book far more readable if she where to do this... historical fiction, not biography. Gaw... at least one good thing came out of this book, and that's The Ashford Affair.


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