'The Worse A Woman Behaves, The Better She Needs To Look.'

In 20th century England, women who "abandoned" their families were known as "Bolters." And in the golden age of Bolters, Lady Idina Sackville was the most famous and scandalous of them all.

Okay, now that the intro's over and a few non-nerds have been suckered in: THE BOLTER!!!! "Only us gays will care," sighed one of my friends when we heard this new biography, The Bolter, had come out in England (in these cases he's generous enough to count me, too) and we'd made haste to pre-order copies at tremendous expense from Amazon.co.uk. But how can anyone not be interested in something that brings together glamor, history, women's issues and literary cred?

Anyone who's read any Nancy Mitford (by which I mean, anyone who's lived in the true sense) is familiar with "The Bolter" - Fanny's absent, serially-divorced and flighty mother - "too beautiful and too gay to be burdened with a child at the age of 19" - whose name is always spoken in hushed tones from The Pursuit of Love on through Don't Tell Alfred. And good golly, any fool with a passing knowledge of Hons and Rebels or The Sisters can tell you that The Bolter was likely based on a number of women of the era (and someone I know swears it was actually her great-grandmother) but at least partially on Lady Idina Sackville.

"Bolters" were a common meme in pre-lib Britain. Says the WSJ,

Until the 1970s, divorce in British courts was so difficult to obtain that it used to be relatively rare in Britain, compared with other Western countries, and would often give rise to scandalous press coverage for the few bold-face names who formally attempted it...Women in particular were affected: Old-fashioned sexism was entrenched in the divorce laws, making it likely that a woman seeking spousal escape would also lose her children. What to do? There was always the option of running away-allowing divorce to ­follow as it would, often ­punishingly. A woman impetuous or reckless enough to bolt from her marriage was routinely likened to a rebellious Thoroughbred bolting from its appointed stall.

Author Frances Osborne's great-grandmother, Lady Idina, was an infamous Bolter of her era, and in profiling her, Osborne gives us a picture not only of one woman, but of the challenges of being a woman, period, even an aristocratic one, in the age of manners and morals. Sackville, cousin of Vita Sackville-West and scion of a noble family, was "the most celebrated Bolter of her day" - as famed for her glamour and dash as her five marriages. Held up as an exemplar of female vice - a woman who coldly abandoned her children for a succession of "white hunters" and scandals - she was also clearly a titillating and romantic figure. Or, as the Daily Mail puts it, "the original wild child, living her whole life seemingly dressed in couture silk pyjamas, moving in a thick miasma of dry Martinis and sexual folly." Married young to a future MP, she next reigned over colonial Kenyan society with a plantation owner, left him for a philandering Earl (later famously murdered), ended up with Donald "Squashy" Haldeman, a manufacturing heir whose fanatical jealousy drove her away, and ended her life, relatively happily, with a dashing RAF pilot. She emerges as troubled, restless, unhappy, and by the end pretty brittle, but also incredibly tough. You can admire the courage it took to defy an entire society, and deplore those who condemned her as a matter of convention, while still wondering at her behavior and at a character at once independent and desperate for men's validation.

The book falls prey to excessive narrator involvement, overblown writing and a tendency to see her subject in diametric terms - couldn't she be a victim of her times, a brave modern woman and sad and selfish? - but it's a fascinating exploration of society's zealous demonization of women who stray from the path, and particularly, any who don't privilege motherhood above personal desires. Then too, far from merely a series of escapades, her marriages were fraught, complex, their endings often more involved, the husbands less wronged, than it suited a scandalized society to acknowledge. Do we have equivalents today? Sort of: there are a million reality stars and actors whose serial romances are held up for scorn or entertainment value or heart-string-tugging. But without the same rules in place, you just can't break them the same way.

Sympathy for the Serial Divorcée-Heartbroken, Not Heartless [Wall Street Journal]
Now We See Her, Now We Don't [The Guardian]
Unhappy Valley For A Wild Child [Daily Mail]