Magazine article The Spectator

Lust in a Hot Climate

Magazine article The Spectator

Lust in a Hot Climate

Article excerpt

THE BOLTER by Frances Osborne Virago, £18.99, pp. 316, ISBN 9781844084814 £15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This sprightly book recounts the life of Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother. A glamorous aristocrat with a penchant for scandal, she married and divorced five times and was a protagonist of the Happy Valley set, the coterie of dim and adulterous cocktailswiggers who achieved notoriety in interwar Kenya (pronounced Keenya). Idina was not beautiful -- according to Frances Osborne she possessed 'a shotaway chin' -- but she had what it took. Painted by Orpen and photographed by Beaton, she epitomised the androgynous, indifferent chic of the age.

Her father, the eighth Earl de la Warr, abandoned the marital home when Idina was four for an actress he met at the Bexhill-on-Sea music hall, leaving the cuckolded countess to seek refuge in the arms of George Lansbury.

Osborne explains, 'Among a significant tranche of the Edwardian upper classes, adultery was rife.' One wonders where it is not rife. Idina 'came out' in the hot, turbulent summer of 1911, embarking on the husbands swiftly thereafter. They were, in order: the wealthy Cavalry officer Euan Wallace; Charles Gordon, languorous and reckless; Joss Hay, who became the Earl of Erroll; Donald Haldeman, the son of a shirt-maker; and the only non-Scot, RAF pilot Vincent Soltau, known as Lynx. It was with Gordon that the 25-year-old Idina moved to British East Africa, soon to become Kenya, and she never really left. 'This was to become her longest love affair, ' Osborne writes nicely.

She ignored her three children for decades, stabling them in England with relations.

The author, whose sole husband is the shadow Chancellor, cleverly featured another great-grandmother in her first book, the entertaining Lilla's Feast. She has researched this new one with admirable diligence, expertly conjuring the smoky glamour of Ciro's in the heady years before the first war; the pioneering spirit of East Africa during the soldier-settler land raffles; and the fabled Clouds, the home Idina built on a ridge of the Kipipiri, overlooking the flamingo-circled lakes of the Rift Valley. Idina herself floats through the narrative in a haze of silk and Patou, trailing a pet serval on a leash or bouncing over the tracks of the Aberdares in her Hispano-Suiza. …

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