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The Shameless, Shocking Lady Idina Sackville

Jul 21, 2009

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It was so easy to scandalize society in the Edwardian age; just getting a divorce was enough to make you social poison. Now, of course, you can be seen crawling out of a car with your lipstick smeared and underwear around your ankles, and still receive an invitation to the next VIP club opening.

I would like to believe, though, that even today Lady Idina Sackville could get tongues wagging.

In The Bolter, Sackville's great-granddaughter, Frances Osborne, creates a lively portrait of the U.K.-born troublemaker — a woman who took countless lovers, raised hell in England and Africa, inspired novels by Nancy Mitford and carried around a dog she named Satan.

By the time of the crash of 1929, Sackville — the daughter of British noble Gilbert Sackville — had already married and divorced twice and fled to colonial Kenya, leaving behind two sons. There, she embraced the prevailing air of debauchery, attending wife-swapping parties (her bed was widely known as "The Battleground") and entertaining guests from her giant bathtub.

She was an outcast both in Britain — where infidelity in the upper classes was not shameful as long as you were discreet, but divorcing many times over and befriending your husband's lovers was out of bounds — and in Kenya, where her aristocratic social group was giving the Brits a bad name in a time of political unrest in the colony. She paid her scolders no mind. Despite her lack of formidable wealth and beauty, Idina Sackville was, if nothing else, fashionable. She at least looked the part of the sinfully rich.

Osborne, whose last book, Lilla's Feast (2004), chronicled the extraordinary life of her other great-grandmother, Lilla Eckford, knew nothing of her tie to Sackville until she read the name in an article about the scandalous murder of Sackville's third husband, Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Erroll. The shame of such a frivolous woman haunted Osborne's family, and she was not spoken of for generations. Osborne, however, was immediately hooked and has managed, with her research, to unearth the person behind the controversy and court reports.

One of the great storylines of the Victorian and Edwardian literary eras is that of the woman who lives outside of society's acceptance and dies by her own hand. Sackville lived her life bravely and shamelessly, but did not come to a memorable end; cancer took her at age 62. Through her story, we not only get a sexy and difficult-to-put-down read, we also get a good look at the shadow side of this prim and proper era and the real women who defied convention to live in it.

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The Bolter
By Frances Osborne
Hardcover, 320 pages
Knopf
List Price: $30
Read An Excerpt

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