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06.01.09

The Original Gossip Girl

Frances Osborne recalls the seductive Idina Sackville, who scandalized 1920s British society and inspired Nancy Mitford’s character The Bolter. Michael Korda is smitten, dahling.

Dahlings—

For those of you who can’t ever get enough of the frolics and affairs of the British upper class in the '20s and '30s, this is the book for you. Admittedly, this may be a special taste in the United States, like reading Duff Cooper’s diaries, or insisting on Frank Cooper’s “Oxford” vintage marmalade for breakfast every day, or wearing Leander Club socks, or ordering a regular supply of Trumper’s Eucris if you’re a man, or a subscription to Tatler, Country Life, and Horse and Hound if you’re a woman, but then we know who we are, don’t we, sweetie? We have the complete works of Nancy Mitford at home, for one thing, and know the difference between “U” and “non-U” usage, and recognize that in Britain what might seem lumpish, unkind, tasteless, and thoughtless behavior when practiced by a member of the middle class seems on the contrary divine, charming, and too, too sickmakingly funny when done by a member of the upper class (think of dear Prince Harry dressed up, so amusingly, as a Nazi, for a costume party).

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Well, poppet, no fear—Frances Osborne understands all this right down to her toes, and no wonder: She was educated at Oxford, she is married to a member of parliament, and has written for publications as far apart in tone as The Times of London and Vogue, and been praised even by such literary heavyweights as Robert McCrum, though— Dare one say it?—her style sometimes seems to be inspired more by sensational romantic fiction than by the Times, and to have something of the shock value of the kind of headline Lord Copper demanded in front-page stories—“BRIGHTON BATHING BEAUTY BARES ALL: PEER DENIES HER STORY!”—for the original Daily Beast. For example: “Thirty years after her death, Idina entered my life like a bolt of electricity.” Gosh! Golly! And remember, in the U.K. electricity comes in 220 volts only, not the namby-pamby 110 volts of American household current, so you’re talking a real jolt. Wizard prang, as we used to say in the R. A. F.

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The Bolter. By Frances Osborne. 320 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $30. ()

For those of you who have read (and memorized) Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and its sequel Love in a Cold Climate (and those who have not might as well skip the rest of this and crawl back to your hovel or bedsit and put a shilling in the gas meter), The Bolter is the slightly tarnished and shopworn absentee mother of Fanny, whose return to England in the first of these two novels, with her much younger and most recent lover Juan, causes such a fuss.

Sheer bliss though Nancy Mitford may be, one of her teeny, teeny defects as an author was a complete inability to invent a character, with the result that all her fiction is about real people, many of them members of her own family. A master of the comic scene and cutting dialogue, Mitford depended on her wide and willing circle of friends and family, on whom she drew unsparingly for her fiction, a habit she shared with her dear friend and fellow novelist Evelyn Waugh, whose friends, like Nancy’s, lived in fear of seeing themselves pilloried in the pages of his novels, but were, of course, quite chuffed when it happened, and would have been shame-makingly miffed to be left out.

Well, The Bolter, (Nancy Mitford’s character) not surprisingly turns out to be based very closely on somebody in real life, though for once not a member of the long-suffering Mitford family. Her real name was Idina Sackville, and she was Frances Osborne’s great-grandmother: a diminutive, bird-like, perfectly couturiered, glamorous late-Edwardian belle, who cut a swath through society in pre-First World War London, then went on to become a kind of permanent upper-class scandal, and an awful object lesson preached to their daughters by the mothers of debutantes about what going too far with men or “bolting” from a marriage, in the days before divorce was easy or respectable, could lead to. Nancy Mitford was not the only novelist who used Idina, by the way—such was her glam that Michael Arlen used her as “Iris Storm” in The Green Hat, and Garbo played her in the film version. She clearly had presence and sex appeal to spare.

Oddly enough, Idina Sackville (of the ancient, famous, often-gifted, wealthy, and almost as long-suffering as the Mitfords' Sackville family) was not at all a conventional beauty—she had the figure of a miniature runway model of her day, which is to say the period in which Molyneux was the leading couturier for wealthy Brits in Paris, but her face is marred by a curious and extreme receding chin, which looks almost as if it had been shot off in battle, like a gueule cassée; odd, because her brother “Buck” De La Warr (their father was the 8th Earl De La Warr, and one of their ancestors created the crown colony of—You guessed it!—Delaware) was one of the best looking men of his generation, and among other things is thought by some to have been the inventor of Black Velvet, a devastating mixture of Guinness Stout and Champagne, and was at one time a political figure admired and cultivated by Winston Churchill. However, Idina clearly had furious energy, bags of sexual magnetism, great eyes (what used to be called, in the England of her day, and may still be by old-fashioned people, “bedroom eyes”), and the willingness to try anything at least once, which eventually brought her to that fabled center of upper-class self-indulgence and generally swinish and selfish behavior, Kenya’s “Happy Valley” in the years between the two wars. (Idina actually managed to survive into the post-World War Two era until 1953, having lived through the Mau Mau crisis, and died at the age of 62, leaving “a dozen silver-and-glass cream and scent bottles, half as many hair brushes and nail files, a silver glove stretcher, a cocktail dress, an evening gown, and a large black taffeta bow.”)

The book is brilliant and utterly divine once Idina has come of age and bolted to Kenya, and full of charming details and wonderfully good stories about old scandals.

The silver glove stretcher is a perfect touch, by the way. How many people today own such a thing, or would even know where to buy one? Well, before you go running off to Asprey’s or Harrod’s to look for one, let me tell you a little more about Idina Sackville’s life.

Idina’s life is best told in short, chronological doses. Her first husband was rich and handsome, Euan Wallace, with whom she had two children, then she “bolted” from Wallace to Charles Gordon, whom she married and with whom she went to Kenya, where she became pals with everybody who mattered (if you have seen Out of Africa and White Mischief, you will get the picture and know the cast of characters), then she bolted again for the Hon. Josslyn Hay, future Earl of Erroll, the Donald Haldeman, then... But you get the picture. Idina’s life in Kenya centered on building large and lavish houses, going to wife-swapping parties (the Happy Valley sport of kings), drinking, and having a good time, interrupted every so disagreeably by the murder of her Joss Hay, a huge scandal, and still very much an unsolved crime (though one suspects that Idina probably had a pretty good idea of who did it).

The book is brilliant and utterly divine once Idina has come of age and bolted to Kenya, and full of charming details and wonderfully good stories about old scandals, and rather nice toward Idina, although objectively she seems to have had a sharp tongue, and a heart of ice. But maybe not. My mother was not unlike her, firmly fixed on the belief that as long as you always wore your best jewelry, kept your hair blond and carefully looked after, told scandalous stories and maintained a cheerful front, everything else would take care of itself, or if not, that some man would appear to sort out the details. She was a period piece, as Idina was, and you can’t help but admire her self-confidence, courage, and absolute conviction that each love was the one that mattered (until the next one), and that so long as a girl has great clothes, good jewelry, an elegant pair of shoes and the right attitude she will always land on her feet.

For all those who love British scandal, buy this book, take a day off or stay home during the weekend, light the fire, lay out (better yet, have your maid do it) a nice English tea, with scones, anchovy toast, the whole thing (it is still served properly at the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri, Kenya), put your feet up on a hassock, and dive right in. It’s a breath of fresh air from a vanished world.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.