It's easy to assume that an era is defined by the conventions it follows -- in fact, it is known for the rules it breaks. My mother's grandmother, Idina Sackville, broke every one of the Edwardian social rules designed to restrain women a hundred years ago. She divorced five times when few women divorced at all. She ran off to Africa in search of adventure. She took new bed partners freely -- just as only men were supposed to do. And she even wore trousers. Idina's behavior pushed women's liberation to extremes. This freedom set the tone of the 1920's, but the extent to which Idina took it was decades ahead of her time. For being so at odds with the world around her, she paid a heavy price. Nonetheless I found her story so inspirational and moving that I have turned it into a book, The Bolter, which has just topped the U.K. bestseller lists and will be published in the U.S. by Knopf on June 3rd.
Researching the book, I discovered that Idina was the third in a maternal line of strong women from Britain's new industrial families who challenged convention and broke free. Her story started with her own grandmother, Annie Allnutt Brassey. In the 1870's the Women's Movement was beginning and Annie took it a great leap forward. She was the first person (not just the first woman) to circumnavigate the globe in the newly-developed steam yacht. The late nineteenth century was an age of explorers traveling to the far reaches of the globe. Almost every single one was a man. Annie chose to ignore this prejudice against her sex and also ignored the traditional view that Victorian children should be kept upstairs at home in the nursery, and moved her four surviving small children with a library of 4,000 books on board. While she sailed, she dispatched her husband back to the British Parliament with strict instructions to campaign for the causes that she adhered to like a religion: women's suffrage and improved conditions for workers. And she wrote. Annie kept a diary of her travels, entitled Voyage in the Sunbeam. It became one of the bestselling books ever, was used as a textbook in schools throughout the United States, and in still in print today.
And so Idina's mother, Muriel Brassey De La Warr, had a deeply unconventional upbringing. She had spent her formative days hauling specimens out of the sea and her evenings climbing volcanoes to dine with South Sea Island chiefs. Her mother's book had also had another formative effect: it had turned Muriel and her siblings into child celebrities. Muriel continued her mother's crusade for gender equality. At the age of twenty-five she brought an end to the prudish dictate that men and women should only bathe on separate beaches - and opened the first mixed-sex beach in Britain. She became President of the Ladies' Automobile Association and then, at the age of thirty, she shook British society to the core by divorcing her aristocratic husband for taking a mistress and moving in with her. Women then were expected to accept such behavior by their husbands -- a husband's infidelity was not, on its own, sufficient grounds for divorce. Muriel faced life alone but devoted it to women's suffrage and worker's rights. She sponsored the Member of Parliament George Lansbury, the future leader of Britain's Labour Party, and grandfather of the actress Angela Lansbury. She introduced Lansbury to the Pankhurst women, found the money from both herself and her friends to pay for food for the workers striking for better pay and conditions, and organized funding to keep the Labour Party's mouthpiece, The Daily Herald, afloat. And the rules of the day changed. Women in Britain gained the vote, and workers' conditions improved. Muriel, however, was branded a "class traitor" for her part in it.
All this scarred Muriel's daughter, Idina. After the divorce, Idina's father vanished from her life and her friends were no longer allowed to come and play. But this gave her little desire to adhere to tradition. At the age of eighteen, she co-founded a local branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Society. When her own husband moved his affections away from her, Idina, like her mother, refused to put up with it. She divorced him, one of the Britain's richest, handsomest young men, and ran off to Africa with a near-penniless new husband who loved her. There she bent double over the thick soil to pull weeds out alongside the people she employed, made a comfortable home high up on the African hillside, and bred the best Jersey dairy herd in Africa.
Just as Annie and Muriel's progress took its toll, so did Idina's. When her first marriage fell apart, no-fault divorce was not an option. Nor could she divorce her first husband, my great-grandfather, for his misbehavior. So, in order to escape an unhappy marriage for a partner who loved her, Idina had to offer herself up as the guilty party. As a result, she found herself forcibly separated from her two sons, and only saw them again, secretly, once they were adults. Having lost her first family, Idina strove time and time again, searching for the love she had once had with them. Each time she was disappointed and thus the divorces came, one after the other. It was a painful process that required huge inner strength to find the optimism to continue -- but she was a free woman, in the way we now take for granted. Idina was one of the first women to claim her freedom in this way, and although she eventually found some sort of contentment, she paid a heavy price. But, for women today, it was one worth paying. (The Bolter is published by Knopf on June 2nd.)