Park Lane, By Frances Osborne

All the drama of masters and maids, none of the illicit pleasure
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The upstairs-downstairs world of Edwardian England has attracted more than its fair share of novels, dramas and histories. Adding to this literary surfeit is Frances Osborne, author of two biographical works, and also wife of the Chancellor. Her fictional debut, Park Lane, views the era through the eyes of two free-spirited young women: the appropriately named Beatrice Masters, and her maidservant, Grace Campbell.

It's 1914 and Grace has just started as a housemaid at an establishment in central London. Sending money back to her family in Carlisle, she yearns to find work as a secretary. Meanwhile Miss Beatrice, a convert to the suffragette movement, has landed herself a job in the typing pool at Emmeline Pankhurst's headquarters. But with the Great War looming, both women look set to embrace a new set of opportunities.

Osborne has visited this territory before. In her bestselling book The Bolter - a biography of her bed-hopping great grandmother - the author showed herself an entertaining chronicler of toffish indiscretions. Here, her playfulness seems to have evaporated. While the novel gleams with telling historical detail, it sells us short when it comes to the more illicit pleasures of the master-servant genre.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the novel's most climatic moments are political rather than romantic. It's at a Kensington rally that Bea feels her breasts being "squashed" and something "hard and round-ended" digging into her -- a club, it turns out, brandished by a cross suffragette. Meanwhile, Grace breaks out in a sweat stealing a copy of Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England from her Ladyship's library.

Osborne's descriptive passages take their cue from the Farrow & Ball colour card - skies are "pigeon-grey" and complexions "dainty pink" . The responsibility of marrying fact and fiction seems to have drained Osborne's creative juices - something her nearest and dearest might have warned her about.