Park Lane, By Frances Osborne. Virago, £14.99

 

Emma Hagestadt
Monday 25 June 2012 21:15
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Edwardian England is an era stacked high with novels, histories and dramas. Adding to this literary surfeit is Frances Osborne, author of two biographical works and wife of the Chancellor. Her debut novel, Park Lane, views the advent of the modern age through the eyes of two very different women: Beatrice Masters, and her maidservant Grace Campbell.

So far, so Upstairs Downton, and Osborne proves well-versed in genre etiquette. Grace soon yearns for a life outside domestic servitude. Meanwhile Beatrice, the daughter of the house, recently jilted and bored by the season, starts flirting with the more militant wing of the suffragette movement. But with the Great War looming we know Beatrice will don a FANY uniform and Grace will wave her butler-beau off to France.

While there's no harm adding to the gaiety of the nation with another well-researched tome of class and trench warfare, how much gayer Osborne's tale might have been. The illicit pleasures of Edwardiana lie in the master-servant romance and the pretty frocks. Indeed, it's the kind of toffish silliness that the author herself captured so well in a previous book, The Bolter – a biography of her great-grandmother, Idina Sackville, part of the Happy Valley set in Kenya.

Not surprisingly, political passions excite this writer's interest. Life only starts to hot up for Beatrice when, at a Kensington rally to be addressed by Mrs Pankhurst, she feels her breasts being "squashed" and something "hard " digging into her back. Disappointingly, it turns out to be an "Indian club" brandished by a cross suffragette.

While Osborne's descriptive passages take their cue from the Farrow & Ball colour card – skies are "pigeon-grey" and complexions "dainty pink"– there is nothing wrong with a fictional debut that springs to life in the second half. The responsibility of marrying fact and fiction, however, seems to have had a dampening effect on her storytelling – something her nearest and dearest might have warned her about.

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