Sunday, 26 August 2012

Park Lane – by Frances Osborne



Presented as the interweaving stories of Grace-the-maid and Lady-Beatrice-the-reluctant-and privileged-daughter, on face value Park Lane looks like it's jumping on the back of the revived popularity for 1910s pomp, as exemplified by the recent TV hits Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs.

That’s fine, but there were two other factors that drew my attention to this book. First, it is written by Frances Osborne (wife of George Osborne, and author of The Bolter: a 2008 biography of her great-grandmother Idina Sackville, who ‘bolted’ to Kenya with other women’s husbands), and second, it appears to be about the fight for women’s suffrage.

I say ‘appears to be’ because Park Lane is very much a book of two halves, which seemingly bear little resemblance to each other, save for a recurrence of the main characters; although they themselves bear little resemblance to their earlier versions. But perhaps that’s what enduring a world war will do to you.

The first half of Park Lane is a frustrating read. It’s a slow trudge through the pages, despite what should be a fascinating read. Lady Beatrice becomes wrapped up in the forefront of the militant suffragettes with extraordinary speed, thanks to her rebellious aunt Celeste. Lady Bea keeps this secret from her family, most of all her mother, who also wants women to win the vote – but not at any cost. Downstairs, new maid Grace has ideas of becoming a secretary and instead pretends to her family in Scotland that she is one, while secretly carrying on as a lowly maid… albeit one who steals a Friedrich Engels book for her socialist brother.

All of that could have been an exciting page turner, but instead it feels like a clumsy trawl through disjointed sentences and clunky speech. And, in the exact opposite of what I’d expect from a page turner, I found myself physically wanting to read it, but mentally desperate to do anything but read it. Strange.

But I ploughed on and got to the second half, at which point war had broken out and the characters had undergone a dramatic reinvention. As had Osborne’s writing, which now picked up pace, became engaging and absorbing, and finally I got the page turning story I’d been after 200 pages previously. Although it remains hard to reconcile the characters in the second half with their first half versions – Grace loses her vim, Lady Bea fades into a wet fart, and what of the campaign for suffrage? Never far from the pages of the first half, the fight for female emancipation has vanished from the second half of Park Lane. While I know that Mrs Pankhurst asked her troops to call a halt to activity during the war, it still struck me as strange that the feistiest of her army would suddenly never mention the campaign again… not even in the 1918 chapter: the year that women over 30 were granted the vote.

The chapters following Lady Bea into the secret suffragette offices of Lauderdale Mansions are among the most exhilarating for me – conjuring up what the smell, noise, pace and atmosphere of the place must have been, and the majesty surrounding Mrs Pankhurst. But, inexplicably, the suffrage story vanishes from the pages of Park Lane as quickly as Lady Bea manages to rise to a position of suffragette respectability. Most infuriating.

But not as infuriating as the conveniently neat way in which the lose ends are all tied up at the end of the book. Which takes away from any vague credibility the plot had. 

While Park Lane was an enjoyable enough read once I’d pushed through the first 200 pages, I struggled with the implausibility of the two main characters throughout, and the treacly writing, which at times was a joyless trudge. After the unmitigated pleasure of reading The Bolter, I’d hoped for better from a suffrage novel by Frances Osborne.

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Here’s a link to the inimitable John Crace and his digested read of Park Lane.

Although, even more fun can be had by having a read of Julie Birchill’s review of ParkLane, which is a hoot. “Seriously, I've come across paper dolls with more depth than this crew.

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