Park Lane is Frances Osborne’s first novel; her previous books are non-fiction, based on her ancestors.
Osborne’s novel begins pre World War 1, at a time when the women’s suffrage movement was making inroads. Set in Edwardian England it has all the appeal of Downton Abbey and the similarities to Upstairs Downstairs.
The story follows two main characters, Beatrice, a debutante who lives at 35 Park Lane and her maid Grace. The book is told in the third person from the alternating points of view of Beatrice and Grace.
Beatrice is a bored debutante waiting for the right man to come along. Her mother is involved in the suffrage movement, a peaceful suffragist, but her Aunt Celeste is a suffragette, a more provocative and forceful stream of the suffrage movement. Beatrice in her boredom is drawn to her much hated Aunt Celeste’s cause and begins, without her mother’s knowledge, to volunteer for the suffragettes.
Grace has left home assuring her parents that she will procure an office job and send money home for the family every week. However when Grace arrives on London she finds that prospective employees reject her immediately after hearing her northern accent. She finally finds a job in service, working for Miss Beatrice and her family. Her parents assume Grace is working in an office job and she has to lie each week when sending home less money than expected.
With the outbreak of war lives are thrown into chaos. The men have all gone to fight and the women are left feeling redundant. Park Lane is reduced to skeleton staff and Beatrice fulfills her need to give to the war effort by volunteering as an ambulance driver at the western front. Beatrice sees all kinds of horror – death and the maimed are all around her. As the war comes to a conclusion the men return, many missing limbs and others having lost their minds. It is a harrowing time. Men rush to get married, in need of the normality a wife and home can offer them. Beatrice’s finds herself having to choose a husband.
While Beatrice is driving ambulances we hear little about Grace, but discover her fate towards the end of the book when the two stories merge together.
Osborne describes the disintegration of the class structure once war threatens and all young men, privileged or not, must fight for their country. During the war Beatrice spends time with men whom she would never have spoken to in peacetime. The women feel a responsibility to the men to take away their pain and make things better or at least to return them to how they were before the outbreak of war.
The book is in part based on Osborne’s family history, but the stories played out are fictional.
It is an interesting insight into the women’s suffrage movement, but the novel really comes into its own once war breaks out. Osborne describes the true horror of war and the disturbing effect it has on all those impacted by it, both men and women.
Fans of Edwardian England will be delighted with Park Lane. It is a moving story of a bygone era.
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