"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
Guest Host: Terence Smith
Like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” a new novel titled “Park Lane” explores social boundaries during the Edwardian age in Britain. Author Frances Osborne knows well the world about which she writes. She was inspired by her great grandmother, heir to an industrial dynasty who became involved in the politics of women’s suffrage and workers’ rights in the early 20th century. Osborne’s novel features two heroines from opposite sides of the class divide. She joins us to discuss the effect of World War I on British society and why stories about that period are so appealing today.
- Frances Osborne author of "The Bolter."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Park Lane” by Frances Osborne. Copyright © 2012 by Frances Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. TERENCE SMITHThanks for joining us. I'm Terence Smith, former correspondent at PBS, CBS and the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. "Park Lane" is a novel set in the "Downton Abby" years in Britain before and during the First World War.
MR. TERENCE SMITHIt's the story of two young women, one a member of a rich, industrialist family, the other, her maid. Author Frances Osborne joins me to talk about the real-life family story which inspired her. She's the author of two biographies "Lilla's Feast" about her paternal great-grandmother and "The Bolter" based on her maternal great-grandmother.
MR. TERENCE SMITHIf Osborne sounds familiar, it should. She is also the wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, welcome.
MS. FRANCES OSBORNEThank you. It's great to be here on the show.
SMITHWell, it's a pleasure to have you here. Tell me why you think the Edwardian period has been so fruitful, it seems to me, of late for writers and filmmakers. There have been these extraordinarily successful television series both in Britain and in this country.
OSBORNEWell, first of all, what's quite interesting is we have to remember that it's exactly 100 years ago, at the beginning of a new century in which there was a great deal of change and here we are still near the beginning of a new century and there's a natural sort of comparison to see how things have changed and how they haven't.
OSBORNEBut at the heart of our interest, I think, lies the fact that the Edwardian period was the last gasp of the old world. People lived among such richness and voluptuousness and watching something like "Downton Abbey" is a pleasure to watch for all the detail.
OSBORNEAnd then came the cataclysm of the First World War and what happened in that was the old Edwardian world died and the new modern world was born.
SMITHTell us about the real-life story that's behind "Park Lane."
OSBORNEWell, I discovered about the Edwardian period and all the history that inspires the novel "Park Lane." I learned about it when researching my last book, the biography of my great-grandmother Idina Sackville and that book is called "The Bolter" because Idina bolted from her first husband and marriage and she went on to marry a total of five times, in fact, and divorce five times, which, in my view, shows a degree of optimism to keep on marrying that many times...
SMITHThe triumph of hope over experience...
OSBORNEExactly. But her mother was a very politically-active woman and in the years leading up to the First World War, her mother was living in a family house in Park Lane and ardently battling for the women's suffrage movement. And learning about this inspired me to write the novel "Park Lane," which is set in a fictionalization of this house, but I've the number.
OSBORNEThe old, original Park Lane number 24 is now the Trader Vic's Bar in the Hilton Hotel and so I've put number 35 for the book, which is slightly further up the street. And this was extraordinary, Idina's mother, my great, great-grandmother introduced the sort of key, George Lansbury, who was a key British politician to Mrs. Pankhurst who led the extremist suffragette movement.
OSBORNEAnd the house in Park Lane was owned by this family because it was effectively the end of a railroad dynasty. My great-grandmother's great-grandfather in turn was a man called Thomas Brassey who was regarded by many as the greatest railroad builder that ever lived. He built one in 20 miles of the world's railroads and he left home at 16 and became financially the most successful self-made man in Britain in Victorian times.
OSBORNEThe key thing to remember about Thomas Brassey is that he employed between 80,000 to 100,000 men and, first of all, treated them so well that they travelled across England to queue around the block to pay their last respects for him, but secondly, that even though he employed so many thousands of men, he did so without a personal secretary.
OSBORNEHe walked everywhere carrying a writing case and he could be in the middle of a field and someone would come running up to him with a letter and he would sit down and reply immediately. Once, staying with friends, they discovered he'd stayed up after dinner and written over 30 letters overnight by hand.
SMITHSo that's the real-life story and background behind it. But give us, if you can, a little synopsis of the plot of Park Lane.
OSBORNEWell, writing the novel "Park Lane," I've been able to sort of draw in all the history of the time into two principal characters and it's called "Park Lane" because it's set in a mansion in Park Lane. It starts in early 1914 when suffrage, women's suffrage violence is raging across the country.
SMITHCan you make, if I may interrupt, make the distinction between the suffragists and the suffragettes?
OSBORNEYes, this is a very important distinction. The suffragists, which in reality my great, great-grandmother believed that the women's vote could be gained by peaceful means and by negotiation. They organized huge demonstrations of over 100,000 people, but they did not resort to violence.
OSBORNEAnd they believed that the suffragettes who were waging their campaign through violence, were, in fact, causing harm to the movement because it meant that members of parliament could stand up in parliament and say, how can we give the vote to people who behave like this?
OSBORNEThe suffragettes were led by someone called Mrs. Pankhurst and were very extreme. Not only did they commit arson, they burnt buildings. They blew up one or two. They chained themselves to railings. One famously tried to stop the king's horse in the Derby horserace and was trampled to death.
OSBORNEAnd when these women had rallies and the police tried to stop them, heads would be broken. They'd bring out these Indian clubs, which were fashionable exercise instruments of the day, sort of baseball bat-type things and hit policemen over the head. And when they were sent to prison, they then tried to starve themselves to death.
OSBORNEAnd at first, the government force-fed them, which involved 12 people holding a woman prisoner down while rubber tubes were put down through her throat to her stomach. And there were so many protests for this that the government did an equally controversial measure which was to introduce something called "The Cat and Mouse Act" and it's worth noting they found time to introduce this in parliament, but not a woman's suffrage bill.
OSBORNEAnd "The Cat and Mouse Act" meant that a prisoner could be released when they were on the point of death. This was to avoid having martyrs in jails, released on the point of death and the moment they were well enough to go back to prison, recaptured, which raises interesting human rights problems.
SMITHRight, well, it has certain echoes in this country in recent administrations, but go back to the plot of "Park Lane."
OSBORNEThe plot of "Park Lane"...
OSBORNEThe plot of "Park Lane" involves two central characters. Upstairs is Bea who is a disillusioned debutante who is looking for much more in life. Her mother who was closely modeled on my own great, great-grandmother is an ardent suffragist and is very much set against suffragette violence and therefore partly as a rebellion, partly as a desire to break out of the confines that surround her, Bea is drawn into the extremist world of Mrs. Pankhurst and her militant suffragettes.
OSBORNEAnd she gets dragged gradually. She's been brought up to believe that violence is not the way, but gradually her principles are overturned as she's sucked in.
OSBORNEAnd downstairs is Grace who is a maid who has pretended to her family up in the north of England, who saved all their money for her to train as a secretary so she could earn a lot of money and send it home. But when she comes to London, her Northern accent stops her from getting a job as a secretary and all she can find is work as a maid, a fact that she keeps secret even from her brother in London.
OSBORNEAnd when she sees him, she draws her gloves up over her wrists so he can't see her red and raw hands. But of course, the problem is her family are asking her to send more money home than she possibly earns and she has to sort this problem. But what happens is the First World War breaks out, social boundaries crumble, restrictions for women fall away and Grace and Bea's lives become set on collision in a way they could never have imagined.
SMITHIncidentally, we have a picture of Mrs. Pankhurst on our website. If people go to that, they can see what she looked like. You have two different narrators in "Park Lane" and I wonder why you decided on that approach.
OSBORNEWell, first of all, they're not actually narrating in the first person, but it's a sort of close third person. It means that what happens in the book is seen either through Beatrice, the debutante's eyes, or through Grace, the maid's eyes.
SMITHThat's right, through their eyes.
OSBORNEAnd so this enables me to show often the same events from the two different points of view, but also to just give a sense of sort of realism because we only perceive what we sort of perceive. There is no great sort of omniscience, although, perhaps in retrospect, and this is very much written in the present tense, this novel, and I felt it made it more immediate and easier to bring the reader right into the characters.
OSBORNEBecause if all you're reading is what they're seeing and feeling and experiencing, then you are there with the characters. And one of the reasons for writing a novel, as opposed to non-fiction, was the ability to absolutely bring a reader inside...
SMITHIn fact, you might read us, if you will, a little bit. I notice that in the first two chapters, you introduce the two, Grace and Bea, you introduce the two principal characters and there's quite a different tone.
OSBORNEYes, there is. I'm not going to try and do an accent from the north of England, Carlisle, because I'm not an actress. I think that writing is a bit of method acting in the way that you step into the person's shoes. You write down, but it's silently done and certainly alone.
SMITHBut there's a certain sound of it in this, in these opening sentences.
OSBORNEOkay. The first chapter begins with Grace, the maid. "Grace can just see the bedroom door handle ahead of her. In daylight, it had been so bright her face would stare back from the brass, but it's not dawn yet and barely February so there's just the night-city glow coming through the glass roof.
OSBORNEThe size of the school yard, it is all that glass. There's as much empty space in the hall of this house as there is in a church. She's almost there now, made it along the passageway all quiet and with a dead weight in the grass. She's not a big girl either is Grace.
OSBORNEThe handle is night-cold and turning it, big fingers only just getting it a turn. Slowly, Grace Campbell for it'll come and Lord knows when. If you go quickly through it, the noise is quicker, though it'll be a screech."
SMITHAll right. I'm going to interrupt you there to take a very brief break and we'll be back, more about "Park Lane" by Frances Osborne.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined this morning by Frances Osborne the author of two biographies, "Lilla's Feast" and "The Bolter" and now a new novel "Park Lane." And you were, as we went to the break, reading a bit that is about Grace, the first of your two principle characters. And you have another segment there about the second.
OSBORNEYes, I thought I'd read you the introduction to Beatrice so you get a sense of how different she is and, you know, how extraordinarily different their lives are, even though these two women are living upstairs and downstairs in the same mansion on Park Lane. So we just heard about Grace first thing in the morning and now we're seeing the same moment from Bea's point of view.
OSBORNE"Bea glances at the carriage clock beside her bed. Not much after 6:30. No wonder it feels like the middle of the night. Her head is pounding. My god, it must've been 3:00 before she put her book down. Serves her right for picking it up when she came in, but it was sitting there all navy and guilt waiting for her as she reached for the light, though you could hardly switch to sleep straight from the gramophone screeching and being flung around a drawing room.
OSBORNEThe chairs and sofas had been pushed to the side, but even then it was too small for the crowd. They were all having a go at the foxtrot which promises, if you get it right, to be a good deal more elegant than the turkey trot or the grizzly. And Bea likes to get it right. She likes the way she draws attention when she dances well. She knows that the men's gazes are with her as she moves around the room. And she's learned to sachet as she walks, hips swinging, shoulders back and chest out. She's good at biting her lips too to make them pink and slightly swollen. If she can still draw men, she reckons, she can withstand any hail of arrows."
SMITHThat's lovely. As you were mentioning there is romance, there's personality, there's character in here. There's also history.
OSBORNEYes. I very much, having written nonfiction beforehand, historical biographies, the desire for historical accuracy didn't leave me in "Park Lane." And first of all, I use the real history of the time of the late Edwardian period and the suffragette movement and then the First World War to create a framework for the book as such into which I could send my characters Grace and Bea and almost see what happened to them 'cause of course, they begin to make up their own minds as to what they're going to do next as they become...
SMITHThey both want more out of life than would be originally expected of them.
OSBORNEYes. This is a key part of the story that before the First World War, both of them were living in very narrow confines as to what they could do or couldn't do. Grace had limited options to work if she couldn't find work as a secretary in an office, which was the new and exciting thing for women to do at that time before the war. She ended up in domestic service 'cause really that's all that was opened to her. Apart from domestic service, she could perhaps have been a seamstress, but that was more grueling work and she didn't know how to sew very well.
OSBORNEAnd the -- Beatrice, meanwhile, is upstairs and expected only to marry and to run a house. She's desperate not to fall into the trap her elder sister has done, which is to marry a man with a very large, very crumbling house in the countryside and have to dedicate her entire life to try to stop the roof leaking. So for both of them, they search to break out and take control of their own lives. I mean, tragically and rather ironically, this came as much social revolution does through the horror of the First World War.
SMITHI suspect just from talking with you that you find the struggle for women suffrage, even though it was -- what you're writing about was nearly 100 years ago, still relevant today.
OSBORNEOh, I think it's extremely relevant today. And you say 100 years ago, but it's only 100 years ago. And it's extraordinary to think that that my grandmother was born in a time when women could not vote. In fact, coincidentally just over a month ago, I went into a building in London called the Methodist Central Hall in order to vote myself in the London elections. And it was in that very building was one of the places that my great, great grandmother had, exactly 100 years ago, campaigned for women's suffrage.
OSBORNEAnd I wondered what she'd have thought and I think in some ways, she would have thought -- well, she lived until women had the vote. She would have been pleased that this was so automatic now, but in other ways, she may have thought that, you know, women's lives had not come on as far as she might think and, in fact, women constantly having to fight to push their case forward. Otherwise, everything is rolled back against them.
SMITHShe lived to find women receiving the right to vote, but with a certain stipulation.
OSBORNEActually, she died in 1931, which was after the stipulation was lifted. But you're right, when women were first given the vote in 1918 only women over 30 were allowed to vote. And they had to have a certain property qualification or be married, which meant they had to own or rent property of a certain value or be married to a man who did. And the -- what had happened is that before the First World War, it wasn't just women who couldn't vote. Men could only vote if they had certain property qualification. Towards the end of the war, all men were given the vote, but only some women.
OSBORNEIt also -- I mean, I find this extraordinary to imagine but there were arguments going on at the time that by the age of 30 women might have had a better chance of understanding the politics, so they couldn't until then. But in...
SMITHA perilous argument to make today...
SMITH...indeed. I -- as you go through this and as the plot unfolds, the war is huge and it affects everybody's life in Park Lane. But it also, I suspect, affected the status of women and what they could do and not do.
OSBORNEIt did incredibly. First of all, women were refused the chance to join in or work. And then eventually the first thing that happened is as the men went off to fight the women had to do the men's jobs. One of the key growth areas for this in which women -- working women could escape either working in -- could escape having to work in domestic service or do some job of drudgery was working in the munitions factories.
OSBORNEAnd thousands and thousands of women went to work in the munitions factories making the bombs, which is a terrible thing to have done but it -- for them it was work. They were, of course, paid only half what the men were being paid. But they could have an independent life and independent of a husband or independent to serving somebody. And up and down the scales it happens and Grace, of course, finds that the men in the house have gone so she's doing the men's jobs and she feels a degree of emancipation.
OSBORNEBeatrice goes off to become a motorcycle courier and then ends up driving ambulances all on the front...
SMITHAll on the front.
OSBORNEExactly, which is extraordinary. And therefore by the end of the war, the parliament was unable to say that women weren't sensible enough to have the vote.
OSBORNEAnd the people came out with a view of -- you know, women were so used to developing their own lives they decided to continue to do so.
SMITHThere was great social change, great social unrest. And it wasn't just in employment and in the vote and that sort of thing. There were changes and you depict them in the sexual attitudes of the day.
OSBORNEYes. I mean, part of the emancipation for women was a degree of sexual emancipation. And it started off perhaps with -- if you think of before the war, it was the duty of women to remain intact until they married. When the war started, there was a dramatic reaction to men in uniform. And this was probably partly caused by the fact that women weren't allowed to join in the war work. So getting close to a man in uniform was how they could join in. But groups of women -- young women started chasing soldiers around the streets desperate for some sort of favor -- desperate to grant their own favors.
OSBORNEAnd there's a wonderful story about -- a quote about some soldiers running along a street pursued by some girls. And the soldiers jump onto the bus to escape the girls. And the girls jump onto the bus as well. And then even though it's pouring with rain the soldiers then run up to the top deck which is open and stand there in the rain to avoid the soldiers (sic) . This was called khaki fever or khaki fever, as I say. And it very much concerned the press. What is interesting is it wasn't just young girls doing this, but girls -- women of older ages.
OSBORNEAnd there is a description of the playwright Laurence Housman writes that a friend of his in the police force says that even virtuous women from respectable families are giving themselves to different soldiers day after day as if it were a sort of religious duty.
SMITHAnd was society smiling on this?
OSBORNENo, society wasn't smiling on this at all. The reaction was to start something called morality patrols -- women's patrols when involved older women patrolling the streets with torches. Misbehavior was so rife in Britain at this time that if you were walking along, you had to be careful of stepping into a dark doorway because you might find it occupied.
OSBORNEAnd these women shown their torches into doorways, went through cinemas afterwards suggesting that the lights were not dimmed between performances, and chased so many people around with their torches they actually became a public nuisance themselves and were complained about in the sense that it's time these spinsters stopped following young soldiers around with their torches. Maybe it was their own version of khaki fever.
SMITHKhaki fever. Why did you decide -- there's so much of this history and it's fascinating -- why did you decide to do it as a novel rather than a straight out nonfiction?
OSBORNEWell, I think you can get a lot more history into a novel because you -- I know you're looking puzzled here...
OSBORNE...because you can draw -- if you write nonfiction you are confined to what that particular character experienced in real life. And normally they only experience one aspect of the history going on at the time. But by writing a novel I manage to have characters who experience a great deal of the different aspects of the history at that time. So I can use the characters to illustrate and capture the moods of the different paths. Like, you know, Bea is involved in the militant suffragette. She's also a motorcycle courier and drives ambulances. And then more things happen to her afterwards. It would have been hard to find somebody who'd followed this exact path.
OSBORNEIt also enable me -- when I first wrote "The Bolter" -- the first part of "The Bolter" I included dialogue because I felt I was so much there. I read the diary accounts of meetings that happened. And I felt knowing the character, I was so much there, I could hear the voices. And my editor in UK decided that I should write "The Bolter" as straight nonfiction, but commissioned me to write two novels afterwards.
OSBORNEAnd you can put the voices and dialogue in and you can really get through doing so go right into a character's shoes and capture the moments of the time from a particular point of view.
SMITHAnd yet you have to be true to the history of the time and the specific facts.
OSBORNEAbsolutely. I -- having written several historical biographies, I felt very much guided by the history of the time. And I started using the history and the facts to create a structure for the novel. And when Bea goes off to the suffragette rallies that turn into riots, I went back -- I quote from Mrs. Pancost's speeches which I looked up. I go into the detail of what happened where and when throughout the evening.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us in this conversation, call 800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, find us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. Well, it is a rich and actually quite fast-moving story. And I don't know if you want me to say this or not, but it reads a bit like a television miniseries. I don't know -- would you want that to happen? In other words, after Downton Abbey and after Upstairs Downstairs and so forth.
OSBORNEYes, of course, I would love for that to happen . My last book "The Bolter," actually the script, is being written right now for a TV miniseries. And it would be fantastic if someone would make a series of these. I would love to see Beatrice and Grace and Grace's rather handsome and brooding brother Michael on the screen.
SMITHAnd you probably already have actors in mind.
OSBORNEYou know, I don't actually 'cause I think of the characters so much as the characters in the book rather than a particular actor.
SMITHYou know, I've heard it said -- I wonder what you think of this -- that the economy today and the difficulties really worldwide have something to do with the fascination with the Edwardian era. And you talked about the extraordinary comforts of life before the war. Do you buy this theory?
OSBORNEWell, I suppose the only comparison is the feeling that there's been such sort of high living has been going on and there've been moments that people have made. What's happened over the last couple of decades is people have made large amounts of money, particularly through the financial sector. And the Edwardian period where people living off large fortunes not mostly made in the industrial revolution in the century beforehand. But it is maybe this extreme amount of money floating around in the hands of a few that have best some similarity.
SMITHSomehow a hedge fund manager is not as romantic a figure however.
OSBORNEAs what? As a...
SMITHAs an Edwardian figure living off of one's grand fortune.
OSBORNEAh, but he doesn't wear those dresses, does he?
SMITHNo, he doesn't. We have some callers who would enjoy talking to you. And one who's been patient with us is Mike in Dallas, Texas. Mike, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MIKEYeah, thank you. I'd like to commend the author for her addressing this timely topic. And I think it's great that what she's doing -- a lot of people choose not to know when we have election years and what she's doing is showing that these women did not and should not have died in vain for their right to vote that they fought desperately for. And it also drives home the thought to me that people need to be looked at more closely as a soul and not as a sex. And when we can all do that and we can see that women can do the same things as men and men can do the same things as women, I think the world will be a bit more harmonious in all respects.
SMITHThank you, Mike. Interesting point. He finds the topic, in his word, timely.
OSBORNEYes. I mean, that was a point I made earlier as to what would my great, great grandmother have thought now. And I think it is still a timely topic. I don't know too much about the details of the various issues here in the U.S. but, I mean, what seems to be clear is that if women or any group really relaxes about hard -- rights that have been hard won, then they run the risk of seeing those rights slowly be rolled back again and eroded. And in England, there are still sort of questions about equal pay in reality. And...
SMITHNot just in England.
OSBORNENot just in England.
SMITHCertainly not. Coming up, your calls and questions for Frances Osborne, author of the new novel "Park Lane."
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith. I'm in a delightful conversation with Frances Osborne, the author of a new novel, "Park Lane" which, like some of the television we've all been addicted to lately, deals with the Edwardian era and the extraordinary change that took place in Britain and, of course, in this country. The argument was certainly made in this country that men came back from the war changed in fundamental ways, but so did the women.
OSBORNEYes. There was a point in which after in the first World War the women had done so many of the men's jobs and actually done quite, you know, active, being out at the front driving ambulances, being face-to-face with a lot of gore and death and been incredibly brave. First of all, they were given more political rights, but secondly they didn't want to be put back inside the box, as such. And they decided to -- I mean obviously prompted by the fact that a lot of men had died and more women were gonna remain single -- they moved much more into the working environment.
OSBORNEAnd they also started rushing around London without chaperones. There was a breed of women called the flapper who would go around suddenly wearing short skirts and dancing all night and smoking very openly and, you know, not really caring whether she was seen as sexually available or not.
SMITHUm-hum. All right. Let's take another call. Bob in Durham, N.C. is on the line. Bob, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BOBGood morning, Frances. Good morning, Terence. It's good to speak with you.
BOBI would like to add a bit of what I believe to be the attraction in that era. It's the case that it existed before the invention of the mass media and people still spoke in whole sentences. There was less popularization of the language. And as Frances mentioned earlier, it was a very rich time, as it came after the Victorian era where there was so much innovation and thought that so many people took on heady projects, such as launching the Encyclopedia Britannica.
BOBAnd so I believe it is the beauty of the language of that era, as well as the fact of the American fascination with anything spoken with a British accent. By virtue of being a British accent sounds cultured and interesting to listen to. So I'll take my answer off the air.
SMITHOkay. Thank you very much. Your thoughts on that.
OSBORNEWell, first of all I’m very grateful for the suggestion that anything with a British accent sounds cultured. I think that's being probably extremely, extremely generous to our Brits and thank you very much. I think, you know, as you were speaking it an adjective came to mind to describe the era. And that was very much this sort of beauty associated with it. It's not just high-living. It was high-living with immense taste and style. And also we can't help but look at that time, but with a sense of nostalgia. And there was a feeling I think nonetheless of foreboding at the time.
OSBORNEThey knew they were living high and they knew that things were going to change dramatically. In fact in my first book, "Lilla's Feast," I found some family letters from some members of my family. And one woman, who although she had got the top mark at Cambridge in science was not allowed to take her degree and had to stop practicing as a scientist when she married 'cause that's what women were expected to do.
OSBORNEShe writes a wonderful letter in which she said, you know, that her husband was a scientist, the rate of change that is going on in inventions just means that the world is about to change so fundamentally.
SMITHThe accents of course can be an asset or a problem. And for your character, Grace, her accent coming from Carlisle, right...
SMITH...blocked her from getting a better paid position as a secretary. Why?
OSBORNEWell, coming from Carlisle, she had a very strong northeastern accent which I'm not going to try and imitate here, but it would have made her quite difficult to understand too many people...
OSBORNE...down south. And it wouldn't necessarily have been the accent that London offices wanted to use as their sort of face. And for that reason, half the time in the interview for the job she has to sort of repeat or spell out the word she's saying. And they never call her back for a second interview.
SMITHAnd it's interesting to point out that in the context in which you're working the idea of being a secretary was actually an elevated position, certainly as opposed to being in service.
OSBORNEThat is absolutely true. A secretary would be able to -- well, first of all an office job was a lot more agreeable than scrubbing floors, to say the least. And it paid a great deal more. And it was sort of women's first step into the business environment until this period. Most secretaries had been clerks and had been men. And, you know, so women were very much beginning to break into the man's world in this way. One of the things that I think is perhaps extraordinary is the number of decades it took for the general presumption of women in business to be that they were only a secretary.
SMITHUm-hum. And all this continues to evolve as well. But here's a call I’m going to take for an almost personal reason. William is in Winston Salem, N.C. William, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
WILLIAMYes. Terence, very good interview and very interesting. Your late father used to have a saying that writing was an easy life. All you did was just sit down in front of a typewriter and open up a vein. I wonder if Ms. Osborne feels that her writing life is somewhat like that.
SMITHWell, thank you, William. I didn't know that you realized the attribution to that which sometimes is attributed to my father who was Red Smith, the sports columnist and did say that often. Heaven knows if it was actually original with him, but your thoughts on it, Frances.
OSBORNEWell, I mean, for me, I love writing so much that it does seem easy. I feel immensely privileged that I have a career as a full-time writer. And I do literally sit down at my computer and on the first draft open that vein and out it all comes. But however, as equally important to writing, as letting that vein open, is the endless reworking, reworking that you have to do in order to pull a book into shape. And I feel that the first draft -- the vein is a very good way of putting it -- should be written from the gut, the gut and the heart.
OSBORNEAnd then you go and you apply your head to putting it into shape. And, you know, the secret of writing is really rewriting and being prepared to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and gather those thoughts together.
SMITHAnd being quite merciless about your own prose.
OSBORNEYes. There's a great phrase in writing called, kill your darlings, which refers to those, you know, we writers, we'll write a paragraph and then we'll put what we think is a really wonderful sentence or comment at the end. And inevitably this will jar and be too much, but that's why we have editors who go through and tell us to kill our darlings.
SMITHIndeed. And we all need them. Let's take another call. This is Hannah, who is in -- is it Casselberry, Fla.? Hannah, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show".
HANNAHYes, that's correct, Casselberry.
SMITHAnd go ahead.
HANNAHI was wondering, the women who had khaki fever and were pursuing the soldiers, they probably were having unprotected sex and they must have had offspring. How did the Edwardian and post-World-War-I society look upon those children?
OSBORNEWell, I mean, first of all, there were methods of protected sex, although they were disapproved of by any respectable family doctor. To be practical there may have been a lot of extensive fooling around, rather than risking pregnancy at that time, but however, there were a large number of illegitimate children. And women amongst the poor and working classes were actually given a bit of leeway on this. If they had a child with a man with whom they were in a long-term relationship, they were then treated as war widows, even if they weren't married.
OSBORNEHowever, women who had children as a result of more casual relationships were censored wildly. Even Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who led the peaceful suffragist movement and was a huge campaigner for women's rights, she had campaigned against a former act which said that ladies of easy virtue could be forcibly examined. And if they didn't agree to the examination, be imprisoned. Even she, nonetheless, thought that the rush of unwanted pregnancies was a vice equivalent to that of alcohol and must be stopped.
SMITHHum. You've talked about women and developing careers. What about your own career as a writer of both non-fiction and now fiction? Has it been a difficult balance with your husband as Chancellor of the Exchequer? You're living above the shop on Downing Street. I assume you have at least two roles.
OSBORNEI do, but actually I'm very much, you know, my husband and I both have our independent careers and we both work very hard independently, whatever. And I don't get involved in his career anymore than any wife or any spouse does, from time to time goes to events with their spouse to support them.
OSBORNEAnd, you know, really my biggest juggling is between my career as a writer and being a mother of two gorgeous children.
SMITHWell, and I would think that the audience, particularly in Britain, would look at you as an independent figure writing and not ascribe anything positive or negative to your husband that might come as a result of your books.
OSBORNEI think that is sadly not always the case.
OSBORNEBut a situation is easily confused in England, which is sad, but it's one of the many reasons I love coming here to the United States, where I’m regarded solely as a writer.
SMITHI notice you dedicate this book to your sister Kate.
OSBORNETwo reasons. And I hope Kate will forgive me. First of all, a great girlfriend read the first draft and then rang me up and said you cannot possibly dedicate this book to your husband because the sex that happens is in such terrible circumstances. And anyhow, my sister Kate, I'm a huge fan of; she's a great survivor in life. And this book is about women fighting to break boundaries and to survive. When she was 17 she had the most appalling car crash and turned 18 in intensive care in a ICU unit.
OSBORNEAnd she's fought back to sail across the Atlantic and have two gorgeous sons, one of whom's at college and is really sort of a lesson to us all. We were told that she'd never walk or talk again and look what she's done now.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, go ahead and call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. So you suggest that maybe separating careers, husbands and wives is easier in the United States?
OSBORNEWell, I'm not sure. All I know is that my husband's profile in the United States is not what it is in the U.K. Most people in the United States don't know even, you know, anything or wouldn't really be too bothered about the British finance minister, which is what effectively he is. And so I think probably it's partly a function of that. But also, you know, it is a function as I’m a great admirer of the United States and of American women. And I think they do manage to carve themselves more independent careers more easily.
SMITHHum. Let's take another call. Sue, in Rochester, N.Y. has been incredibly patient. Sue, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SUEHi. Thank you. I like your play on words, khaki and cocky fever. I don't know if that was intentional, but I'm also enjoying the stories, the vignettes. And I'm reminded of one that occurred to me when I was working in a Fortune 500 company. I was married and became pregnant. And I immediately had to report that. And I had to give them the date of my last period.
SUEAnd seven months hence would be forced to leave the company and never to return.
SMITHIt sounds like something from the Edwardian era.
SUENo. This -- I'm not that old. This happened in the 1960s. So the social terrorism, as I call it, hopefully is clearing. At least there's a consciousness about it where, for instance, people of color and immigrants coming to the United States serving the country and having allegiance to the country and yet they are denied some sort of citizenship. But I'm enjoying the stories and I would love to read the book.
SMITHWell, I hope you will. Incidentally, another listener has called in to ask Mrs. Osborne to sort of highlight the suffragette movement in the United States and I suppose to look somewhat at the contrast, if you're familiar with it, between Britain and the United States.
OSBORNEI mean, I’m not wholly familiar with it so I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in any way. I think that there were some suffragettes in the United States who did hunger strike in jail, but I don't think they were as extreme as the suffragettes in the U.K. who really made themselves a public nuisance. They went down the major shopping streets in London throwing stones into windows. Funny enough, Mrs. Pankhurst came over here several times on lecture tours, forming bonds between the two movements.
SMITHHum. And once again, I'll remind you that we have a picture of the famous Mrs. Pankhurst on the website. There's a book about the issue of suffragettes and the movement in the United States, "The Ladies of Seneca Falls". Do you know it?
OSBORNESadly, I don't, but I shall go and buy it immediately.
SMITHWell, I think it would fill in some of the gaps because there are both similarities and differences in the experiences of the two. Thank you so much. I want to thank Frances Osborne, the author of the new novel, "Park Lane" who has shed a little light on the Edwardian era and has a wonderful story to tell as well. So thanks so much for joining us.
OSBORNEThank you so much for having me on the show.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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