‘I fell in love with George in spite of him being a politician’ - She may be married to the Chancellor, but novelist Frances Osborne still runs the family finances. She tells Lydia Slater about life in Downing Street, backpacking with Ed Miliband’s wife - and why the hero of her new book is a Labour MP
Times, The (London, England) - Saturday, May 26, 2012
The day I am due to meet Frances Osborne, the papers are full of the gloomy news that the UK has gone into a double-dip recession and consequently the Chancellor, her husband, is getting something of a hammering. So I expect her to arrive late, if she turns up at all.
But here she is, on time and apparently perfectly cheerful. Tall and slim, 43, with auburn hair and blue eyes, she is dressed with slightly eccentric elegance in black Diane von Furstenberg trousers, MBT trainers (she’s broken her toe) and a boxy tweed jacket. Chanel, I hazard? “Jigsaw,” she says, shocked. As for the nasty headlines, she barely seems to have noticed them. “You get used to it,” she shrugs. “It’s part of politics that people who don’t know your other half are writing about them all the time. It just washes off me.”
The role of political consort is a peculiarly thankless one. No other profession requires a wife (as it almost always is) to fling herself unpaid into her husband’s career and be judged alongside him as a potential vote-winner.
Even in the 21st century, to be considered an electoral asset, she must suppress her own political opinions, look impeccable and behave with quasi-Victorian decorum. And for a modern woman with her own successful career, it’s a particularly wobbly tightrope: err on the side of Stepford, like formerly feisty PR Sarah Brown, with her misty-eyed tributes to her “hero”, and you’ll be mocked; insist on your independence, like Miriam González Durántez, and you’re an uncaring ballbreaker.
Somehow Frances Osborne has achieved the impossible: avoiding being a spousal sidekick while maintaining her own successful career without arousing criticism.
You’re much more likely to recognise her face if you’re an aficionado of her books than if you’re a news junkie. “George and I both work very hard and we do different things,” she says simply. “I try to keep my working life separate.”
As a result, she is not keen to muddle the message by meeting me either at No 10 (where the Osbornes live, the Camerons having bagsied the bigger flat in No 11) or at Dorneywood, the grace and favour country house. She suggests the British Library, where she spends much of her time; we compromise on a Central London hotel.
Osborne’s last book, The Bolter, the biography of her scandalous great-grandmother Idina Sackville, was a huge success, remaining in the top ten bestseller lists for three months. Now, she’s brought out her first novel.
Park Lane is an entertaining story of two women, a debutante and her maid, who separately find liberation through the women’s suffrage movement and First World War.
Once again, Osborne has been inspired by her ancestors: her great-great grandmother Muriel Brassey (mother of naughty Idina) was a leading suffragist, who believed in getting the vote through peaceful means. The wealthy young heroine of Osborne’s novel becomes a suffragette and, in one pivotal scene, blows up the country house of the Home Secretary.
Does she approve of this kind of direct action against the political elite? “You have to admire the women who did it, but that doesn’t mean what they did was right,” she says, neatly sidestepping a political pitfall. “The way to achieve things is through talk.”
Surprisingly, the hero of her book is an Engels-reading Labour politician of unfeasible rectitude and hunkiness. “He is rather brooding and Heathcliff-like, isn’t he, with his strong arms, rescuing her?” she says enthusiastically. But surely his inclusion is rather provocative? “It was inspired by reality,” she says. “Muriel Brassey was very involved with the Labour Party. She came from a long line of Liberal politicians and she funded George Lansbury, who became leader of the Labour Party. They were very close. People often say they had an affair, but I think it’s probably because the grand people couldn’t understand any other reason why she might be involved.”
Wasn’t there any sort of pressure from her spouse or Central Office to make her hero a Tory? “It doesn’t occur to me to modify things,” she says firmly. “I don’t let George see the book until it’s too late to make plot suggestions.”
Osborne preserves her career independence, but how has her personal life been affected by her husband’s rise to political prominence? “Well, obviously I’ve moved house,” she says. It took her a long time to get used to the idea of living in Downing Street. “I was quite daunted by the thought. I thought family life would be much better if we stayed as we were. It took me about a year to come round to the idea. You think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to walk in and out past armed policemen every time I leave the house.’ And then we decided to give it a go and it has actually worked brilliantly.
“George has a lot of work to do in the evening and he has to pop in and out for meetings, so living in Downing Street means he can do his work at home. It saves him half an hour travelling in and out, which is quite a lot for him, because he has hours of paperwork.
“Obviously, there are events and there is travelling. But he’s around a lot in the evening, red box open at the kitchen table doing paperwork, so I get quite a lot of work done, too. It’s much cosier. And rather than being cut out of it, I feel I’m closer and have a much better understanding of what’s going on in his life simply by being there.” Do they talk politics much? “Sometimes he comes up to the flat and he’s been talking politics all day, so the last thing he wants to do is go through it all again. I do think he’s doing a brilliant job,” she says, loyally. If they have a free evening, they’ll watch DVDs; they’ve just finished The Killing.
She admits, although she’s clearly worried she’s making a blooper, that she is still responsible for the domestic finances. “But George loves cooking,” she offers. Is he the family chef? “I’m not going to give him that,” she says wryly. “Sometimes, with a great flourish, he says he’s going to cook something, but he’s not working out what everyone’s eating for each meal and ordering it from the supermarket.” His signature dish is fish stew.
Osborne finds life in No 10 not only convenient, but fascinating. “As someone who writes about historical issues, you want to go into the rooms and just think of the things that have happened in them. In the evening, when it’s quiet, it’s much easier to imagine. During the day, it’s got a really buzzing atmosphere, full of very bright and dynamic young people.
“As a writer, I’ve found it great. It’s strangely conducive to work and it’s the friendliest place I’ve ever been. I’ve worked in a lot of offices, and this is the friendliest. The custodians are friendly, and so are the policemen. At my old house, I’d work all day on my own, but here I can wander off and find someone to have coffee with and that’s a great luxury. It really does suit me.”
The Osbornes live in the old prime ministerial flat. “It’s on the top floor and it’s lovely and light, all white and seagrass, very simple, very nice,” says Osborne. “When you’re inside, you totally forget the rest of the building. But actually we are living in an office, so there are these speakers in every room in the flat. So once a week, I’ll be sitting there and this voice will come out of the corner of the ceiling saying, “Attention! Attention! The fire alarms are being tested!” and I’ll feel like I’m suddenly in 1984. It’s very funny.”
Their children, Luke, 10, and Liberty, 8, are enjoying their new home, too. “They go and visit the adult friends they’ve made among the speechwriters and policemen. And they love the security control room, with all the monitors. Apparently, it’s always the favourite place for children.” And then, of course, there’s the advantage of having their friends the Camerons next door.
“It’s great to have another family about,” says Osborne. “The children are in and out the entire time.”
If Osborne has taken to life in the political goldfish bowl with surprising ease, it’s because she was brought up in it. Her father is David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, who was Secretary of State for Energy and subsequently Transport under Margaret Thatcher; he’s now a minister of state in the Foreign Office and deputy leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords. “I grew up sometimes switching on the news to find out when Dad would be home, especially before the voting time was set,” she says. “I’ve never known any different.” From an early age, she learnt the necessity of making sacrifices for the sake of public opinion
“There was always that thing of not being able to win the raffle at the fête. Once, my sister did win a giant teddy bear, which she had to be separated from because my mother had drawn the winning ticket. And I remember those moments of success on the bottle stalls where you’d wander off and come back with two bottles of whisky that you’d won and that your parents really didn’t want to be presented with by their eight-year-old daughter…
“I definitely fell in love with George in spite of him being a politician rather than because of it. On the other hand, I don’t think I could have fallen in love with someone who was just working on their own account. Having grown up with my father, whom I’m immensely proud of and who is still, at the age of 76, working as a government minister, it would have to have been someone who was giving back in some way - a doctor or someone at an NGO.”
The idea of a career in politics never appealed to Osborne herself. “I knew from the age of about 5 that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a story about a monster at school and did a big margin in orange and purple diagonals,” she recalls. “It was such fun and I thought, ‘This could be my job, writing books.’”
A bright child, she was sent to her local primary school in Vauxhall a year early, and then won a scholarship to Wycombe Abbey, which she didn’t much enjoy. “An all-girls boarding school was not for me - there were a lot of rules and they were quite restrictive about what you could and couldn’t do.” She went to Marlborough for the sixth form “because I was a rebel” and then to Oxford University, where she read philosophy, politics and economics. Our paths crossed there - she dated the best friend of my boyfriend of the time - but what I principally recall is how she suddenly seemed to vanish from university life.
This, it turns out, is because of her younger sister Kate’s near-fatal car crash. “We were going to a party. I was waiting for her at home and debating whether I could borrow one of her skirts,” she recalls. “Then the doorbell rang and it was a reporter from the News of the World. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s Kate done?’ He was appalled when he saw that I had no idea what had happened and told me to ring a friend and get her to come round.”
The previous evening, Kate’s car had crashed and she had been trapped in it all night, semi-conscious and bleeding. “Had it been one degree colder, she would have frozen to death; had it been one degree warmer, the hypothermia wouldn’t have slowed down the blood loss and she would have bled to death.”
Kate turned 18 in intensive care and was in hospital for weeks. “The doctors started off saying she would never walk or talk again.” In fact, she says, Kate has almost completely recovered. “She feels like there are lead weights attached to her left side, but she’s fine. She sailed across the Atlantic with her husband, she’s got two fantastic sons, one of whom’s at university, and she runs her own business.” The sisters, who had not been particularly close, were brought together by the accident.
After graduating, Osborne decided to train for the Bar. “I had a kind of John Mortimer vision. I thought I could work part-time as a barrister while writing.” While a pupil, she made friends with another trainee lawyer, Justine Thornton, now the wife of Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The pair went backpacking together in South America, until a riding accident meant Osborne had to be repatriated in a wheelchair, neck brace and two slings.
In spite of their husbands’ mud-slinging, she and Thornton remain friendly. “I’m immensely fond of Justine,” she says firmly. “We do bump into each other at various occasions, which is heaven.” Could she invite her to No 10, or would their political differences get in the way these days? “Oh, easily, easily,” she says. “You have a lot in common if you’re married to an MP. There’s a great deal of mutual respect . and, among the spouses, it’s a common gang.”
After Osborne failed to get a tenancy at the chambers where she was a pupil, she went to work in corporate finance, ending up as an analyst at Mercury Asset Management in the Nineties. “I thought I was going to make a fortune, retire early and start writing,” she explains. But she realised she could work part-time and write for the rest of the week.
She had already met George at a dinner party. It was a turning point for both of them. “I’d always had visions of marrying someone who would read out interesting things to me,” she says. “We sat down, and straight away he started reading me some article. It was instant. We started talking and we haven’t stopped.”
At the time, Osborne was working as a special adviser to Douglas Hogg. “He was doing what he loved, and I thought, ‘Life is too short. I’ve got to do what I love, too.’”
So she resigned from her bank job and became a financial journalist and leader-writer. She and Osborne married in 1998; Luke was born in 2001.
It was not an easy pregnancy, which she thinks may be due to the riding accident she had on holiday with Justine Thornton. “My hips gave way,” she explains. “It felt like I was walking on broken glass. I had to crawl upstairs on my hands and knees.” Luke was delivered by Caesarean section and George, who had just been elected as MP for Tatton, did his admin at his wife’s hospital bedside, changing nappies so she could get some sleep.
Once she recovered, Osborne started the research for her first book, based on the life of her paternal great-grandmother, Lilla. “I thought she’d be a brilliant subject for a novel. She’d been born in China, she was an identical twin and she’d had a lifelong rivalry with her sibling. And she’d written a recipe book when she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp. It went into the Imperial War Museum when she was 97, and we went to see it.”
During her researches at the British Library, Osborne unearthed a collection of family letters, including several relating to her great-grandmother, who had been brought to England by her husband, Ernie Howell, then dumped on his parents after she became ill. “They called her the ‘little white loaf’ because they thought she wasn’t intellectual enough,” she tuts. “He treated her appallingly.” The existence of this archive gave her enough material to write Lilla’s Feast as nonfiction, and the book deal she secured was large enough to allow her to become a full-time writer.
She followed it up with the biography of her maternal great-grandmother, Idina, aka the woman who put the Happy into Happy Valley. “Idina had fascinated me ever since I was 13,” she says. “My cousins came round for lunch and we secretly read this article in The Sunday Times that described the antics of this woman who welcomed her guests while lying naked in the bath and threw enthusiastic wife-swapping parties.
“My sister Kate was trying to read it over my shoulder, and I told her she couldn’t, she was too young. I went off to my parents and uncle and aunt and showed it to them, and asked if Kate was allowed to read it. My mother and my aunt blushed. Then my father said, ‘You’ve got to tell them.’ And my mother said: ‘This woman was my grandmother.’”
Now, Osborne is mining the rich family history again for another novel about the rise and fall of a railway dynasty, which, like Park Lane, is inspired by the Brasseys. To judge by its predecessors, it will be both entertaining and successful. It must be a source of consolation for George Osborne that if the economy continues to tank, there remains at least one prolific author contributing to the Exchequer.