Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 8th 2013
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical
Ashenden is the story of a home in England. Actually, it is an estate as it encompasses thousands of acres. It is inherited in 2010 by Charlie and Ros Minton from their aunt. What follows is a story that, as it covers over 200 years, unfolds with the same stately grace as the house itself, for the house is as imbued with meaning and life as the people who lived in it. After Charlie and Ros arrive and find the estate in an advanced state of disrepair author Elizabeth Wilhide leaves the present and goes back to the very beginning of Ashenden Park. James Woods is the architect hired by Sir Frederick More, a lord of dubious background who attracts scandal and lawsuits. Woods is a man who follows the strict principles of Palladian architecture, but also indulges his own aesthetic enough to know that Ashenden Park can only be built with Bath stone—despite its inherent difficulties in transporting and curing. He knows how the stone will respond to the sunlight and shadow on the lot and proceeds to use it, even though he has yet to be paid by More. This is just the first story that follows Ashendon through its history.
In each chapter Wilhide moves forward and we see Ashenden through the eyes of its various occupants. For Georgiana, the bored, lonely wife of Sir Frederick,
Ashenden Park had taken possession of her when she had first seen it shrouded in dust sheets early in her marriage, the last of the tenants gone, and unlike a husband or a lover, it had never let her go. Some houses you lived in; others lived in you.
Wilhide, using the world below stairs and above stairs, neatly captures the many voices and stories that occupied Ashenden. There is Dulcie, a housemaid whose moment of terror over her disappearing future leads her to a foolish act, George Ferrars, a real estate man who buys the derelict property in the late 1920s and hopes the allure of celebrity will net him an international buyer, and during World War II, when the grounds were used to house German prisoners-of-war, there is Walter Beckmann, a man whose love of woodworking, construction and a British woman means his life will be tied to Ashenden Park for generations. Chapter by chapter, starting in 1775, Wilhide leads the reader through the love, pain, neglect, and rebuilding of both characters and the house itself.
Neglect’s one thing, and almost expected; mutilation’s another. In the dining room the walls are flayed. The doorways are open wounds… Unhappiness and dread spread through the empty rooms like an infection.
It is only if one chooses to read the author’s bio on the dust jacket that you learn that Wilhide is a writer of interior design and architecture books and yet, the minute the words are seen, they make perfect sense. Without neglecting the human characters and their stories, she makes Ashendon Park, the house, the framework of the novel and for every action and reaction that humans feel, the house responds. Household objects and families appear and reappear throughout the narrative with such captivating subtlety that two centuries pass far too quickly.