Paperback review: Ashenden By Elizabeth Wilhide
The many lives of a country house that spans the centuries
Friday 22 March 2013
Houses have their own ways of dying,” wrote E.M. Forster “… some with a tragic roar, some quietly…” Ashenden Park, the honey-stoned Palladian villa at the heart of Elizabeth Wilhide’s debut novel, however, seems to enjoy many lives, always brought back from the brink by a fresh lick of paint or new damp course.
When Charlie Minton, a middle-aged photojournalist, is left the eponymous house by an ancient aunt, he’s keen to sell. But his sister Ros, ignoring the “blooms” of decay and “stone teeth missing under the roofline” has other plans. From this starting point Wilhide, a writer on architecture and interior design, embarks on a series of historical vignettes relating the history of Ashenden through the eyes of the people who have lived and loved within its human scaled walls.
Country house dramas tend to be constructed around the travails of one particular escutcheoned clan. Instead Wilhide’s episodic approach enables her to span the centuries and several custodial handovers, from 18th-century Nabobs through to Victorian manufacturers, from Pevsner fanatics to music industry zillionaires. As each generation leaves behind evidence of their own home improvements, traces of their psychic energies still flutter around like the cherubs on the ceiling of the grand hall.
The book opens with the story of James Wood, Ashenden’s original architect. A bluff Yorkshireman with a gift for pretty plans and elevations, his life is toppled by the tragic consequences of an onsite accident. While some of the subsequent stories interconnect – the fate of a pregnant housemaid feeds into a story about a court-martial – others stand alone. In the memorable chapter “The Boating Party”, Edwardian class tensions spill over during a summer river trip in a punt.
Perhaps the novel’s only flaw rests in the cleverness of its conceit. While Wilhide’s writing is never less than engaging, the novel’s many stories lack an over-arching emotional reach. As Palladio might have reminded her, a unifying vision is all.
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Kylie Jenner challenge: Bizarre lip suction device inspired by Kardashian sister goes viral
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor are reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 4 Bruce Forsyth backs assisted dying campaign: 'If I had Alzheimer's or dementia I would do something about it'
- 5 Giorgio Armani criticises the way some gay men dress saying 'a man has to be a man'
Poldark, review: Revolution is in the air as women fling mud in the eyes of the silly chaps
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Avengers: Age of Ultron: 'After credits' scene leaks online
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate