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.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 3 Van driver who comforted Clark Carlisle and called 999 after suicide attempt dies age 24
- 4 James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
- 5 Baby rescued 1km out to sea after parents forgot about her
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture