Ashenden is a splendid book, and if “splendid” sounds like a faintly stuffy, upper-crust, vaguely British word to use, well, that’s entirely appropriate. The titular Ashenden is a grand manor house in the English countryside, not a castle, exactly, but a big old place nonetheless—I’m sure I wasn’t the first reader to envisage Downton Abbey in my mind’s eye while reading, and I suspect I won’t be the last. Elizabeth Wilhide’s inventive novel follows the fortune of the Ashenden house and its various owners and occupants, from its construction in the 1770s to its precarious position in the present day. No stuffy historical novel this, but a clever and engaging series of vignettes that expects the reader to participate in the storytelling.
The story kicks off in the 1775 with the construction of the house by noted designer James Woods; in this brief story the reader sees both the promise of what the building might become, and the tragedy that befalls the construction site. Subsequent chapters move forward in leaps, sometimes as many as 40-odd years at a time, elsewhere much less.
This makes for some interesting effects. The designer becomes an old man with the turn of a page, a historical figure with the turn of another; a young girl plays with a ceramic cow in one chapter, and the same cow is a dusty antique a few chapters later. The effect on the reader is to engender a kind of wistfulness, a nostalgia for places s/he has never been but has nevertheless experienced through the story. It’s a powerful tool, and Wilhide weilds it with skill.
As the novel trundles along, owners come and go, decisions are made both good and bad, couples court and marry and bear children (or not). Centuries glide by, fashions and patterns of speech change, historical events intrude. All this is woven, subtly but effectively, into the continuum of a narrative in which the most important character is built not of blood and bone, but of stone and plaster.
This is not to say that every chapter is riveting. Some are, inevitably, more interesting than others. Personally, I found that the earlier chapters were more immersive on the whole than the later ones, but perhaps that’s just my taste, and anyway it’s a risk any writer takes when telling a story across such a vast stretch of time. That said, however, Wilhide does a good job of structuring each chapter around aparticular incident—a party, an accident, a visit, the arrival of good or bad news. Not only does this keep the plot moving forward, but it gives shape to each individual chapter and serves to hook the reader as s/he goes along.
Another risk of this storytelling style is that the constant addition of new characters, most of whom disappear in the next chapter, will prove disorienting to the reader. Yes, there are some who stick around for a second chapter and who are, perhaps, remembered or referred to later—this makes for some of the most intrgiguing moments in the book. As mentioned above, however, it’s an effect that requires much of the reader; keeping track of this vast cast of characters, most of whom occupy center stage for only a few pages, is something that some readers will simply be uninterested in doing.
For the most part, Wilhide is able to make her characters stick in the mind as individuals—for the most part. Even this reader (ahem), though, had his moments of trying to puzzle out which name referred to which character, when that character had been absent for a few pages.
These are minor quibbles, though. For the most part, Ashenden is written skillfully enough to make each chapter stick in the reader’s mind. Wilhide does this through careful attention to detail and a skillful turn of phrase. As might be expected, considerable energy is devoted to descriptions of the house itself. “They followed the butler up a twisting flight of stairs, turned a corner, and came into a soaring space with another staircase in it… the hall rose up and up. It shrank them down to ants, to specks… It served no purpose except to be a lavish emptiness within the house.” Elsewhere, “Harrison stared round at the room where he shared nightmares with Newman, the two camp beds, sheets and blankets all rucked up, half falling on the floor, the faded floral wallpaper, the brown-and-white pottery cow on the mantelpiece filled with cigarette stubs.”
Wrapping everything up without being overly pat is a framing device, two chapters set in the present day which serve as the first and last chapters of the novel. This mini-story concerns the fate of the estate following the death of its owner. It has been left to some distant relatives, a brother and sister who may or may not want to bother with maintaining the rambling old place. What then will become of it? Will it be torn down, the land sold from under it, its appointments and furnishings auctioned off? Or will the siblings make the commitment to fix the place up and maybe even move in?
This overarching question hangs over the whole story and plays in the back of the reader’s mind. It’s a clever trick, and an effective one, but Ashenden is more than just a clever book. It’s heartfelt and very smart, and asks much of its readers; but for those willing to make the effort, its rewards are plentiful.