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This reading group guide forAshendenincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Wilhide. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ashenden is the story of a magnificent English country house, the estate that surrounds it, and the people connected to it over the course of 240 years. From its construction in 1775 to the present day, we are witness to the people associated with the house: the architect and his nieces to the successions of families, both happy and not, who inhabit it—the maids and servants who tend the house and grounds; a speculator who resides in the house nearly alone; soldiers billeted there during World War I; prisoners held there during World War II; the couple who rescues it from doom in the 1950s and their descendants, who inherit it in 2010. Throughout all the upheavals of a multicentury life, a constant cycle of neglect and regeneration, and the toll of history, the house withstands it all, always strong enough to endure change.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Ashenden opens in the present day with siblings Charlie and Ros debating what to do with the house they have suddenly inherited and cannot afford. It then jumps back to 1775 and proceeds chronologically. How does your knowledge of the future of Ashenden affect your interpretation of the stories of its past?
2. James Woods, the architect of Ashenden, reflects, “To build was a form of human folly that pitted itself against the forces of nature bent on reclaiming their own. To imagine otherwise, to imagine that what you built might last, was akin to madness” (page 33). In this case Woods was wrong, and Ashenden survived. What was it that allowed it to do so, when so many other houses like it disappeared?
3. One of the central features of the book is the relationship between the owners of Ashenden and their employees. How do these relationships evolve over the course of the book? What are some moments that display the changing perspectives on having a staff?
4. How would you characterize the relationship between the owners of the house and the people of the town that surrounds it? How do the residents of Ashenden and the residents of the town feel about one another? How does this change throughout the book?
5. One of the book’s themes is the cost of neglect and its destructive power. Why do you think some of the characters (Georgiana More, for example) take such bad care of the house and grounds, especially considering the time and money they spend on other things?
6. Wealth is another important theme in Ashenden. How do the various owners of the house (the Mores, the Hendersons, the Lyells) differ in the amount of their wealth and their use of it? How does this affect their treatment of the house, the way they raise children, and the way they treat one another?
7. Each chapter revolves primarily around a single character: Charlie Minton, James Woods and his nieces, Georgiana More, Ada Henderson, Dulcie Godwin, Jimmy Henderson, Lieutenant Harrison, George Ferrars, Alison Milner, Reggie Lyell, and Izzie Beckmann. Who did you find the most sympathetic? Who did you regret having to leave? Were there other characters that you wished the book had focused on?
8. Many of the characters who later become a main part of the story are first introduced as minors characters in earlier chapters. In a similar fashion, many minor characters and their descendants disappear and reappear throughout the story. Discuss how many of these references you caught and which you missed. (For example, Paul Lyell is a guest at the boating party in chapter seven, and his younger brother Hugo later returns for the treasure hunt in chapter nine. Hugo and Reggie then buy some urns from Ferrars in chapter ten, and of course, later purchase Ashenden itself). How do you feel about this web of connections as a literary device? Do you find it satisfying?
9. The state of Ashenden is described at the beginning of each chapter. How is the condition of the house reflected in the status of its residents?
10. Throughout the book, there are many characters who view Ashenden and its residents as representative of excess, ostentation, and the unfair privilege of the upper classes (for example, Jack Pierce from chapter six and the interviewer from chapter thirteen). Do you find the wealth of Ashenden’s owners unfair or unjust, as these characters seem to? Why or why not?
11. One of the ongoing debates the characters have with themselves and each other is whether to preserve the house and its history, or somehow update or change it (see the last part of Hugo and Reggie’s interview for an example of this). What do you think of the instinct to preserve old houses just as they originally were, versus truly living in them? If you were in charge of Ashenden, which would you choose, and why?
12. Books like Ashenden and television shows like Downton Abbey revolve around the institution of the English country house. Is this a phenomenon unique to Britain? If not, is there an equivalent in the United States?
13. Ashenden also serves as a microcosm of the times through which it has endured. What does the house illustrate about the state of the world in each chapter? How does the state of the house at the end of the book reflect the current state of our world?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Treat yourself to a few episodes of Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs. How does the world of Ashenden match up with, or differ from, the worlds depicted in these shows? Which do you find to be the most accurate?
2. Choose an old house and research its origins and story. Try the websites of the National Register of Historic Places (nps.gov/nr) and the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk) or your state’s historical society. Discuss your findings. What surprised you the most about the history of the house you chose?
3. Much of Ashenden is inspired by the real life-story of Basildon Park in Berkshire. Read more about it on these sites: basildon-berks.net/local_history/local_history.html; telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1563144/Renee-Lady-Iliffe.html; and wikipedia.org/wiki/Basildon_Park. Discuss how Ashenden's story corresponds to or differs from the story of Basildon Park.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Wilhide
Ashenden is your debut novel, but you’ve written many books on design. How did you enjoy the process of writing fiction? Was this your first stab at fiction writing?
I’ve made up stories (and written very bad poetry) ever since I was a child. Having a novel published has been a long-cherished ambition. I’ve burned lots of midnight oil to that end. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that nonfiction and fiction are not chalk and cheese. In both cases, you have to be clear; get things down in the right order; and write, on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, level as best as you can. For me, however, fiction is more challenging and more rewarding, particularly when you find yourself in that rare position where the story is streaming through your hands. Mostly, of course, it’s a long slog uphill.
The mastery of history in Ashenden is remarkably impressive. Did you do extensive research to accurately depict each period? Or are you already a history buff?
Thank you, but I don’t claim mastery! Doggedness, perhaps. I did spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over details like jelly molds. Ashenden benefited hugely from years of research I’ve had to do for my day job as a writer of nonfiction books on architecture, decoration, design, and interiors of many periods. I had that to fall back on. This was supplemented by more specific research, chiefly online, but also in the London Library. Social history has always fascinated me, and I would single out Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House as a particular inspiration. Otherwise, I am just curious about the past. My investigations into the previous occupants of our own Victorian house in Hackney, via the census records, uncovered the fabulous fact that a tenant here during the nineteenth century was a laundress from Whitby, Yorkshire, called Lily Snowball. You couldn’t make it up.
What about the story of Basildon Park struck you as interesting enough to try and fictionalize? How did you come across the story of Basildon?
The novel was directly inspired by a visit I made to Basildon Park in the spring of 2008. My husband and I were spending the weekend nearby and our original plan was to visit a garden outside Henley, which turned out to be closed for the day. Basildon was plan B. When we came up the stairs and walked through the door, my immediate reaction was very similar to Maria’s in “A Book of Ceilings.” The symmetry tugged at me straightaway. It was so powerful. Then when I glanced at my husband (who is an architect and largely averse to visiting stately homes), I saw that, if anything, he was more moved than I was.
We wandered round that day, and the house got a grip on us both. Then, later, when I was reading the guidebook, I realized how closely the fortunes of Basildon Park had mirrored the times it had lived through. That sent shivers up my spine. I was hooked from that moment on.
You also mention that some of your main characters are based on real people. Was it more interesting to you to try and fictionalize their lives, or come up with someone completely from scratch? Who are some of the real people behind the story?
I enjoyed both fictionalizing real people (which gives you a steady hand on your back somewhere between your shoulder blades) and the freedom of inventing new characters. I wouldn’t have liked to sacrifice one for the other.
Some of the real stories attached to Basildon were a gift no one could have resisted. Georgiana More in “The Portrait” is based on Henrietta Sykes, who had an affair with Disraeli (Delgado in my version). Her subsequent affair with the portrait painter Maclise ruined her. The story, which may be apocryphal, was that Dickens based Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist on her brute of a husband. It is certainly true that Dickens was a friend of Maclise’s (who I fictionalized as Maurice). If you visit the Dickens museum in London you can see a portrait Maclise made of Dickens’s children. On the other hand, in “Hut C,” my sole real starting point was the fact that there had been a POW camp at Basildon during and after the war. The rest was pure invention, backed up by research. Similarly, the springboard for “The Photograph,” which takes place in 1916, was a photograph of convalescing soldiers in the Basildon guidebook.
Other chapters are equivalent mixes—a bit of real history and a generous dollop of my imagination.
As someone who clearly knows her English country houses, what do you make of the recent American obsession with this kind of story, in particular with Downton Abbey? What first interested you in these houses?
As an American I can perfectly understand the obsession. I arrived in Britain at the tender age of thirteen, having previously lived in cities and towns where few buildings dated back beyond the turn of the twentieth century and most were much newer than that. Then all of a sudden here we were living in a tiny Thames-side village where the local pub was built in 1135. The span of history, which was so tangible, was absolutely astonishing to me; it was like a new imaginative dimension. Although we lived in a “modern” mock Tudor house, at the end of the drive was an Elizabethan cottage, where I used to babysit, worrying about ghosts.
I’m just as interested in these humbler survivors of the past as I am in great houses—Prospect Place in the novel, which becomes increasingly gentrified, is a case in point. However, a country house gives you a much bigger canvas, along with the potential for conflict, drama, and intrigue between the classes. Because their pattern of occupancy often changes over time, these houses can almost be seen as microcosms of society at any given point.
I finished the first draft of Ashenden just before the first series of Downton aired in the UK. I remember wondering whether anyone would be interested in my book and then, seeing how Downton had caught on, I began to have some hope. Downton is great fun, and as long as Maggie Smith has such wonderful lines to deliver, I’m sure it will continue to attract big audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the things the book does so well is balance the story of the characters and the ongoing drama of the world outside Ashenden and outside England. How did you choose the pieces of the house’s history to include? Were there years that you wrote, but later cut out?
The episodic structure of the novel was there from the beginning, and quite early on I knew key periods in the house’s history I wanted to cover. Some of these were inspired by the most dramatic points in Basildon’s history, which I was anxious to include in fictional form. I also wanted stories that contrasted upstairs and downstairs, good times and bad, even seasonal variations. Otherwise, I was interested in those cusp moments—just before or just after great events—which informed my decision to set “Hut C” in 1946 rather than during the war years. I was also looking for points in time that resonated with our own. The period covered by the chapter “The Janus Cup,” for example, was a time of great economic hardship in Britain. I liked the irony of “The Treasure Hunt” taking place just before the Crash.
Between the first and second drafts of the novel I made quite significant changes. The framing device of the contemporary story set in 2010 was introduced then. As was the chapter “Stonework,” which shows the house being built. Another chapter, later on in the book, which proved to be a bit of a dead end was jettisoned, and others were substantially reworked.
The characters in Ashenden represent such a wide array of viewpoints. Which of your main characters were you the most sympathetic to? Who do you see as closest to your own perspective, particularly on houses like Ashenden?
I try to be sympathetic to all my characters, even if I don’t approve of some of their actions. I didn’t write the book with the intention of arguing a point, and I can equally sympathize with Charlie, who wants to get shot of the house and sees it as nothing but a money pit, and Reggie, who pours her heart into it. Or those who saw it as a livelihood, a status symbol, or a mark of oppression. These houses were all these things.
I must admit, however, to a soft spot for those characters who loved the place, whatever their station in life. By the end of the novel, I came to conclusion that the best future for Ashenden would be to let it go. Ma’lita popped up right on cue to give me the ending I wanted.
Would you want to live in a house like Ashenden if you could? Do you have a particular affection for that era of architecture and design?
Even if I had deep pockets and could afford the heating bills, Ashenden is far too big for me. But while we’re in the realms of wishful thinking, I wouldn’t mind a smaller Georgian house, say a rectory . . . with perhaps a sea view?
What I particularly like about eighteenth-century design is that it manages to combine a kind of robustness with fine, almost delicate detailing. There’s a great clarity to it, and this is as true of teaspoons and chairs as it is of buildings. By contrast, Victoriana is much more heavy-handed and more of a stylistic mishmash. I am also a great fan of good modernist design and was lucky enough to inherit some great mid-century Scandinavian furniture from my parents.
At the end of Ashenden, the National Trust has stopped accepting houses, and Ashenden is sold to a wealthy pop singer. Does this reflect something about the current state of old houses in England? Do you think architectural landmarks of this kind should be owned privately, or would you prefer to see them open to the public?
Large country houses have always been expensive to run and maintain, even more so in the current economic climate. Nowadays, visitor numbers alone are often not enough to provide adequate income. Basildon Park, for example, which has been owned by the National Trust since the 1970s, has had a profitable sideline as a film location and that revenue has helped to pay for essential restoration works. Meanwhile, the Trust has shifted its priorities in favor of a broader definition of cultural interest, which is no bad thing.
Whether these houses are in public or private hands—and why not pop stars?—what’s important is that they survive for future generations to appreciate. Vast numbers were destroyed after the war, which is such a shame. One stately home, pulled down in the 1950s, wound up as building material under the M1 motorway, which seems like a kind of willful vandalism to me.
Ashenden is full of hidden connections between characters and subtle historical associations across generations. Did you include these expecting your readers to catch them all? How did you keep track of the story lines of all the families?
An episodic novel like Ashenden means the reader has to make jumps, leave characters behind that they care about, and get involved in a new story. From the beginning, I understood that for the book to work as the portrait of a house, some elements of continuity had to be woven in. Some of these were broad-brush—an old steward who lives to a great age—and some of these were almost like clues, so that you meet a brown-and-white pottery cow milk jug in several different chapters and time frames. (It fascinates me how objects, like houses, outlive their original functions and owners.)
Elizabeth Wilhide is the author of more than twenty books on interior design, decoration, and architecture and a coauthor and contributor of many more. Born in the United States, she moved to Britain in 1967, where she lives with her husband.