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The Very Thought of You

A Novel

“One of those books you’re likely to remember all your life.” —Alexandra Shulman, Vogue (UK)

For readers of The Orphan Train and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes “not just a story of love but a story of loss, one whose voice will touch even the coldest of hearts.” —BookPage

England, 31st August 1939: The world is on the brink of war. As Hitler prepares to invade Poland, thousands of children are evacuated from London to escape the impending Blitz. Torn from her mother, eight-year-old Anna Sands is relocated with other children to a large Yorkshire estate which has been opened up to evacuees by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, an enigmatic, childless couple. Soon Anna gets drawn into their unraveling relationship, seeing things that are not meant for her eyes and finding herself part-witness and part-accomplice to a love affair with unforeseen consequences.

A story of longing, loss, and complicated loyalties, combining a sweeping narrative with subtle psychological observation, The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but a story about love.

The Very Thought of You Prologue




May 1964

My dearest,

Of all the many people we meet in a lifetime, it is strange that so many of us find ourselves in thrall to one particular person. Once that face is seen, an involuntary heartache sets in for which there is no cure. All the wonder of this world finds shape in that one person, and thereafter there is no reprieve, because this kind of love does not end, or not until death—



From Baxter’s
Guide to the Historic Houses of England (2007)
Any visitor travelling north from York will pass through a flat vale of farmland before rising steeply onto the wide upland plateau of the North Yorkshire Moors. Here is some of the wildest and loveliest land in England, where high rolling moorland appears to reach the horizon on every side, before subsiding into voluptuous wooded valleys.

These moors are remote and empty, randomly scattered with silent sheep and half-covered tracks. It is unfenced land of many moods. In February the place is barren and lunar, prompting inward reflection. But late in August this wilderness surges into bloom, igniting a purple haze of heather which sweeps across the moors as if released to the air. This vivid wash of color mingles with the oaks and ashes of the valleys below, where the soft limestone land flows with numerous streams and secret springs.

It is hallowed territory, graced with many medieval monasteries, all now picturesque ruins open to the sky. Rievaulx, Byland, Jervaulx, Whitby, Fountains—these are some of the better-known abbeys in these parts, and their presence testifies to the fertile promise of the land. The early monastic settlers cleared these valleys for farming, and left behind a patchwork of fields marked by many miles of drystone walls.

Nearly two centuries later, long after the monasteries had been dissolved, the Georgian gentry built several fine estates in the valleys bordering these moors. Hovingham Hall, Duncombe Park, Castle Howard and others. Trees were cleared for new vistas, grass terraces levelled and streams diverted into ornamental lakes—all to clarify and enhance the natural patterns of the land, as was the eighteenth-century custom.

One of the finest of these houses, if not necessarily the largest, is Ashton Park. This remote house stands on the edge of the moors, perched high above the steep Rye Valley and theatrically isolated in its wide park. For some years now, the house and its gardens have been open to the public. At one corner of an isolated village stand the ornate iron gates, and the park lodge where visitors buy their tickets. Beyond, a long white drive leads through a rising sweep of parkland, dotted with sheep and the occasional tree. It is a tranquil park, silent and still, with a wide reach of sky.

Turning to the left, the visitor sees at last the great house itself, a Palladian mansion of honeyed stone, balanced on either side with curved wings. Topping the forecourt gates are two stone figures rearing up on hind legs, a lion and a unicorn, each gazing fiercely at the other as if sworn to secrecy.

The house appears a touch doleful in its solitary grandeur, an impression which only intensifies when one enters the imposing but empty Marble Hall, with its scattering of statues on plinths. Red rope cordons mark the start of a house tour through reception rooms dressed like stage sets, leading this visitor to wonder how the house could have dwindled into quite such a counterfeit version of its past.

The guide brochure explains that when the last Ashton died, in 1979, there remained only a distant cousin in South Africa. Mrs Sandra De Groot, wife of a prominent manufacturer, appears to have been so daunted by her inheritance that she agreed to hand Ashton Park over to the National Trust in lieu of drastic death duties. But not before the estate was stripped of its remaining farmland and other valuable assets. Two Rubens paintings were sold, alongside a Claude Lorrain, a Salvator Rosa and a pair of Constables. Soon after, her lawyers organized a sweeping sale of the house contents—a multitude of Ashton treasures accumulated over three hundred years, all recorded without sentiment in a stapled white inventory.

One pair of carved George IV giltwood armchairs, marked; one Regency rosewood and brass-inlaid breakfast table; one nineteenth-century ormolu centerpiece …

Antique dealers from far and wide still reminisce about the Ashton auction of 1980, the final rite of a house in decline. It is said that a queue of removal vans clogged the drive for days afterwards.

Mrs De Groot was apparently not without family feeling, because she donated a number of display cabinets to the National Trust, together with the house library and many family portraits and papers. In a curious detail, the brochure mentions that “the exquisite lacquered cigarette cases of the late Elizabeth Ashton were sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum”.

According to the notes, Ashton Park had fallen into disrepair before its reclamation. But the curators retrieved plenty of family relics and mementoes, and the walls are now hung with photographs of the Ashton sons at Eton, at Oxford, in cricket teams, in uniform. A look of permanence lingers in their faces. Downstairs are photographs of the servants, the butler and his staff all standing on the front steps, their gaze captured in that strange measure of slow time so characteristic of early cameras.

Beyond the Morning Room and past the Billiard Room, a small study displays an archive of wartime evacuees. It appears that an evacuees’ boarding school was established at Ashton Park in 1939, and a touching photograph album reveals children of all sizes smiling in shorts and gray tunics; handwritten letters, sent in later years, describe the pleasures and sorrows of their time there.

In the last corridor there is only one photograph, an elegant wedding picture of the final Ashton heir, dated 1929. Thomas Ashton is one of those inscrutably handsome prewar men with swept-back hair, and his wife Elizabeth is a raven-haired period beauty not unlike Vivien Leigh. Their expressions carry no hint of future losses, no sense that their house will one day become a museum.

On high days and holidays, Ashton Park attracts plenty of day-trippers. An estate shop sells marmalade and trinkets, while the gardens offer picnic spots, woodland trails and dubious medieval pageants on the south lawn. And yet visitors may drive away from Ashton Park feeling faintly dejected, because the spirit of this place has somehow departed.

This melancholy cannot be traced to any dilapidation. The roof is intact, the lawns freshly mown, and the ornamental lake looks almost unnaturally limpid. But the dark windows stare out blankly—a haunted gaze. Beyond the display areas are closed corridors and unreclaimed rooms stacked with pots of paint and rusting stepladders. The small family chapel remains but is rarely visited: it is too far out of the way to qualify for the house tour.

Perhaps it is the family’s absence which gives Ashton its pathos. It appears that there were three sons and a daughter at the start of the last century, and yet none of them produced heirs. By what cumulative misfortune did this once prosperous family reach its end? The brochure notes do not detail how or why the Ashton line died out, yet a curious visitor cannot help but wonder.

But for all this, one can still stand on the sunken lawn and almost apprehend the house in its heyday, even amidst the signposts and litter bins. One can imagine how others—in earlier times, in the right weather—might have found in this place a peerless vision of English parkland.

There is one tree which particularly draws the eye, a glorious ruddy copper beech which stands alone on a small lawn by the rose garden. It was on a bench under this tree that the duty staff recently found an elderly woman sitting alone after closing hours, apparently enjoying the view. On closer inspection she was found to be serenely dead, her fingers locked around a faded love letter.
This reading group guide for The Very Thought of You includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.

INTRODUCTION

In the summer of 1939, as the impending German Blitz looms on the horizon, thousands of children are evacuated from London to the secluded English countryside. Among them is Anna Sands, a quiet but determined eight-year-old girl who soon finds herself living in a vast manor house on the Ashton estate in Yorkshire.

Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton are an enigmatic, childless couple, struggling with their slowly unraveling marriage. In an attempt to salvage their life together, they open their home to these children—turning the estate into a school and attempting to keep the war from entering their isolated little world. But in doing so, they irrevocably change the course of their own relationship.

Anna, sensitive and observant, soon becomes aware of the secrets and intimacies that live behind closed doors in the house, enacted in shadow by its occupants. Growing deeply attached to the gentle, compassionate Thomas, she ultimately finds herself part witness, part accomplice to his love affair—an affair that she does not quite understand, an affair whose unforeseen and unexpected consequences changes their world forever.
 
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1.      The title of the novel is The Very Thought of You. Discuss the power of thoughts as a theme in the novel. How do internal realizations, observations and perceptions shape the various characters’ views of the people around them? How do these unspoken thoughts influence the paths they take? What does the title mean to you?

2.      Elizabeth Ashton is a complex character. She is blighted by her inability to obtain the one thing she wants most, to the point of madness. Do you feel that—in a way—she is more trapped by her inability to have children than Thomas is by his disability? Why or why not? Do you feel that her deep unhappiness excuses her behavior and final betrayal? Or did you find her entirely unsympathetic? How much of the fault in their damaged relationship do you feel lies with Thomas?

3.      Thomas tells his students, “Things are not always quite as they seem.” The theme of appearance versus reality recurs throughout the book. Discuss some obvious (and not so obvious) examples of this theme. Do the characters use appearances as a shield? As a mask? Is there a difference? What happens to the various characters when appearances are ripped away to reveal the realities beneath?

4.      After the death of Thomas’s two brothers, his mother says to him: “‘I believe you have luck with you.’” (p. 75) Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

5.      Anna witnesses two deeply personal moments that leave a lasting impression on her, all involving Thomas. The first is when she spies the naked Elizabeth in their bedchamber, screaming at him in her drunken despair. The second is when, stuck in the wardrobe, she hears Thomas and Ruth making love. How do you think these moments affected her, her view of Thomas and her ideas about love and relationships? What other moments during her time at Ashton might’ve contributed to these views?

6.      Did adult Anna’s similarities to Elizabeth Ashton (drinking, feeling disconnected from her husband, feeling the unquenchable pull of wanting something more, engaging in affairs) surprise you? Why or why not?

7.      There are various examples of marriage, romance and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex or love? Do you think the impending war had any role in the way relationships were formed and carried out in this novel? Provide examples.

8.      Ruth presses a forget-me-not flower between the pages of her book of Tennyson’s poems, with a note that says: “Think what you have meant to me.” She does this as a reminder to herself, as a marker to the knowledge that she is in love. But in the end, her note becomes a message. Discuss the importance of those words, and the idea of this message, in relation to Thomas, Ruth and Anna.

9.      Using the following two quotes as a starting point, discuss the connection between light, love and the importance of memories throughout the novel.

“It was on one of these runs in 1941 that Anna gazed out across the gardens in the long light of evening, and was lost in a moment of complete happiness. . . . She ached with a sense that the light would soon leak away, and the day too—and then how would she remember all this? She stopped still, and looked back, trying to hold this moment fast in her heart.”(p. 209)

“Today was a glorious day. There was a glow to the evening light which fired the trees into a green so radiant that I could feel the life of each leaf. . . . I was blessed with this recognition: that everything was illuminated by the auxiliary light which you once gave me. You may be gone, but you gave me love.”(p. 307)

10.  Did you feel Thomas was right to tell Anna that he had, in fact, thought about her all those years—that she did mean something to him? If he hadn’t said this, do you think she would’ve been as shocked and devastated to read his final letter to Ruth?

11.  At various points, Thomas, Ruth and Anna all observe that perhaps “just to have loved was enough.” Do you think they truly believe this? Do you believe it?

12.  In her poem, “Back to the Old House,” Anna writes, “For a place is a time too.” Discuss the meaning of this line. Has there ever been a time in your life that felt like home?

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB

1. Poetry and the power of words are vital to the novel. Have each member read a favorite poem. As a group, discuss your interpretations of and reactions to each poem.

2. From the leaves of the aspen tree to Ruth’s forget-me-not, nature plays an important role throughout the novel. Bring in a favorite leaf or flower and tell the group why it means something to you. Like Ruth, try pressing your finding in a favorite book. For a list of flowers to press and ideas for using your pressed flowers, visit http://gardening.about.com/od/craftsanddecor/a/PressedFlowers.htm.

3. Compare this novel to other historical novels depicting WWII , such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. How are they similar? How are they different? If The Very Thought of You were made into a movie, who would you cast for Anna, Ruth, Elizabeth and Thomas?
Photograph by Adrian Lourie

Rosie Alison grew up in Yorkshire, and read English at Keble College, Oxford. She spent ten years directing television documentaries before becoming a film producer at Heyday Films. She is married with two daughters and lives in London. The Very Thought of You is her first novel.

“One of those books you’re likely to remember all your life.” —Alexandra Shulman, Vogue (UK)

“Without question one of the best debuts I’ve read in recent years.” —John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

“Melancholic, mysterious, and heartbreakingly gorgeous.” —The Times (London)

“A rite-of-passage novel... both enriched and haunted by the complicated and dangerous grown-up world of love.” —The Telegraph (UK)

“Moving.... A sincere attempt to depict the reverberations of war—chronicling fractured relationships and the inability to love in the right way.” —The Guardian (UK)

“Irresistibly romantic.... A highly-charged story of love, longing, betrayal and loss... written with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along by its intensity.” —The Mail on Sunday (Toronto)

“An unmistakably extraordinary story.... There are no predictable twists and turns here, only the realization that sometimes the purest love stories are the most memorable.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Alison tactfully tackles the notion of loneliness—be it in a foreign setting or a familiar home—along with expertly describing complicated relationships that are fraught with passion.... The Very Thought of You is not just a story of love but a story of loss, one whose voice will touch even the coldest of hearts.” —Bookpage