Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Ashenden.
In Ashenden Park, the crisp lines of architecture appear intact. The clarity of the plan
has survived since 1775, when the house sprang to life from a drawing and the mind of architect James Woods, who was commissioned to design and build the house by Sir Frederick More, a fellow Yorkshireman. Tilled and constructed on deeply settled ancient land, Ashenden Park rises out of Bath sandstone in a time of great transition. Here a boy called Joshua wants to emulate his master, to conceive the shape that would meet with Wood’s approval and eventually allow him to achieve a solid and distinguished reputation.
Wilhide jumpstarts her story, time tunneling through history
to solidly depict eras of politics, trends and timelines. The interest in the novel is mostly garnered from Ashenden’s lush, bucolic estate that acts as a backdrop to the activities of her characters, who become ciphers to the larger issue of the house’s grand and historical illumination. In present day, Ashenden’s deterioration is brutal and alarming.
The reader is made aware that the house’s walls hold stories of births and deaths, and the comings and goings as people pass though.
Some of the occupants of Ashenden have treated it well, while others have been criminally careless. At fifty-seven, Charlie Minton finds himself suspended in a kind of emptiness. Twice married and a father of one, Charlie and his sister, Ros, have inherited the house from their Aunt Reggie Lyell. Pondering its tawny stonework and severe classical symmetries, Ros decides she wants to keep the house; Charlie wants to sell.
They learn that headstrong Reggie and her husband, Hugo, once saved Ashenden from what
would have been almost certain destruction.
As Charlie and Ros ponder their own role in Ashenden’s fate, Wilhide presents the previous owners as accomplished, talented, revered, and sometimes selfish. The light promises to make good King George sing, and Georgiana More comes to Ashenden bringing housekeeper Charlotte Trimble. Mrs. Trimble sees the house as precarious, “as though it were alive,” and she needs its emergencies as much as it needs her. She seeks to cover up the immorality in a household where she knows she must earn her keep. She
is ever on the watch for the spoiled, foolish Georgiana, an adulteress who is intent to break her marriage vows no matter the cost. Jumping to the end of an era and a country “with a young girl on the throne,” the house gradually slips though the fingers of the family who commissioned it, ending up on the brink of ruin and in irrepressible decline.
While Ashenden is neglected for decades, the characters who appreciate it are mined deep into the structure of the book.
Capitalist George Ferrars admits the house is beautiful even in its present abandoned state--and even when it’s a national treasure that he can no longer afford. In 1946, when the military are in residence--the Yanks training for D-Day
and quite a big POW camp on the grounds--Ashenden still stands as a stately metaphor for great and enduring strength. So meticulously does Wilhide take us through its many rooms that its characters seem to convene at a moment's notice, their manners and protocol prevailing in the most modern sense.
Channeling her “upstairs/downstairs” theme and showing us how both rich and poor alike have been influenced, the recitation of Charlie’s hopes and dreams during the contemporary sections actually chart the course of the house. When the potential for a new owner is added to the mix and Ros once again throws her two cents worth in, the interplay between the different “ghosts” of Ashenden add to its sense of completion, of the hopes and disappointments of those who have lived in the past and
in the present.