Ashenden

By ELIZABETH WILHIDE

For some reason we Americans can’t get enough of the English upper classes; their supposed way of life is the opium of democracy. Strains of the nostrum include the comic whimsy of P. G. Wodehouse, the domestic commotion of The Pallisers and Upstairs Downstairs, the barren nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited, the lit-lite film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, and the vintage-appareled scandals of Downton Abbey. The last named appears to be spawning a literary offspring of its own, most recently Fay Weldon’s Habits of the House and today’s subject, Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden — which, perplexingly, bears the same title as Somerset Maugham’s influential collection of stories based on his own exploits as a secret agent.

This particular Ashenden begins in 2010 with fifty-seven-year-old Charlie Minton having received the unwelcome news that he and his sister have inherited Ashenden Park, their recently deceased aunt’s deteriorating Georgian pile in Berkshire, in the south of England. We find a melancholy Charlie under the great house’s leaking roof, wondering how to divest himself of the appalling responsibility of repairing and maintaining such a repository of two centuries and more of assorted English history.   

Discovering just what that history is brings us back in time to witness the building’s origins in 1775 and the hauling and laying of the Bath stone of its exterior. It is this costly material that gives Ashenden Hall the warm-honey glow that entrances generations to come but has also, in transport to the building site, led to a tragic death. The house, when built, is a late Palladian affair with two flanking side pavilions, an edifice of magnificence, balance, and grace. The money that is causing it to rise is, however, another matter. It has come from Sir Frederick More, whose coffers have been filled through the depredations of the East India Company in Bengal and his own peculation and fraud. Alas, his unscrupulousness cannot protect him against a disastrous fall in the stock market, and Ashenden remains unfinished in 1796, our next stop on the timeline. Here we discover a dying woman, a visitor to the house, inscribing her initials in an out-of-the-way spot, a gesture to the future she does not have.

By 1837 the still-unfinished house is already in decline: the ingeniously landscaped grounds “blurred by neglect,” the wallpaper curling, slates missing from the roof, “moths in the carpet, worm in the wood, silverfish in the books.” Amid it all stands Georgina, the wife of Frederick More’s grandson, the third baronet, musing on her discarded lover, Delgado, whom the student of history will quickly recognize as Benjamin Disraeli. She has replaced the swiftly rising politician with an Irish painter through whose eyes we see the presumption characteristic of this grand lady’s ilk. After a sampling of doings and duties above and below stairs, an outraged husband flings open a bedroom door, unloosing a great deal of unpleasantness that marks the end of this phase of the house’s tenancy.  

Thus we travel from episode to episode down through the years, making two more stops in the nineteenth century and five in the twentieth before returning to 2010 and Charlie’s and his sister’s conundrum. Along the way, we see the house finally finished and repaired in the mid-nineteenth century. It has finally come into its own, remaining so for decades, as described portentously by what seems to be a voice-over narrator: “Above stairs, it’s an ordered life, all the more pleasant for being predictable. Below works an army to keep it that way, lighting fires, blacking grates, winding clocks, cooking meals, washing laundry, sweeping floors, and dusting every nook and cranny. Thirty labor in the gardens alone. It’s so long since the house has known hardship, it has forgotten what it is.”

But families decline, and the house once again enters bad times. It is bought by a speculator hoping to dismantle it and ship it to America — a destiny that belonged to more than one British architectural treasure. The scheme fails; the house serves as a home for convalescent officers during the Great War (wherein lies a tale); the building’s interior details are stripped and sold, and the disembodied voice becomes upset: “Neglect’s one thing, and almost expected; mutilation’s another. In the dining room the walls are flayed. The doorways are open wounds. Drafts whistle down chimneys, where fireplaces have been torn away from their hearths, and rattle the loose sash frames. Unhappiness and dread spread through the empty rooms like an infection.”

The next world war opens another chapter, and the faithful voice resumes its pedestrian tread: “For six years every factory, home, and institution in the country has done its bit for the war effort and the house is no exception. While you might think it’s risen to the occasion, it’s had no choice in the matter.” In other, less judicial terms, Ashenden was requisitioned, the house for military quarters, the grounds for a POW camp (wherein lies yet another tale).

The human stories that dot the novel are little more than sketches, and continuity — such as it is, for this is not The Forsyte Saga by any means — is a matter of fortuitous conjunctions. The main character would be Ashenden Hall itself, and no doubt it is meant to be, but it never achieves a compelling identity, nor, despite the pontifical voice-over, does it become greater than itself, emblematic of mutability, evanescence, endurance, and the clutch of the past. The reason for this may lie beyond the insipid writing, but in the fact that the Ashenden of this novel, the building, grounds, and even occupancy, is, according to Wilhide, based on an actual place, Basildon Park in Berkshire (which itself served as Netherfield in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice). Thus with fiction hampered by fact and fact obscured by fiction, the whole book seems perfunctory and not quite sure what it’s up to. Beyond, of course, invoking a certain televised abbey.