Ashenden, by Elizabeth Wilhide, Penguin, RRP£12.99, 322 pages
The English country house novel has a long and respected heritage, from Mansfield Park through Brideshead Revisited to The Remains of the Day but, since the publication of Ian McEwan’s 2001 bestseller Atonement, its appeal has become almost cultish. The themes, or at least talking points, of that book – class tensions, a tainted idyll, sex in the library – affirmed the hallmarks of the genre while at the same time inspiring a wave of copycats.
Ashenden, Elizabeth Wilhide’s debut novel, cannot help but evoke this literary trend but its spirit (and this is not a criticism) has more in common with recent TV programming: try to imagine the UK reality show Country House Rescue – in which participants attempt to patch up decayed ancestral homes – spliced with the period drama Downton Abbey.
When middle-aged siblings Charlie and Ros inherit Ashenden Park, a crumbling Palladian pile badly in need of repair, they face a dilemma: whether to sell up and be done with it, or to honour their aunt’s intentions and secure the property for the next generation. “A Grade II listing only protects the exterior,” Ros explains to her brother. “We sell this place to a pop star or whoever and the next thing you know there’ll be a Jacuzzi in the octagon room.”
Cut to 1775, with the house in the early stages of construction. While its architect James Woods frets over the details of the project (a commission from the dubious Sir Frederick More), his protégé Joshua daydreams about the gypsy girl he has glimpsed in the nearby woods. In the chapters that follow we are guided slowly back to the present day, through many milestones of British history, by a web of characters with connections to the house and its grounds.
The fact that the story is based on a real country estate – Basildon Park, a Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Reading (itself used as Netherfield in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) – comes as no surprise, for Ashenden provides not so much a rip-roaring plot as a rich and absorbing social history.
There is a big cast – and characters can lack originality (the token housekeeper is mean and embittered) – but personalities are sharpened by Wilhide’s fine ear for dialogue and her wry sense of humour. The novel’s real value lies in its detail, the patches of finely embroidered description, and in its subtle observation of behaviour and tastes.
If the connective threads seem a little contrived, or the momentum lags at times, there is always plenty to enjoy in the small sketches: an agonising turn-of-the-century boating party, a snipe at modern surveyors – and sex (well, racing hearts and a kiss – Ashenden remains determinedly pre-watershed) in the library.
Laura Battle is deputy editor of House & Home