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Author Talk: January 10, 2013

A centuries-spanning portrait of the life of an English country manor, ASHENDEN marks the arrival of a wonderful new talent. This elegantly crafted historical debut has much to say about class, nationhood and family. In this interview, Elizabeth Wilhide discusses “Downton Abbey,” 19th-century design, and a woman named Emily Snowball.

Question: 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?

Elizabeth Wilhide: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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 a 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 the 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.

Q: 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?

EW: 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.)

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