Ashenden is being marketed as a novel for fans of Downton Abbey. This is accurate in regards to the novel’s focus on a grand old house and its inhabitants. However, it is also more than simply a grand house and a grand family. The novel is composed of a series of short stories involving the inhabitants (of all social standing) of the house. Each story is linked by characters and, of course, the house itself.
Elizabeth Wilhide is an acclaimed author on design and interiors. This is evident in the wonderful way she handled the detail and presence of Ashenden estate. The house in the novel is based on the resurrection of Basildon Park, which is Netherfield Hall in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. Given her background in non-fiction, it is pleasantly surprising how well she handles the human aspect of the novel. The characters are not just the previous owners of Ashenden, they can be anyone who’s connected with the house – sons, daughters, housekeepers, soldiers, etc.
"When someone died, you missed their physical presence first, the warmth in the bed, all the tones and shadings of their speech, the footsteps or sighs or rustlings in the next room, even the irritations and annoyances. You missed these things as if your skin had been peeled off in long, bleeding strips. When all that became less painful, you still missed their mind, the consciousness that partnered with yours, that gave you bifocal vision."
While the novel is not necessarily memorable, it is very enjoyable. Within the story, the house bears witness to two and a half centuries. The reader gets vignettes of history and society through the eyes of the residents. These glimpses provide evocative and intriguing insights into modern British history. The writing is intelligent, witty, and subtle. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ll most certainly enjoy Ashenden. However, it is also likely to appeal to fans of historical fiction, social observation, and intelligent writing.