Books: Ashenden



Exclusive interview with author Elizabeth Wilhide and her novel about a house like Downton Abbey *** 3 Stars

By Gabrielle Pantera

Hollywood CA, (Gosh!TV) 2013/1/10 – “When I read the guidebook and discovered how closely the house’s mixed fortunes mirrored the country’s history, I knew I had to write about it,” says Ashenden author Elizabeth Wilhide. “I knew I wanted to write about it almost as soon as I set foot in it. Ashenden is based on Basildon Park, a country house near Reading in Berkshire, which I visited with my husband in spring 2008.”

Wilhide is fantastic as describing the details of the house. You learn about the people who built the house, lived in it, loved it, worked there. The novel has humor, heartbreak and the house comes alive as you read it. The details about the house are what will entrance you in this book.

Brother and sister Charlie and Ros have inherited their aunt’s grand English country house. Will they sell it? As they go through the estate they find architectural treasures and the story of the house is told. Each chapter tells a different time during two and a half centuries of the house.

“Before Ashenden was published, I had only made one visit to Basildon Park,” says Wilhide. “I didn’t want to disturb that first impression. Afterwards, Waterstones bookshop ran a competition and the prize was a tour of Basildon with me. It was quite revealing seeing which parts of the house were almost exactly as I remembered them and had written about them and which parts were significantly different where my imagination, had stepped in.”

Ashenden is episodic, with each chapter set a different period. “Quite a number of people have remarked about the connections that thread the chapters together and have wanted to know whether I planned these beforehand, with a whiteboard or post-it notes, for example,” says Wilhide. “I didn’t. Although I did have a bit of a tussle getting some of the characters and dates to work the way I wanted them to, the smaller echoes and links seemed to pop up quite naturally and this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book for me.”

“I finished the first draft of Ashenden just before the first series of Downton Abbey aired in the UK,” says Wilhide. “I remember wondering whether anyone would be interested in a novel where the main character is a country house, then Downton’s success gave me hope.”

Wilhide is the author of more than twenty books on interior design, decoration, and architecture. She’s coauthored and has been a contributor collaborating with authors such as Terence Conran, Tricia Guild and Orla Kiely.

Ashenden was written on the back of years of research I have had to do for other books on design, architecture and interiors,” says Wilhide. “At any given period in the story, I knew what how these houses would be run, which made things much easier. More specific research to do with prisoner of war camps in England, for example, or quarrying stone, came chiefly from Internet sources.”

“I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the wonderful London Library,” says Wilhide. “When I was looking for detail on costume and social manners in the 1840s, I took out a number of compilations of Punch. Such contemporary sources are great for getting the flavor of a period.”

“Writing has always been my day job,” says Wilhide. “For years I’ve made my living as a non-fiction writer on design, decoration and architecture books on William Morris, Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and classical furniture, among many others. I’ve also done quite a bit of ghosting. Fiction has been a passion I’ve pursued in my spare time.”

Wilhide is the author of more than twenty books on interior design, decoration, and architecture and a coauthor and contributor of many more, collaborating with authors such as Terence Conran, Orla Kiely and Tricia Guild. The original cover for Wilhide’s book on William Morris won a prize from the American Institute of Architects. “The design wasn’t my doing,” says Wilhide, “but I did fight very hard for its selection.”

Juliet Annan at Fig Tree Books, Penguin, is Wilhide’s UK editor. “My agent offered Juliet an exclusive first look at Ashenden and I met her very soon after she read it and decided she wanted to publish it,” says Wilhide. “It was a tremendously exciting moment for me. We then worked together on a couple of chapters in the middle of the book which she thought needed to be more plot-driven and she also made incredibly useful suggestions about cuts.”

Anthony Goff at David Higham Associates is Wilhide’s agent. “Anthony became my agent at the very beginning of my writing career when I was asked to substantially rewrite a book by a famous interior designer, who had delivered his manuscript vastly under length,” says Wilhide.

Trish Todd at Simon & Schuster is Wilhide’s U.S. editor. “I met Trish at a later stage in the book’s progress when she was in London for the book fair, but we did meet earlier online when bought the rights and wrote me a wonderful email,” says Wilhide.

“I read this book as a submission from Penguin UK,” says Simon & Schuster editor Trish Todd.  “From the pitch, I could tell it was just the kind of book I would love; I’m a Downton Abbey addict, Anglophile, and old house owner, and the book promised to satisfy all my cravings.  I held my breath as I began to read. I so wanted it to be good. But it was more than good. It was moving and beautifully written. I was very excited to meet the author a few months later when I was in London. We had a drink together and talked about her writing, our families, and old houses. When I meet someone who has written a book I love, it’s always a thrill.”

Wilhide says her greatest challenge is publicity. “What I’ve done so far to promote the book has been great fun, but that side of things is definitely a learning curve.”

Wilhide is currently writing a novel that’s set in the Second World War. She lives the East End of London with her family. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

You can find her online at: and on Twitter @EWilhide

Ashenden: A Novel by Elizabeth Wilhide (Author)

Hardcover: 352 pages, Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 8, 2013), Language: English

ISBN: 9781451684865 $24.99

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