The Ashford Affair

Image of The Ashford Affair
Release Date: 
April 9, 2013
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: 

“The Ashford Affair is well worth its price—if only to lose oneself in the demise of England’s youth in all its glory and sorrow.”

“Love has no place in great alliances,” her mother had always told her. “Marriage [is] a contract, not a novel.”

The contrasts between desire and duty, youth and age, foolishness and wisdom are central themes in Lauren Willig’s new novel The Ashford Affair.

The book encompasses a timeline between 1906 and 2000, shifting between dates and generations of England’s Gillecote (later Gillcott) family.

In 1999, Clemmie races to attend her grandmother’s 99th birthday celebration. Harried and exhausted from hours spent at her job as an attorney in New York City, she is smarting from a broken engagement and unready to face the subtle criticisms of her mother. To avoid her, Clemmie settles down to visit with Addie, her grandmother, and is confused when she is addressed as Eva. When she questions her mother and aunt, she is surprised to be met with a combination of reluctance and vituperative anger.

From this point on, Clemmie is on an initially reluctant quest to discover the buried past of the Gillecote family. In a story that spans four generations and three continents, she finds passion and betrayal that shocks her—and a long-buried secret.

In The Ashford Affair, Ms. Willig has created an interesting look at one family’s journey through several decades, focusing particularly on the pre-World War I to Depression years in England and its colonies.

The Gillecotes, as peers of the realm, occupied a rather rarefied stratum of British society prior to the Great War. With parents who are Lord and Lady of their estate, Ashford, their three daughters hold wealth and position in the palms of their hands from birth. Lady Gillecote is insistent upon their learning their place in society, particularly their obligation to “marry well.”

In this, Ms. Willig shares the task of authors of writers like Jane Austen—it was fairly appalling to note that Mrs. Bennett’s lessons to her daughters had not changed much in the two centuries between Pride and Prejudice and the setting of this novel.

With the arrival of cousin Addie, the Lady’s job becomes even more difficult: how to enhance her own daughters’ positions and ultimately rid herself of this child of her husband’s estranged younger brother?

Addie brings a certain note of the plebeian into both the family circle and the story itself. This might appeal to fans of the current Downton Abbey craze, but this is no tale of servant and master—Addie, while a “disadvantaged” younger cousin, is certainly expected to uphold the family honor and name. When she grows older and suggests getting a job, her aunt is horrified, declaring that a having career is nothing a Gillecote should even ponder.

Ms. Willig has a definite flair for writing dialogue and has done her research particularly well on the Jazz Age.

Bea and Addie move into the post war years with difficulty, facing a decided lack of gentlemen “worthy” of a Gillecote, many men of their generation having perished either physically or mentally in the grueling war years. It’s almost a shock to hear Bea consider a Marquise beau, casually noting that “at least he has two arms.”

Ms. Willig’s take on the despair of the younger generation of those years frantically trying to drown out the terror of war in liquor, scandal, and loud music, is poignantly summed up in the words of Frederick, a friend and secret love of Addie (who comes to be Bea’s second husband): “That’s where we are now, just waiting for the next shell before the screaming begins.”

The framing story—that of Clemmie and her search for the stories of her grandmother’s past—is not nearly as well done, though it is workable. Pop culture references are rather ham-handedly tossed into the narrative, and the sudden romance between Clemmie and her step-cousin comes across as perfunctory and flat. Though the affair is clearly meant to tie her with Addie (and to an extent, Eva) through the trope of recognizing love before it’s too late, it is not built up enough in the 1999–2000 passages to be believable when it does come to fruition.

Ms. Willig would have done better had she stayed within the lovely, lushly described 1900–1930 period. Kenya and England come to life in the author’s prose, and the characters of those years are well developed and sympathetic. It was rather a shock to see Eva’s story summed up in a matter of a couple of brief passages near the end, but perhaps Ms. Willig intends to revisit those years in a later novel.

Regardless of its flaws, The Ashford Affair is well worth its price—if only to lose oneself in the demise of England’s youth in all its glory and sorrow.