Humphrey Jennings

Julia’s lover, Dougie Birdsall, is loosely based on the great British documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Chances are you’ve seen clips from the footage he shot during the Second World War – they crop up regularly. Films like London Can Take It, Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started have earned him critical acclaim as ‘the only true poet the British cinema has produced’.

I first heard about Jennings soon after I left university – around the same time that I became intrigued by the Mass Observation accounts of the Blitz. That was many years ago.

Much later, when I was working on the first draft of If I Could Tell You, a friend offered to introduce me to someone who had worked with Jennings during the war.

‘So, you want to talk about Humphrey?’ he said, when I phoned him. And a little chill travelled down my back.

John Krish, who later became a renowned filmmaker in his own right, was 16 when he talked his way into a job at Denham Studios and found himself working as an assistant to Stuart McAllister, Jennings’ editor. He remembered them as an explosive pairing.

I went to interview him one wintry day. Over ninety and not in the best of health, he was generous with his time, energy and stories. And I was rapt. Here was a living link to a period that I had not lived through but could not shake off – here was the hand of the past, so present.

Music in love and war


Music plays a key role in my new novel.

The main character, Julia, is a pianist – a lapsed one. Doubting her talent and her ability to stay the course, she gives up her studies at the Royal College and gets married. Some years later, with a nine-year-old son and settled provincial life, she’s still playing, but for an audience of one. That’s when we meet her.

Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie is a powerful point of connection when she meets Dougie, the man who will become her lover.

After their affair begins, Dougie introduces Julia to jazz. The piece he plays for her is Tea for Two by Art Tatum (1933), a dazzling display of virtuoso piano-playing and my favourite in the book.

I’m not going to tell the rest of the story in music, for fear of spoiling the plot. But here are other pieces that feature:

‘Begin the Beguine’ – a lovely version by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra (1938).

Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ – I have wonderful memories of my daughter playing this on the piano that used to live in our hall. Here it’s played by Horowitz.

‘Stardust’ by Hoagy Carmichael, my mother’s favourite.

‘Melancholy Baby’, in this version sung by Al Bowlly, who was killed in an air raid.

Rachmaninov – an unspecified piece in the novel, but we might as well imagine it’s the theme to Brief Encounter.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G, played by Myra Hess, seen and heard here in a short clip from Listen to Britain.

‘Thing-ummy-bob’ – glorious innuendo, sung by Our Gracie.

There’s no link for ‘Asymmetries’ by Bernard (I never got round to giving him a last name, but let’s say it’s ‘Heath’) because Bernard and his music are made up.

Praise for If I Could Tell You

‘Vivid, candid, engaging. So honest.’ Helen Dunmore

‘Heart-wrenching… convincing and intoxicating… Julia is a very English Anna Karenina.An unromantic love story that feels honest and searing.’ The Times

‘What makes this story stand out is its absolute honesty…Wartime Britain has been rarely so skilfully evoked.’ Daily Mail                  

‘Beautifully observed and written, I loved it.’ Woman and Home

‘An elegant, absorbing tale of hope and resilience.’ Sainsbury’s Magazine

‘Elizabeth Wilhide writes about universal emotions with great tenderness and imagination.’ Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days

‘Whenever people argue we don’t need feminism, we need to remember how far we have come. A hard book to put down – a very humane look at a traumatic time in our history.’ Girl with her Head in a Book

‘I have never read any other books by Elizabeth Wilhide but wow, she can write. Her writing style is reminiscent of Helen Dunmore or Kate Atkinson, which is high praise. I was sucked into this story. I enjoyed the subtle humour and I thought the way it brought the realities of wartime London to life was masterful.’ Julia Flyte, Amazon Top 100 Reviewer

‘Although I have read many books about the war this will stay in my memory as a perceptive, shocking and subjective account…. I could feel myself there with the smells, air raids, fear and destruction.’ Sheila via Netgalley

‘The most I have ever identified with the suffering of those under constant bombardment during the war, due to Wilhide’s superb writing.’ Tina via Netgalley

If I Could Tell You

Coming February 2016 from Fig Tree Penguin

Suffolk, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well ordered life. Once a promising musician she now has a handsome husband who pays the bills, a young son she adores and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then on the eve of war something unexpected happens. She falls in love.

The consequences are devastating. Cut off from family and friends, Julia loses everything. Penniless, denied access to her son, completely unequipped to fend for herself, she is cast adrift in wartime London with her bohemian filmmaker lover Dougie. As invasion looms and the bombs rain down her struggle is only beginning.

While Dougie seeks truth wherever he can find it, Julia finds herself lost. Before long, ruined and broken, she faces a choice – succumb to her fate, or fight to forge a new identity in the heat of war.

We visited the house by accident

Before Downton Abbey became everyone’s guilty, or not so guilty, pleasure – well before viewers on both sides of the Atlantic were acquainted with Bates’s limp, Matthew’s ‘tingle’, Lady Edith’s poor choice in men and Mrs. Patmore’s soufflés, not to mention the Dowager Countess’s withering one-liners (‘What is a weekend?’) – I started to write a novel. A novel where the house was the main character.

I have made my living writing about houses, one way and another, all my life. About architecture, design – period and contemporary – about furniture and interior decoration. And all this time it had never once occurred to me that a house could be a subject for fiction, until one day in May 2008.

We visited the house by accident.

We were spending the weekend in Berkshire, about an hour’s drive from London, where we live. Our nest was newly empty and I was on a nostalgia fest. The plan was to visit a garden I loved years ago when I was growing up in a small village in the Thames Valley. But when we pulled up outside the garden it was closed. I’d got the opening times wrong.

OK, I said to my husband, let’s go to Basildon Park instead.  It’s not far away. I’d never heard of the house before, but there had been a leaflet about it in our relentlessly themed hotel bedroom, which said that it had been a location – Netherfield Hall – in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (A plus for me, but a minus for my husband.)

Here you have to understand that my husband is a) an architect, b) from Yorkshire, c) largely averse to stately homes, particularly those dripping with the trappings of prestige, and d) not a great fan of period drama, which he lumps together under the general term ‘bonnets’. He has been known to brood on battlements.

We don’t have to go in the house, I said. But it has a good garden.

OK, he said.

We drove through the gates into Basildon Park and parked in the field. It began to rain. Heavily.

Well, we might as well see the house, I said. Since we’re here. Since it’s raining.

OK, he said.

So we bought our tickets in the stable block/gift shop and resisted the jam, fridge magnets and the tea towels.

It’s a fair walk from the car park to the house, all of it uphill, most of it through woodland. When we arrived at the entrance, we climbed up the stairs to the loggia, then went through the main door.

Have you been here before? said the guide.

No, I said.

You are in for a treat, he said.

Basildon Park is Palladian. It is almost, but not quite, symmetrical. As soon as we came into the house, we could see right through to a window on the other side. Everything lined up. You felt held. I glanced at my husband and there were tears in his eyes.

Well, that was a thing.

My epiphany came later. We were in our (relentlessly themed) hotel bedroom and I was reading the guidebook.

Many British stately homes have been handed down through generations of the same family. Basildon has not. The more I read about it, the more I understood that its mixed fortunes have mirrored the history of this country. This was the idea that got a grip on me that day. This was the genesis of Ashenden.

I finished the first draft of Ashenden in August 2010. Who’s going to be interested in it, I thought? Then came the first series of Downton Abbey. Oh, maybe someone…

I finished the second draft in the spring of 2011 and gave it to my agent. He called me in. Soon after – to my mind miraculously – I had a book deal with Penguin and some months later, Ashenden was sold to Simon & Schuster.

Where do ideas come from? I don’t know. You would think, given my career, that I could have seen this one coming, but I didn’t. Nor do I claim any kinship, creative or otherwise, with Julian Fellowes. All I know is that we both must have had a similar idea at the same time – to tell the story of social change in Britain through the changing fortunes of a big house, those who owned it and those who worked in it.

For thirty years I have lived in the East End of London, an area which until recently has been a byword for urban deprivation and is now the epicenter of urban cool. But we do have one National Trust property in the borough, the Tudor Sutton House, which was built as the home for Ralph Sadleir, Cromwell’s associate and a courtier of Henry VIII’s. Hilary Mantel visited the house to research her trilogy.

I’ve visited Sutton House many times over the past 20 years – out of curiosity, to help my daughter with a school project, to drink mulled wine at Christmas fairs, to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. And I wonder whether Sutton House put the notion in my head that such places could be microcosms of history.

Sutton House was built as the country retreat of a powerful courtier at a time when Hackney was a bucolic haven of strawberries and pretty lasses. Since then, it has been a school, a fire-wardens’ post in WWII, and a squat smeared with graffiti. Along with the linen-fold paneling that has formed the backdrop to many televised historical documentaries, traces of these varied pasts have been preserved in a sensitive restoration.

Dig. Dig deep. The census records of our old house, an unremarkable Victorian terrace, show that in the late nineteenth century, a tenant there was a woman called Lily Snowball, described as a ‘laundress from Whitby’. You couldn’t make it up. But who, I wonder, put the mezuzahs over the doors?

Ashenden in paperback

The UK paperback edition of Ashenden is out tomorrow, 7th March. Here’s the jacket, which I love. AshendenPB

Basildon Park, the inspiration behind Ashenden

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 23.30.24Basildon Park, in Berkshire, was the inspiration behind Ashenden. I visited it in May, 2008 and didn’t return until this year after my novel was published. The photograph below, which shows the rear of the house, features on the Ashenden Tumblr blog

For Austen fans, the house had a starring role as Netherfield Hall in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. 

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 23.17.35

Ashenden – the American edition

ashenden 3[4]The American edition of Ashenden comes out in a little under a week’s time, on the 8th January. It’s published by Simon & Schuster.

Here’s a link to a Tumblr blog S&S have created for the book:

Here’s the Amazon link, with all the latest reviews.

And here’s the gorgeous American jacket.


‘An engrossing debut…a sparkling jewel: full of fascinating detail, high drama and sly wit’ Amanda Foreman

‘Lively interlinked historical vignettes display distinct post-Downton commercial savvy…a pleasurably subtle web of connections…a beguilingly effortless read’ Daily Mail

‘An affecting, intelligent debut which goes way beyond post country house antics’ Guardian

‘I adored this book; I saw it as a love letter to a vanished way of life…Very touching and very compelling’ Penny Vincenzi

‘A compelling saga’ Woman’s Own

‘The author has skilfully held together a complex tale with numerous characters and has also imbued each vignette with faultless historical details’ Country Life

‘Absorbing social history…sharpened by Wilhide’s fine ear for dialogue and her wry sense of humour Financial Times

‘A panoramic view of English family life…any reader who loves history and houses will enjoy this verbal magic lantern show’ Charlotte Moore

‘Meaningful, fresh storytelling is combined with a celebration of English design in this delightful read’ We Love This Book

‘Author of the Month’ on All About You. Read an interview with me here and find out how Ashenden came about.

Read my Q&A on Gransnet

Find Ashenden on Amazon

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