The Ashford Affair, my 1920s book, arose out of the confluence of three things:
1) A friend gave me Frances Osborne’s book, The Bolter, about the life of Idina Sackville, the much-married socialite who bounced back and forth between husbands and between London and Kenya.
What really struck me about the book was the foreword, in which the author admitted she hadn’t known that Idina was her great-grandmother until a chance media mention had brought the topic up. The family had papered over the scandal, presenting the second wife in guise of great-grandmother. At the time, my own ninety-one year old grandmother, who had been, up until then, very spry and entirely compos mentis, entered a sharp decline involving a number of disturbing hospital stays and entirely uncharacteristic mental confusion. (There’s a happy ending to that one: she got better, and she’ll be dancing at my wedding next week.) But the confluence of the foreward of The Bolter and my grandmother’s sickness got me thinking about how little we really know about our families and how much we– often groundlessly– assume we know. What if you took a busy modern woman who abruptly discovers, when her grandmother starts ailing, that her family is nothing like what she believed? What would that journey do to someone?
My modern heroine, Clemmie, is about to learn that there’s far more to her grandmother’s past than meets the eye– especially when it comes to her time in Kenya….
2) Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green came out in print.
Wigs on the Green, suppressed by order of the authoress, was the only Mitford book I hadn’t read. A friend of mine had a bootleg copy, but refused to loan it out for fear of its not making its way back. Naturally, I pounced on it the second I saw it in the bookstore. This launched me on a massive orgy of Mitford-reading: all the Nancy Mitford novels, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, with side journeys into Evelyn Waugh. I started speaking in 1930s slang, entirely unintentionally.
3) My little sister persuaded me to watch Downton Abbey.
This is a very topsy turvy list, isn’t it? But this was the order in which these things happened. Backwards. I was given The Bolter in late summer, went on my Mitford rampage in the fall, and watched Downton in January. I started writing what I then called Ashford Park in March, assembling the pieces the other way around: my book starts in an estate not unlike Downton Abbey, to which my heroine, Addie, has been shuttled after the death of her bohemian parents.
Addie’s childhood owes a great deal to my Mitford glom. Like the narrator of The Pursuit of Love, Addie is the outsider, the visitor to the household, admiring and relying on her dazzling cousin Bea. When I picture Bea, I picture the classic photographs of Diana Mitford, with that same sort of icy beauty. In character, however, Bea owes a lot more to Idina Sackville Wallace Gordon Hay etc, restless, troubled, and irresistible to all men– except the ones to whom she’s married.
Then, of course, there’s Clemmie, my modern heroine, who knows her Granny Addie only as an imposing old dowager and has no idea of the storms and upheavals she went through along the way– and is entirely unprepared for the biggest family secret of all.
The Ashford Affair comes out April 2, 2013. More soon!