Occasionally I like to take the opportunity to highlight the work of one particular writer here, although I think Helen Ashton might be someone that many of you will already know about. In the last few months I have been aware of other bloggers talking about Helen Ashton books – so although all but one of her novels is out of print, it does seem she hasn’t entirely been forgotten about.
According to her Wikipedia page Helen Ashton was a prolific writer and an interesting and intelligent woman. She wrote her first novel in 1913 before working as a VAD nurse during World War 1. After the war she studied medicine, graduating MB, BS in 1922. She practised as a physician at Great Ormond Street Hospital for a few years before she married. Retiring from medicine upon her marriage Helen Ashton went on to publish twenty six books. I hadn’t known any of this until I thought to look her up on Wiki – I feel I’d like to know more now.
Helen Ashton the novelist first came to my attention thanks to Persephone books, when I read her novel Bricks and Mortar. Although it has something of a slow start – I found a lot to love in the story of an architect and his family. Ashton showed she knew a lot about architecture, details which help to reflect the passion the central character has for his profession. I suppose in some ways Bricks and Mortar seems like a typical Persephone novel, following the fortunes of a family over a period of thirty or forty years. In other respects it is not so typical, having a male point of view, and focusing on the changing nature of a profession perhaps not often written about in fiction.
Last year I found an old copy of a book called Yeoman’s Hospital in a National Trust property bookshop – I recognised the name of the author and snapped it up. Like Bricks and Mortar, Yeoman’s Hospital is a little slow to get going, but I soon found myself really caught up in the story of one twenty four hour period in the hospital of a fictional town in December 1943. I loved some of the descriptions that opened the novel, and got drawn in to the life of the nurses, doctors and patients.
“It was a dumb dark winter’s morning, cold as death and quiet as the grave, with a fog rising from the river to choke the streets of Wilchester town. The young policeman on his beat could scarcely see across the Beastmarket. As he went past St. Blazey’s church he heard six o’clock strike, but he could not make out the face of the clock, or even see the top of the tower; only the gravestones looked white between the trunks of leafless dripping beech trees. When he crossed the road and peered through the railings of Yeoman’s Hospital, the central block with its pillared portico was invisible across the courtyard. There was no light in there except the red tail-lamp of an ambulance parked by the steps and a faint glow through the blind of the porter’s lodge, not bright enough for him to report.”
Reading Yeoman’s Hospital (made into a film called White Corridors in 1951) made me want to read more by Helen Ashton, and coincidently around this time I saw a couple of reviews for Half Crown House. I went in search and found my own very reasonably priced copy. This is a novel which might divide people, I have seen some enthusiastic reports of it as well as a couple of rather lukewarm reviews of it – while blogger Furrowed Middlebrow – highlighted it as one of his favourite books of last year. I have yet to read it – so still don’t know which camp I shall fall into – as let’s face it we can’t all feel the same way about books. Interestingly like Yeoman’s Hospital, the action of Half-Crown house also takes place on just one day – it is a fictional device that I actually really like. One of my favourite Persephone books The New House by Lettice Cooper takes place on one day – in that novel it is the day the family move house.
When making Christmas wishlists for my family I asked for Helen Ashton books – pointing them in the direction of various well known online second hand book sellers. My sister thrilled me with a lovely old copy of Parson Austen’s Daughter – the story of Jane Austen in novel form – which looks kind of brilliant (but I have the usual reservations about real people in fiction) still the dust jacket is rather lovely although slightly ragged. Apparently she based her novel entirely on Jane Austen’s letters without adding anything that wasn’t already known.
“When Cassandra Austen was an old woman. She would sit and remember Steventon.”
Something about the first line makes it seem very appealing – I’m thinking of reading one of these two books next – but I can’t decide which one to go for.
So it seems that there should be lots more Helen Ashton novels to be found – the trouble is of course knowing which are the ones I should be chasing down., although the one already at the top of my wish list is Doctor Serocold.