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Bricks and Mortar
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 January 2014
I couldn't put this down from page 1, where we are introduced to pleasant, enthusiastic young Martin Lovell, off on a visit to Rome where he can indulge his passion for architecture. But at the guest-house he encounters the redoubtable Lady Stapleford, a widow in straitened circumstances, resolved in marrying off her pretty but non-academic daughter Letty:
' "Now I don't believe", said Lady Stapleford with deceptive candour, "in keeping young people waiting about after they've made up their minds to marry each other...It would be extremely selfish of me", said the judge's widow, who did not mean to incur the expense of a London wedding, or risk the sobering effect of a change of scene and the likelihood of a young man's inconstancy.'
The novel then covers the next forty years; the married life of two such different characters, Martin's unabating interest in his subject, children, an interfering mother-in-law... Beautifully written, with a very moving ending.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 November 2015
Helen Ashton was a popular 20th century author with 25 novels to her name; she is largely forgotten now. Persephone Books' raison d'etre is to revive interest in such good neglected writers and their work. This, a family novel, is one of the few, apparently, that has an architectural context, the hero, Martin Lovell, and his daughter Stacy, and son-in-law Oliver, all architects working in London in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and we learn a lot incidentally about changing architectural tastes and designs.

The point of view is Martin's. In a Forster-like opening, we find him, a gauche young man, in Florence, where he is expertly nudged into a marriage with innocent, childish, eighteen year old Letty by her mother, Lady Stapleford. They have little in common, she's not his intellectual equal, and it seems we might be in for a tale of marital disunity. But this is in an era when marriages were meant to last and divorce had a stigma, and they learn to rub along together. The novel is a study of their marriage, depicted with a clear and unsentimental eye. At the end of the book Stacy sums it up thus: '"According to modern ideas, he ought to have got tired of her almost at once. She didn't understand one word about the things he liked, she wasn't any help to him in his career, she didn't even make him comfortable at home, and she wasted his money. She was one of those women who neglect their husbands as soon as they've got their children." This is a fair assessment, if a little jaundiced, given by a daughter not much loved by her mother.

It's about a family divided along familiar lines, their son Aubrey is the mother's favourite, spoilt and indolent, their daughter the father's, misunderstood by the mother and treated with unfair strictness. During the forty years or so covered by the action, the family suffers three deaths, not including the most dramatic one on the last page. Despite all these strains, a mix of love, tolerance and convention keep the family together. Ashton does a good job in tracing the outlines of a representative marriage, typical of its time.

Martin is in love with the planning and creation of buildings. He has that to fall back on, something denied to Letty. At the end of his life he admits '"I've had my best moments out of the things I've built. They've meant more to me than Letty, or the children, or myself. Let them be my justification."' He passes this passion onto his daughter, and she points up the contrast between the generations of women: if Letty had found some equal passion, she might have been more fulfilled, less the negative, impatient and wrong-headed woman that she is.

Readers with an architectural interest will probably appreciate the detailed and frequent descriptions of buildings and their historical styles and characteristics more than I did. I felt there was too much of them, as if Ashton couldn't quite resist the temptation to show off her considerable knowledge of the subject. But she does however show how quickly time and fashions and techniques move in such an industry and the human cost of that. By the end, Martin is hopelessly out of date and old-fashioned (the kind of architect one suspects Prince Charles would approve of).

Four stars then: but it's beautifully written, makes a lot out of small domestic dramas, is never sentimental or predictable. If there's a little falling off towards the end, one can forgive that. Definitely worth a Persephone revival.
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on 29 October 2010
I read this book when it was first published, and thought it good (as all the Persephones are) but not stunning. However it is one of those books which has revisited me in memory fairly often since, and I have just finished re-reading it with great pleasure.
The story can seem slight - and even depressing; Martin is manoevered into falling in love with the first girl he meets, who is not his soul mate, and this is the story of their "rubbing along OK" sort of life. So far so awful, you might think. But it is somehow also a paean to the joys of life found in expected and unexpected places - and the difficulties which come with those joys. So Martin, madly passionate about his work finds constant joy and solace in the details of architecture (beautifully conveyed, as the previous reviewer notes) - but less fulfillment than he anticipated in his actual job - subject to his clients' tastes, practicalities and the whims of architectural fashion. Conversely his ill-founded marriage to Letty produces a succession of joys and profound family feelings for which he had never looked. In particular his joy in developing the mind of his strong minded daughter, who repays his devotion, is moving and life affirming.
A portrait of a good life lived on a small scale and thus accessible and a comfort to those of us who will never build a cathedral, discover time travel or put Jane Austen in the shade...
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VINE VOICEon 16 July 2004
I make no apology for reviewing another Persephone book as every book produced by this publishing house is worthy of attention. Not every one will please everybody but the likelihood is that an interesting well written book can be depended upon and this latest publication is a case in point. I had never heard of Helen Ashton prior to reading this novel which was originally published in 1932 and she is a real discovery. It is what nowadays might be filed in the library under 'sagas' in that it tells the story of Martin, a young architect dragooned and manipulated into a marriage with Letty, by her astute and clever mother and, quite simply, follows their lives together for the following 40 years. The marriage has its ups and downs, Martin finds his wife is not of his intellectual level and is not interested in his profession, but he finds recompense in the relationship he develops with his daughter Stacey, who shows signs of being a strong, feminist woman while his wife has her son, Aubrey. The emotions of Martin and his state of mind and character throughout his life are reflected in the architectural descriptions that run like a thread through the book. The title may lead you to think this is a dull, boring book but it is not. The architectural descriptions are enchanting and beautiful and if, like me, you do not know the difference between a pilaster and a cornice, it does not matter, the imagery and the language used are simply beautiful. Martin and Letty are characters that engage one immediately and you really care what happens to them and their happiness. This is a book of a high order, well crafted, superbly written and immensely readable. I was captured from the first page and I think anyone who reads this will do so too.
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on 28 January 2011
I knew Helen Ashton as the author of 'Parson Austen's Daughter' - a splendid book, not quite a novel or quite a biography, about the life of Jane Austen. And I know very little else about her. This book makes me want to read more. However and wherever she got her knowledge of architecture, she manages to make it thoroughly absorbing to those who know very little. It's interesting that at the end of Martin's life - circa 1930 - we are already in the age of brutal, modern, towering buildings.
We anticipate that Martin will die at the end of the novel and, since we are carefully told that his children are born in the 1890s, we expect that his son will be killed in the First World War and his daughter will fail to get a husband. It doesn't work out quite like that; the story is not predictable. We note that the three other members of his family are none of them quite worthy of him, but he accepts them with all their faults; the chapter (V) in which he teaches Stacy about English architecture is particularly fine. One is left feeling that this was a good life, if not ideal, and that the quiet, decent people like Martin are the real bricks and mortar of society.
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