When a close relative falls ill, Hannah Larson and her young son, Nicky, join him for the summer at Ashton Hall, a historic manor house outside Cambridge, England. A frustrated academic whose ambitions have been subsumed by the challenges of raising her beloved child, Hannah longs to escape her life in New York City, where her marriage has been upended by a recently discovered and devastating betrayal. Soon after their arrival, ever-curious Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor, and Hannah and Nicky are pulled into an all-consuming quest for answers; the story of their search forms the basis for Ashton Hall (Ballantine, $28). Novelist and winner of the National Jewish Book Award Lauren Belfer chats with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the many ways looking at the past can shape and inform our view of the present.
YZM: Ashton Hall is so vividly drawn that it almost becomes a character in the story. Is it a real place and if not, was it modeled on an actual location? What drew you to it and how did you go about your research?
LB: This was one of my goals. The fictional Ashton Hall is loosely based on Blickling Hall, a National Trust historic home in Norfolk. When I was in my early twenties, an acquaintance invited me to stay at the apartment he was renting at Blickling. Being one of those Americans who’s fascinated by all things British, I was thrilled by the invitation. While I was there, I was able to wander through the private areas of the house, including the back corridors and attics, and I experienced the first glimmerings of the novel that became ASHTON HALL. I didn’t begin writing, though, because other projects were vying for my attention. In retrospect, I wonder if somehow my subconscious knew that I was too young then, just in my early twenties, to write a novel like ASHTON HALL.
Years later, my husband was invited to spend an academic term at an institute affiliated with Cambridge University. Happily, I was able to join him. At that point, I’d published two novels and was completing a third. One day while I was walking along the narrow, picturesque streets of Cambridge, I suddenly remembered my days at Blickling. I realized that I could move the house to the outskirts of Cambridge and set a novel there. The plot and main characters came to me in a kind of flash of insight. I knew from the beginning, however, that I would need to fictionalize Blickling to suit the demands of my story. I began to tour and read about other historic homes and gardens. I took a tower from one, a corridor from another, a garden from a third, and I wove all these details together to create the Ashton Hall of my imagination.
YZM: You’ve written about religious intolerance at various points in history—Catholics and Protestants, Gentiles and Jews—can you talk more about the parallels?
LB: My second novel, AND AFTER THE FIRE, which won the National Jewish Book Award, examines anti-Semitism across almost two hundred years of German history.
In ASHTON HALL, my main character, Hannah Larson, is the granddaughter of a couple who perished in the Holocaust. Hannah’s mother escaped the war by means of the Kindertransport. As Hannah is pulled into studying Ashton Hall’s history, she’s shocked by what she learns about the lives of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I. At that time, Catholics in England were considered enemies of the state, subject to imprisonment, torture, and execution. They were forbidden to travel beyond a certain number of miles from their homes. Devastatingly high financial penalties were enforced against them.
Despite my extensive readings of English history when I was growing up, I’d never known any of this. I remember I used to skip over the chapters in history books that focused on religious upheaval. Now I did read those chapters. During the course of my research, I also visited Oxburgh Hall, a National Trust historic home about an hour’s drive from Cambridge, a home always owned by Catholics, and I went into the so-called priest hole—a place where Catholic priests hid during raids, because they would be tortured and killed if they were discovered. For the novel, I created a scene in which Hannah goes into the priest hole, a terrifying experience for her, and she gains insight into the lives of her grandparents, who’d been hidden by friends during the war until they were discovered and killed.
Hannah comes to realize a major, and profound, difference between religious intolerance in the Tudor era and the intolerance of the Nazis: English Catholics simply had to profess that they were Protestant, and attend Protestant church services, and they would be free to live like any other English citizens. Jews under the rule of the Nazis, of course, were considered racially Jewish no matter what religion they professed, and so marked for death.
YZM: Hannah is a Jewish woman in a very Christian milieu—what impact does this have on her, and how does it inform her way of being in the world?
LB: Hannah was raised as a secular Jew, knowing her identity and her family’s history, but not practicing her religion. In the UK, she finds herself in an environment which is, indeed, very Christian, and where religious affiliation is more important to the people around her than it was, for example, in New York City, her home. As she begins to research the lives of the family that lived in Ashton Hall centuries before her, during an era torn by religious violence, she begins to think more about her own background and family history, and she gains a new perspective on her life.
YZM: You’ve also created parallels between the ways in which women’s lives were circumscribed in the past and how this continues to be true even now—care to elaborate?
LB: Hannah willingly gave up her career to care for her son, Nicky, who is neurodivergent. She adores Nicky, and he’s at the center of her world. But when she makes a discovery that threatens to destroy her marriage, she realizes that by giving up her career, she’s left herself, and her son, vulnerable. Because of her financial dependency on her husband, she’s unable to do what she believes would be best for herself and for Nicky. She confronts the fact that she might have no choice but to follow along with her husband’s wishes, even though she deeply disagrees with his decisions on how they will lead their lives. As she researches the past, she begins to realize the extent to which this issue – financial dependency – has circumscribed the lives of women throughout history.
YZM: Hannah has assumed that women in an earlier century were very much like her but realizes she can’t view them through the lens of her own experience. How and why does she come to this conclusion, and what does it mean for her going forward?
LB: My goal in writing historical fiction has always been to show the past through the eyes of the people living it, rather than from the perspective of the present, looking back on the past.
In ASHTON HALL, I try to show how Hannah experiences the realization that she can’t simply evaluate the lives of the women who lived at Ashton Hall centuries before her through the lens of the present. Rather, she must try to place herself in their shoes as they faced forward, living from day to day without knowing what the future would bring, and with all the anxieties that go along with that. Step by step through the novel, I try to show the details of daily life in the past, so often overlooked in historical studies. Hannah must immerse herself in these details in order to understand the decisions made by the women of Ashton Hall.
YZM: Is there anything you wish I’d asked but didn’t?
LB: One of my goals as I wrote ASHTON HALL was to show how we, today, as individuals, go about researching and recreating the past. This issue is very personal to me, because it developed from my own experiences researching the history of my family in Europe … visiting the town they came from in what is now Ukraine, finding their names in business directories and old documents, looking at birth and death records, tracing how they made their way to America by examining ship manifests on the Ellis Island website – and also from attempting to learn the fate of my family members who weren’t able to reach America and perished in Europe during the Second World War.
As I researched my family, I began to wonder about what historians from the future might find if they researched me. What evidence would they have of me to work from? Primarily, I thought, it would be financial: My credit card bills. Checking account statements. Tax returns. Charitable donations, showing what I valued.
And very importantly, my life would be revealed by lists of the books I checked out of the libraries wherever I’ve lived. Since childhood, I’ve been an avid reader, frequently visiting my local libraries. I realized that a comprehensive listing of the books I’ve borrowed since I first possessed a library card would disclose a great deal about me, maybe more than I’d ever want the researchers of the future to know.
And so when I wrote ASHTON HALL, I created account ledgers for the family in the novel, based on real account ledgers from the Tudor era. Account ledgers were that era’s equivalent of credit card bills and checking account statements. And I created a library register for Ashton Hall in the 16th century, listing the books the family members borrowed from the library. Hannah draws conclusions about the thoughts and feelings of the family members based on the books they read.
How I wish I could find account ledgers and library registers for my family members who were murdered in Europe during World War II, to give me a window into their thoughts and feelings, and their daily lives.
YZM: Tell me more about your writing process.
LB: I researched and wrote a good deal of ASHTON HALL during the worst months of the Covid-19 pandemic. As I studied Tudor history, I was shocked to learn about the high percentages of urban residents of Tudor England who died of pestilence, their word for plague. Many rural villages were abandoned altogether when most, sometimes all, of the residents died of plague. As I read these horrifying facts, I tried to keep in mind that the stark words represented actual people – parents, siblings, spouses, children. I have a long-standing interest in the history of medicine, and my second novel, A FIERCE RADIANCE, focuses on the development of penicillin and other antibiotics during the pressure-filled days of World War II.
As I continued my research for ASHTON HALL, I learned that Tudor women often served their families and communities as informal physicians, and that they tried to cure diseases with herbal treatments, which were all they had. As Covid raged around the world, I knew I had to bring this little-known aspect of history to ASHTON HALL. I wove it into the novel through my fictional character Katherine Cresham, whose practice of herbal medicine became an obsession for her because so many of her loved ones died young.