Just a few weeks ago, Amazon was having a major Kindle sale, as a part of which it was selling some popular books for as low as $0.99-$3.99. I ended up buying quite a few – it was a great way to try new stuff without spending too much money. What caught my attention about this book was the lovely jacket cover and the basic plot line – “Young governess has been hired to educate three children who have been clearly raised by wolves”. I usually don’t read children’s book, but this novel appeared intriguing enough.
Once you start reading, it does not take you long enough to build affection and respect for the determined governess, the very young Penelope Lumley, who has been sent from the Swanburne Academy to Ashton Place to take care of three kids of questionable origins. Penelope, an orphan herself, forms a very strong empathetic bond with the children – Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia. It is extremely amusing to watch her struggle to teach the children Maths, Geography, Drama and Latin, when they are determined to behave like pups. On top of this, she has to deal with her immature and melodramatic mistress, Lady Ashton who sees the children as an unnecessary burden. Penelope is also angered and flustered by her master, Lord Ashton’s callous attitude towards the children – who he treats as his furniture and not as his wards. It was he who found the children in his forest grounds , hunting one evening. Having discovered these wild and howling kids, he kept them in the barn where Penelope first met them, when she arrived at Ashton Place.
Penelope deals with all crisis and demands of her employers with the courage and good sense that she inherited in Swanburne Academy. She often falls back on the legendary and extremely practical preachings of the Academy’s founder – Agatha Swanburne. I quote one of my favourite “Agathaism” :
“That which can be purchased at a shop is easily left in a taxi; that which you carry inside you is difficult, thought not impossible, to misplace”
Penelope, being fifteen, is almost a child herself with stars in her eyes, and sometimes you can glimpse that when she lets her imagination run away with herself. For instance, in one instance, she is to be accused of stealing the almanac from the library and her thoughts go something like this –
“It had even occurred to her that the police might be summoned and criminal charges be filed, after which she would have to bravely defend herself in front of a stern, white-wigged judge. Her eloquence would earn a standing ovation from the dazzled spectators, who would find it impossible it to believe that this mere girl of fifteen was not a trained lawyer”
But things are not all as they seem in Ashton Place – Why does Lord Ashton insist the children attend the Christmas Ball when they are clearly not trained in social etiquette? Why does he himself disappear on the day of the Ball? Why were the children abandoned in the forest in the first place? Who are their parents? Why does Old Timothy keep appearing in the most unlikely places? These questions add a bit of gothic element to what I would consider a light, funny and entertaining children’s book.
Most of these questions remain unanswered in the first instalment of the series – The Mysterious Howling. Though not exactly a cliff-hanger, if as a reader you have invested enough interest in the characters, you are bound to pick the second book: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place – The Hidden Gallery.
In the second book, we follow the escapades of the Ashton household into London. After the catastrophic Christmas ball, Ashton Place is undergoing major repairs. Lady Ashton convinces her husband the need to move to London till the renovation is completed. Penelope is extremely excited about this change in location – she has never been to London and only read about it in books. She sees this as an opportunity to expose herself and the children to some real art and culture. Once in London, Penelope is clearly overwhelmed by the city and is a bit depressed. Enter Simon, a young struggling playwright (obviously, for a young governess of fifteen, a romance is needed) who befriends her and the children and proves to be a valuable companion during their stay. The open questions from the first book remain unanswered and the plot thickens. First there is the gypsy soothsayer who warns the “hunt is on”. Then there is the hopeless Hixby’s guide to London- a gift from Penelope’s teacher and friend – which proves to be extremely useless in all regards with the exception of its directions to the hidden gallery no. 17 in British Museum. On top of this all, there is Judge Quinzy, whose unusual and unwelcome interest in Penelope and the children worries her. And most importantly is the mystery of the color of Penelope’s hair! While a lot more happens in the second book, as a reader you are really no further then where you started and that is a bit irritating. One has no choice but to look forward to the third book!!
Maryrose Wood is without doubt, a very good children’s storyteller. The writing is rich, witty and the language makes for very good “reading aloud” to kids. Some of my favourite sentences are as follows:
“ As you may know, travelling alone is quite a different kettle of fish from travelling with companions. It tends to make people anxious, especially when enroute to a strange place, or a new home or a job interview, or ( as in the case of Miss Lumley) a job interview in a strange place that might very well end up being her new home”
“ There is no alarm clock like embarrassment”, and by the time the conductor spoke the word luggage, Miss Lumley was far more awake than she wished to be. Had she really said something about bandits?”
“The truth is that one cannot go through life without being annoyed by other people, and this was just as true in Miss Penelope’s Lumley’s day as it is in our own. Annoyance is a fact of life; one ought not to lose one’s grip because of it..”
“Penelope had read several novels about such governesses in preparation for her interview and found them chock-full of useful information, although she had no intention of developing romantic feelings for the charming, penniless tutor at a neighbouring estate. Or-heaven forbid!- for the darkly handsome, brooding, and extravagantly wealthy master if her own household. Lord Fredrick Ashton was newly married in any case, and she had no inkling what his complexion might be.”
Penelope, Simon and even the children are good role models. The children though naughty also possess a grateful, kind and generous nature. The moral messaging of the overall story is sound. The Incorrigible.. is clearly written not only to entertain but also to educate children. Words and phrases are explained as a part of the narrative without breaking the plotline –
“This is called “selective truth telling” and it is frequently used in political campaigns, toy advertisements and other forms of propaganda”
“Viola – as you may know, is a French word that means “there you are”. Like “Eureka” or “By Jove, I’ve got it” is sometimes exclaimed by people who have figured out the answer to some sort of problem or riddle”
If you have kids who still like to be read at night or who are still a few years away from their teens, this is a really perfect book for them