“In this way Penelope’s happy and sad feelings got all mixed up together, until they were not unlike one of those delicious cookies they have nowadays, the ones with a flat circle of sugary cream sandwiched between two chocolate-flavored wafers. In her heart she felt a soft, hidden core of sweet melancholy nestled inside crisp outer layers of joy, and if that is not the very sensation most people feel at some point or other during the holidays, then one would be hard pressed to say what is.” – The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
What an entertaining and surprisingly delightful children’s story! The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is a quirky, smart, creative, and playful story that is unexpectedly charming. I say “unexpectedly,” because I think that it is written to be in the style of a Victorian Gothic novel and I don’t usually think of Gothic fiction as being charming. And yet, that is exactly what this is. Charming and gothic at the same time.
Energetic Governess for Three Lively Children
Knowledge of French, Latin, History, Etiquette,
Drawing, and Music will be Required –
Experience with Animals Strongly Preferred.
I ignored The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by MaryRose Wood for several years because I feared that it was something on the order of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books. I just don’t care for children’s stories which are dark, bizarre, morbid, and condescending. Lemony Snicket’s books are just too strange for me to consider worth pursuing. So, when I often saw Incorrigible Children being recommended by people who loved Lemony Snicket, and I judged the art on the book jacket, I presumed that this story was going to be disappointing. When, however, an author I truly respect mentioned that he and his children were delighting in it, I decided to give the book a try.
I was pleasantly surprised by many things in this creative little story. I am not, however, recommending it wholesale. The book ends with an unsettling cliffhanger and I am apprehensive about how the story is going to evolve. Also, there are things in this book which I did not appreciate finding in a children’s book. I hope to point those things out in this review so that parents can discern what is best for their families and be warned of things they may wish to deal with when reading to their children. This review is my reaction to the first book before I have had a chance to read the others.
“Of especially naughty children, it is sometimes said: “They must have been raised by wolves.” The Incorrigible Children actually were. Discovered in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children. Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is no ordinary governess. A recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must eliminate their canine tendencies. But mysteries abound at Ashton Place: Who are these three wild creatures? Why does Old Timothy, the coachman, lurk around every corner? Will Penelope be able to civilize the Incorrigibles in time for Lady Constance’s holiday ball? And what on earth is a schottische? Penelope is no stranger to mystery, as her own origins are also cloaked in secrecy. But as Agatha Swanburne herself once said, “Things may happen for a reason, but that doesn’t mean we know what the reason is—at least, not yet.”” – Taken from the Amazon preview
I did not read the above teaser before reading the book and so I was in the dark as to the nature of the children and their backstory until it was revealed in the story itself. I think that if I had read this in advance, and understood that this is written in a gothic style, I would have been better prepared to meet the story on its own terms. As I read, I had a sense that darkness and mystery were lurking behind every corner.
Despite my anxiety, however, I found myself enjoying immensely the narrator and the governess character, Miss Penelope Lumley. While our governess is aware of a certain classic novel, Jane Eyre, she remarks to herself that she is too sensible to get caught up in a gothic romance of her own. Peppered throughout the story, the narrator recounts to us these kinds of observations of Miss Lumley’s. We are delighted by how sensibly self-aware Miss Lumley is, but cannot help but also find her charmingly optimistic.
“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 neighboring estate. Or – heaven forbid! – for the darkly handsome, brooding, and extravagantly wealthy master of her own household. Lord Frederick Ashton was newly married in any case, and she had no inkling what his complexion might be.” -The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
Miss Lumley is, it seems, a poor bright young lady with uncertain parentage. She is not an orphan, but rather a child whose parents were not available to raise her. The strangeness of her situation adds to the intrigue of the story. Abandoned by her parents, Miss Lumley has been raised to be the quintessential governess – respectful, astute, well-trained, well-educated, well aware of her station, elegant, and noble. As such, she is marvelously successful in her work with the children. She also realizes how much she has grown to love these children.
“I will have the children read Hamlet as soon as it is practical. There are some useful cautions against eavesdropping to be gleaned from that.” -The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
Because Miss Lumley wants to do the best work possible and because she really does love the children, the narrator constantly entertains us with delightful little instructions that Miss Lumley considers giving to the children. This technique serves two purposes: it makes the story richer, and it helps to challenge young readers with sophisticated language and intelligent ideas.
“This practice of overstating the case is called hyperbole. Hyperbole is usually harmless, but in some cases it has been known to precipitate unnecessary wars as well as a painful gaseous condition called stock market bubbles. For safety’s sake, then, hyperbole should be used with restraint and only by those with proper literary training.” -The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
When I was a young reader, I read all or nearly all of the original Nancy Drew mysteries. I loved them, in part, because they made me scared and I loved the adrenaline rush they would summon. I learned, too late, that this was terrible for my personality. I developed all kinds of fears that I previously did not have. Knowing this about myself, I try to be cautious about giving my kids scary stories. If you have readers who are sensitive to being scared, know that this book has some scenes in it that could be frightening. The scenes aren’t aggressive or graphic, no ghosts jumping out or bad guys chasing kids with terrifying magic, but the success of the mystery depends, in part, on how much we let our imaginations wander.
The first three-quarters of the book is wholesome. In fact, it does feels an awful lot like Jane Eyre. It is all building, however, to a climax which has some disconcerting content.
Lady Ashton has planned a Christmas party as a celebration of her new role as Mistress of the House. She and Lord Ashton are newly married and they have yet to have entertained as a couple. This Christmas party is supposed to showcase Lady Ashton, and yet everything she does goes terribly wrong.
In the days leading up to the party, Lord and Lady Ashton have several marital spats that Miss Lumley walks in on. These conversations are necessary to advance the plot, but they seem inappropriate in a children’s book. Do married people disagree? Yes. Of course. Do our children need to dwell on these disagreements, especially when they are not amicably resolved? I don’t think so.
Lord Ashton refuses to attend the party and everything goes wrong after that. The stress of a failing party causes Lady Ashton to have a headache and have some champagne. Strangely, a few sips of champagne render Lady Ashton drunk. And not just tipsy, but so drunk that the party-goers carry her around, she burps, she falls asleep at the table under her napkin, she wakes up disoriented and strange. Her drunkenness is happening in tandem with some other problems, and that whole section of the book is a cacophony of weirdness.
As the book teaser above mentions, the children (Alexander, Beowulf, Cassiopeia Incorrigible) were, at some unknown point, abandoned by their parents and left in the woods to be raised by wolves. A bit like Mowgli in The Jungle Book, the children have primal tendencies and habits. When a squirrel scurries through the party, the children regress into wolfish behavior and chase the varmint through the house. Honestly, I thought that was weird.
(((Spoiler Alert – Spoilers in this box)))
As Miss Lumley tries to find the children, she overhears the party guests planning to go hunting and to shoot the children as if they were wolves. To save them, she lies to the hunters about which way she saw the children run. When she ascends the stairs in pursuit of the children, she discovers the boys in the attic covered in a red sticky substance. She immediately worries that they have caught the squirrel and have torn it apart. Mercifully, they have not. The squirrel is quite safe in Cassiopeia’s lap eating treats and the boys were merely clawing at the red wallpaper because there is, according to the boys, someone on the other side of the attic wall. (Sound like Jane Eyre to you too?)
At the end of the story, we are left with a very unsettling suspicion that Lord Ashton may be a werewolf.
(((END OF SPOILER)))
I am genuinely conflicted about this book. So much of this story is deliciously fun. The drunkenness, the consequences of the party, and the questions about Lord Ashton are, however, enough to give me pause. I intend to read the next book and see how the story evolves. I think, however, that I will not be offering this series to my young children. I could see how this might be offered to older readers as a parent-child book club selection. Read with a parent, this might yield interesting conversation about character choices and literary styles. That said, I still wonder at why we feel a need to rush through childhood and introduce gothic themes to young readers. Diane and I have a saying about books like this: “how much arsenic would you like in your cake?”
Diane and I talk often about how important it is for parents to protect but also equip their children. Some parents, undoubtedly, choose to equip their children for the hardness of life by exposing them to books with hard and mature themes. In a way, I am one of those parents. I think, however, that I would rather my children feast on hero tales with some necessary violence and some good vs evil struggles than on gothic novels with drunkenness and marital tension.
If you do choose to read this book, know that the Audible version is phenomenal. Katherine Kellgren is unbelievably good.