I really love when children’s books appeal to adults. You can make the argument that media meant for children ought to cater to children, but there’s a difference between catering to an audience and appealing to one. I know that my friends with kids are stuck reading the same books over and over again to their children, like my parents did for me with Goodnight Moon and The Going to Bed Book, I’m pretty sure both of which they still have memorized. Sorry, Mom. (I’m not really sorry; Sandra Boynton is truly stellar.) That’s not usually the case with older, plottier books, but those tend to appeal to the adults who are around them by force or by choice, generally because there’s something thrown in there for us. Children’s books can be outright hilarious sometimes. And while I wouldn’t use the word ‘hilarious’ necessarily in talking about Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, it is a group of novels that are funny and clever, even if its core cast and audience are comprised of people all under voting age. Spoilers to follow…
The existing series of Ashton Place so far has four novels, in order: The Mysterious Howling, The Hidden Gallery, The Unseen Guest, and The Interrupted Tale. It follows fifteen-year-old Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, becomes governess to the three wards of Lord Fredrick Ashton. The wards in question are three children rescued from the woods on one of Lord Ashton’s hunting trips, believed to have been raised by wolves, and who have adopted the last name Incorrigible, as their behavior is basically what you’d expect of children raised by wolves, which is to say, a lot of howling, running, jumping, drooling, and the occasional biting. Mostly howling, though. Ashton gives them the names Alexander (the oldest, who ends up being a navigation enthusiast), Beowulf (the middle Incorrigible, and a talented artist), and Cassiopeia (the Dot Warner of the family, youngest sibling and often the most wolfish). Penelope takes it upon herself to teach the children poetry, Ancient History, geography, and a series of socially useful phrases that will be more helpful in their day-to-day than their usual brand of howling.
Meanwhile there’s Lady Constance Ashton, Lord Fredrick’s youthful bride, who is flighty as the day is long, and would desperately like to put the Incorrigibles out on the street (when she remembers they exist, of course, which is usually only when they destroy something). Household staff at Ashton Place include the enigmatic Ashton coachman Old Timothy, who tends to speak in mysterious warnings, and Mrs. Clarke, the housekeeper, portly but cheery, and the closest thing Penelope has to a friend outside of school. At least until she meets Simon Harley-Dickinson, in Hidden Gallery‘s romp to London. Simon is a playwright (and, as of later books, a pirate), and a useful source of help for Penelope as she starts to uncover mysteries. Her girls’ school background and the fact that she’s a teenager also make him an almost-love interest, in the way that she has feelings for him she doesn’t know how to define. But it doesn’t really matter, as she’s also in regular contact with Miss Charlotte Mortimer, the headmistress at the Swanburne Academy, and a source of mystery herself. And lastly there’s Judge Quinzy, Lord Fredrick’s friend from the gentlemen’s club, who turns out to not be a judge at all, and might actually be Lord Fredrick’s deceased father, who is (was) believed to have perished in a tar pit.
Over the course of the four novels, there are several things going on:
– Miss Mortimer routinely sends Penelope a hair poultice, promoting healthy scalps, but the poultice also turns Penelope into a drab brunette, when it turns out she is possessing auburn hair (nearly the same shade of auburn as the three Incorrigibles, incidentally).
– Lord Ashton is obsessed with his almanac (which frequently goes missing), and is prone to monthly bouts of howling, scratching, and generally weird behavior, notably around the full moon. He has an odd family history of the Ashton men suffering from this so-called affliction, which conveniently goes away once a child is born.
– Agatha Swanburne, the ever wise but totally dead founder of the Swanburne Academy, apparently kept extensive records of correspondence, which may or may not hold some sort of evidence that not-Judge not-Quinzy finds interesting.
– Someone somewhere is a terrible painter. BUT WHO?
– There’s a cave deep in the woods by Ashton Place where the Incorrigibles were staying pre-‘rescue’, one that has a ‘Mama Woof’, as Cassiopeia calls the massive wolf that took care of the children, but also has a very human-maintained chest containing such human goods as blankets and sandwiches (which, the night that Penelope spends there, include her own favorite and specific sandwich).
– There is a book in the Ashton Place library, one that not-Judge not-Quinzy is also very interested in, the diary of an Ashton ancestor and his first mate, who, after a shipwreck, wind up on an island called Ahwoo-Ahwoo (which happens to be the exact sound of the howls the children are knowing for howling), where it’s believed that the Ashton ancestor in question first contracted the howling affliction plaguing his children. The diary’s pages are written in special invisible ink, the antidote for which is known only by pirates, and even once Penelope and Simon uncover the ink, it’s still written entirely in verse, and of course Quinzy shows up to steal the book before they can solve any mysteries (that would be the Interrupted Tale part).
So naturally, there are several big questions:
– What is the deal with Fredrick Ashton, and the Ashton men, that make them howl? Are they werewolves?
– Why did patriarch Edward Ashton (not-Judge not-Quinzy) fake his death, only to turn around and befriend his son at a gentlemen’s club?
– What all does Charlotte Mortimer know about all of this?
– Why does Penelope have to hide the color of her hair? Is she related to the Incorrigibles? And portraits (albeit crappy ones) of Swanburne Academy founder Agatha Swanburne depict her as having the same color hair. And Charlotte Mortimer is revealed to be a descendant of Agatha Swanburne. Could all of them be related somehow? And if so, what does that mean? Why go to all the trouble of hiding it?
– Given Edward Ashton/Quinzy’s level of involvement, how are the Ashtons and the potential Swanburnes related to one another (I mean in general terms, not related in the family way, although that could well be the case)?
One of the reviews on the back of one of the books describes it as “Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket,” although it’s referring more to the time period than it is to Penelope going off and falling in love with a bearded wackadoo. (At least, I assume not: Fredrick and Mr. Rochester are both already married, but at least Penelope knows Fredrick is married and might be a werewolf. And Penelope Lumley certainly has more sense than Jane Eyre ever did.) The Snicket-esque part likely refers to the winky way Wood writes things, taking opportunities to teach us words and phrases. There’s a very knowing tone about the whole thing, reminding us that things were in fact very different in Penelope’s time. Although there’s a definite air of the fantastical, since the Incorrigibles themselves more often than not seem to be the ‘original’ source for all sorts of modern day things we now take for granted. (That, and Penelope has received private correspondence from the queen. Like you do.)
So in conclusion: wolves. But not werewolves. (But maybe werewolves?) Secret fathers! Secret…grandmothers? Hair dye. The series paces out its mysteries, actually giving readers answers (though still providing further questions – that’s how you do it). No one gets locked in any attics. Well, half-true, someone does willfully lock themselves in an attic. Secret relations, yes, secret wives, no. So all around, better than Jane Eyre.