My dears, it has happened again – I’ve just finished reading a book which I felt full sure I would adore, and about which I found much to love, and yet…
It didn’t really rock my world as much as I’d hoped it would.
Is it just me?
There’s so much wonderfulness about this book, most of it centring on the way Maryrose Wood writes. I loved her slightly eccentric, ever-so old-fashioned style, which suits the premise behind the book and helps to site it very clearly in the nineteenth century (though, to be fair, we’re reminded of that at every turn.) I liked her independent and strong-minded heroine, Miss Penelope Lumley, a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, who is engaged as governess in the household of Lord and Lady Ashton, and I loved the children, including their wonderful names – Alexander (for ‘the Great’), Beowulf (needs no elaboration!) and Cassiopeia.
Her charges, however, are a little on the challenging side – particularly considering their mistress is barely fifteen, and in her first teaching role – and are far from being the sweet, gentle-spirited children about whom Penelope dreams of teaching as she travels to Ashton Place. Instead, they have been found in the forest around the house, half-wild and completely uncivilised, and are unable to even dress themselves. Lord Ashton has a strange ‘finders keepers’ attitude toward the children, and wishes to take them into his household and educate them, much to the chagrin of his new young bride, who did not sign up to be a stepmother, and has to adjust to living with three children to whom she is not related while barely being out of her teens herself. As well as all this, the story begins to hint that there is a deeper tale to tell about the children’s origins, and their mysterious appearance in Lord Ashton’s forest.
All of this is great. I loved reading about how the children learn (impossibly fast, of course, but I suspect this will be explained as this series of books goes on), and about their amusing escapades. I enjoyed Miss Lumley’s reminiscences about her schooldays, and I found myself really enjoying the interplay between Lord and Lady Ashton, and the inferences one can draw about their marriage, and about Lord Ashton’s true motive for bringing in the children, just from the small hints dropped by the narrator.
However – and this is a big ‘however’ – not a lot happens in this book.
It is 267 pages long, in my edition, and it didn’t need to be. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy what I read, just that I was hoping for something interesting to happen. The ‘Mysterious Howling’ of the title – for the book’s full title is ‘The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling’ – is only barely mentioned right at the end, and a potentially really interesting set-piece, which could have been perfect for a thrilling chase or an exciting escape, was not used at all.
I did like the fact that we’re led to believe some of Lord Ashton’s chums don’t see the children as human beings at all, but instead as lesser creatures (in fact, this idea crops up several times, and it is interesting and important), but not enough was made of the tension that this situation evokes. We have a lot of detail about stuff that’s not really significant, and a lot of time is spent dwelling on Penelope’s love for poetry and classical literature, which she imparts to the children – and I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, just that it invites a reader to skip over it when it’s used in such quantities. I enjoyed the fact that Penelope uses the Longfellow poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ to entertain the children, because it has particular memories of childhood for me, and the scene near the end of the book when the children perform a dramatic re-enactment of this poem is delightful.
Also, I like a book where the narrator takes the reader aside once in a while (what reader doesn’t? Surely it’s one of the fastest ways to build a connection betwixt reader and words on the page, and has a long and venerable history dating right the way back to medieval literature. Do you see what I did there?), but this book does it a little too often. Several chapters in a row begin with the exact same motif, and I have to admit I was a little frustrated by that. It felt like the same thing was happening over and over again, both in terms of plot and structure, and that wasn’t enjoyable. The book is warm and funny, and several scenes involving the children getting their social mores wrong are undoubtedly amusing and enjoyable to read, but I felt it was a little like a one-trick pony after a while.
Jon Klassen did the illustrations for this book, and they are marvellous, as one would expect. Part of the reason I bought this book was its beautiful cover, drawn by the aforementioned Mr Klassen, and its gorgeous American binding – it fell open in my hand so naturally and wonderfully, and I can never resist that. However, mention of the book’s ‘American-ness’ brings me to another thing that irritated me about it – it’s supposed to be set in England, but everything about it smacks of America. I wasn’t able to believe for a second that we were dealing with an English girl living in an English house with English people. Perhaps it was the US spelling in my edition, or something, but I kept seeing Penelope and her charges in a large colonial house in New England, instead of ‘Old’ England. This wasn’t a problem – I just mentally transposed the characters – but I’m sure the author wouldn’t be too pleased with me.
I would recommend this book, because it is pleasant and charming and funny and a little bit different. I’ve never read a children’s book like it, at least. However, it is the first book in a series of four, and I don’t think I’ll be back for the other three, and that sort of says it all, I guess.