I have had a copy of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood on my shelf since 2010 when it was released. While the plot sounded interesting, I have hung on to it for over four years, hoping to get to it someday, because of the completely charming illustrations by a favorite of mine, Jon Klassen. Now, four years later and four books into the series (Klassen illustrated books 1 - 3 and the cover of book 4 with Eliza Wheeler taking over interior illustrations) I have finally read/listened to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, which is narrated beautifully by the brilliant Katherine Kellgren, an added incentive and bonus. Kellgren does a fantastic job on the many exclamations of "Ahwoooooooooooooo!" that come throughout the book, but I'm getting ahead of myself!
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, which has been compared to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events also owes a nod to Joan Aiken's classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Wood sets her series of books squarely in the time period of Jane Eyre, with fifteen year old orphan and graduate of a girl's school who applies for the position of governess at the grand manor, Ashton Place. The omniscient narrator is clearly of our time, occasionally inserting anachronistic commentary about roller coasters, cardiovascular fitness, lottery winners and the future writing of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells while humorously illustrating a point, calls to mind the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling is rich with parodic humor throughout, which, as with Snicket's books, will probably be lost on most readers but should not lessen the enjoyment.
The orphan, Miss Penelope Lumley who knows that her family must be out there somewhere, has made the most of her time at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females and goes on to make the most of her time at Ashton Place where she finds her three charges living in a barn, only recently having been captured in the nearby forest where they were seemingly raised by wolves. With Lord Frederick spending much of his time hunting and mysteriously disappearing once a month and the young, frivolous newlywed Lady Constance in charge, Penelope faces challenges far beyond taming the feral children. Wood layers the story of Penelope's arrival at Ashton Place and the challenges she faces in civilizing and educating the children (and also protecting them from the unsavory, exploitative attitude of the Lord and Lady's social circle) with deeper mysteries like the monthly disappearance of Lord Frederick, the curious wallpaper behind the peeling wallpaper on the landing of the deserted fourth floor and the howling noise that emanates from the wall and the intriguing fact that Penelope and her youngest ward have the same shade of auburn locks.
The Incorrigibles themselves add another layer of hilarity and poignancy to the confectionary delight that is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling. Named Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia by Lord Frederick (and referred to only as the Incorrigibles by Lady Constance), their socialization and education by Penelope, whom they call Lumawoo (they learn to speak haltingly and add "awoo" and "woof" to the end of most words, which adds to the fun) makes for more excitement and suspense, since she is never too sure when their wolfish upbringing will prevail, as when a squirrel gets into the ballroom during Lady Constance's grand Christmas soirée. It seems as though someone is trying to sabotage the children's introduction to society with the squirrel, who sets off a wild tear through the house that leaves a trail of destruction. When Penelope finally finds the three, she fears the worst. Instead, she discovers the squirrel cradled in Casseopeia's (who calls herself Cassawoof) lap, newly named Nutsawoo. There are other tense but wryly funny scenes like the children's "tragic encounter with taxidermy" in Lord Frederick's study and the misguided gift of toy guns for the boys who only months before had been cowering in the forest with the muzzle of Lord Frederick's hunting rifle inches from their faces.
The more tongue-in-cheek (and occasionally touching) moments that fill the pages of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling come when Penelope is reflecting upon her guilty pleasure, the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series of books featuring Edith-Anne, her horse Rainbow and Silky, the "untamed, unfriendly beast" who is coaxed to calm and saved from the slaughterhouse by the loving attention of the girl and her horse. Penelope calms the children (and sends Mrs. Clarke to tears) with her tale of Silky, and also recites Longfellow's The Wreck of the Hesperus to them for entertainment. Besides academics, in which Penelope is naturally well trained, much of the Incorrigible's initial education is more like animal training, which Penelope learned at the side of Dr. Westminster, the country veterinarian who lives in a gingerbread-style chicken coop on the grounds of the Swanburne Academy where he teaches the chickens to dance...
Wood seems to be having so much fun with her characters that it takes her four books to finally start getting down to the mysterious connection between Penelope, the Incorrigibles and Lord Frederick, but you don't even realize that because there is so much else going on in each book and the setting and characters are so enjoyable that spending time with them in any capacity is a treat! In Book 2, The Hidden Gallery, Penelope and the Incorrigibles find themselves transplanted to London while the Manor is being repaired, a strange guidebook and possible pirates keeping the governess and her charges busy. In Book 3, The Unseen Guest, an ostrich is found running through the forest on the grounds of Ashton Place, we meet the Dowager Lady Ashton, a pack of very intelligent wolves is encountered and a séance is held in the hopes of contacting the Dowager's first husband who was lost in medicinal tar pits. Book 4, The Interrupted Tale, is mostly devoted to Penelope's return to Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females where the curious Judge Quinzy has taken over and changed the name to Quinzy's School for Miserable Girls while in search of a hidden diary that might reveal why the Ashton men have been howling at the full moon for generations...
Surprisingly, this book trailer captures the tone and playfulness of the series wonderfully and is worth a few moments of your time:
The rest of the series!
More great art from the series!
Eliza Wheeler's illustrations for Book 4, The Interrupted Tale
Source: Purchased Audio Book and Review Copy