This is the whole purpose of museums, of course. One does not merely go to collect facts and souvenirs and picture postcards, but to enlarge one’s notion of all that has been, and all that is, and all that might be. In this way we begin to understand what part each of us was born to play in the marvelous tale of existence. Put another way: We enter museums to look at the exhibits, but when we come out, it is ourselves we see more clearly. (The Unmapped Sea, p.199-200)
My friend V introduced me, kindly, to the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, a series of books for young readers by Maryrose Wood. I’m currently half-way through book 5, The Unmapped Sea. And I am still mystified by what dark (or not so dark) secret explains the apparent abandonment (by her parents) of young Penelope Lumley, her ties to school founder Agatha Swanburn, and of course the origin of the wolf-children. I say this and mean it as a compliment. I’m not a patient reader when it comes to fiction and when a story stretches over several books.
I won’t reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who might still be wanting to read these books with / to someone or for their own enjoyment and be surprised and amused and puzzled. The setting is a sort of vagely-defined Victorian England, after the invention of daguerrotypes, but definitely well before air planes, walkmen and the Internet (yes, it’s *that* vaguely defined). Queen Victoria is mentioned a few times, and makes a cameo appearance on postage stamps (as her younger self), but in all, the central characters are less historically familiar.
There’s Penelope Lumley, a 15 year-old governess (later 16) who loves ferns and ponies, and whose very first assignment as such is to civilize the ‘Incorrigibles,’ as Lord Frederic Aston calls his three young wards. Lord Ashton, though not very old (as far as we can tell), is extremely near-sighted and an odd fellow with a large collection of taxidermied hunting trophies. He’s recently married Lady Caroline Ashton, who must be barely older than Penelope herself, and whose greatest concern is her own immediate happiness.
The Incorrigibles are Alexander, Beowolf, and Cassiopeia, three young children Lord Ashton brought back from a hunting trip. Since he found them on his own land, he argues that they are his property, because, “Finders, keepers, what.” Another important character is Simon Harley-Dickinson, who has a knack for navigation and writes for the theater.
The central questions that drive the story (and that I can reveal without spoilers) are these:
- How and why did the children end up living in the forest, raised by wolves?
- Where did Penelope Lumley’s parents disappear to?
- and what is the deal with auburn hair?
I enjoyed the first book, and the second, and can’t say I regret reading the other ones — they were all entertaining. However, there is a sort of dip in how drawn in I feel. Maybe the first two books are just a hard act to follow? I caught myself thinking, more than once, in books 3 and 4, ‘When did the Incorrigibles become so spoiled?’ or, rather, ‘Who are these children, and what did you do to the Incorrigibles?’ A few times the children seem out of character. I’d hazard a guess that maybe Wood hurried through some of the chapters, which is too bad.
Still, the story keeps unfolding slowly and with interesting excursions, involving pirates, parrots, ominous paintings, fortune-tellers, and even an ostrich. We get to visit Penelope’s alma mater, the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. Mysterious goings-on are witnessed, an unreadable book is nearly read, and Penelope receives one more, albeit unofficial, student.
Half-way through Book 5 I am a bit discouraged by the emergence of a potential romance sub-plot. Yes, one of the Incorrigibles falls head over heels in love. And Penelope turns heads. And a tutor does. And a ‘magical mollusk’ makes an appearance. Or not.
Because by now there are several loose ends that need tying up (or unraveling / untangling if you will), I’m guessing there will be at least 2 more books after volume 5. We shall see. Over all, this series would make fun reading material for many younger readers (and older ones, too). I find the narrator’s tone and personality quite charming and the plot interesting, even if it is not entirely consistent in how much it draws the reader in.
If you liked Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, you might enjoy this, and vice versa.