Miss Penelope Lumley, fifteen-year-old graduate of the Swanburne School for Poor Bright Females, is taking the train to an interview for her first position as governess. The advertisement reads “Knowledge of French, Latin, Etiquette, Drawing and Music will be required–Experience with Animals Strongly Preferred”. Ideal, no? Head filled with dreams of giving Latin and geography lessons to adorable well-behaved little children, she arrives at the manor house only to realize, even with the interview, that things might not go as she had imagined. On the surface, with its lush gardens and well-appointed halls, Ashton Place seems a well-run place, though readers of Victorian literature will note the creepy coachman!–but the new-married young mistress seems curiously doll-like and there’s a mysterious howling from the barn.
When our intrepid protagonist goes out to investigate this mysterious noise, she finds not animals but three wild children, wrapped only in a old dirty horse blanket…and it transpires that these are the three children for whom she is going to serve as governess. The three children have been named Alexander, Beowulf and Casseopeia because those seemed suitably high sounding names starting with the first three letters of the alphabet, and they were found running wild in the woods of the Ashton Estate. The husband/lord took them in to raise, but his new (and childish herself) wife will have nothing to do with them.
Nothing less than determined, Penelope tosses out her original lesson plans and starts with the more necessary training in bathing, dressing, eating with cutlery, and desensitizing to squirrels. The children proceed reasonably well, though they tend to howl and yip when they speak–they call their governess ‘Lumawoo’–but a further challenge is thrown her way when Lady Ashton decides that the children must appear at her Christmas party, some three weeks hence.
There are a few setbacks, not least when the children stumble across Lord Ashton’s smoking room, where he’s hung all the mounted heads of animals he’s killed, including a wolf, or the hordes of squirrels which persist in teasing the children. On the whole, though, the children appear the best behaved at the Christmas party…and as a teaser, I’ll leave it there.
There are a few questions left unanswered by the end of this book, the first of a series: how did the children come to live on the estate? What is the creepy coachman up to? We’re currently up to three books, and the most recently published, The Unseen Guest, is every much as cliffhangery as the previous two, though we are getting scraps of backstory: Fredrick Ashton falls Mysteriously Ill every full moon, “Lumawoo’s” hair proves to be of a shade similar to that of the Incorrigibles when she stops using the hair treatment insisted on by the School for Poor Bright Females, and there’s a mysterious Judge Quixley who may or may not be the husband, until that point presumed dead, of the ‘Widow Ashton’ (Fredrick’s mother). And so on.
This isn’t a terribly sophisticated book from an adult standpoint–there’s an Earl of Maytag and a Baroness Hoover–but then that’s probably right up most kids’ alley. Well, kids who cut their literary teeth on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, anyway. And at that, it’s cleaner than, say, the Captain Underpants series. While there are a few plot holes–the kids become civilized at a phenomenal rate for feral children–many of these may be answered in subsequent books. We know nothing of the children, after all. It is a fun book, and left me wanting to find the subsequent books.