One of my most cherished tenets is that it takes a long time to civilize a child, from the state of barbarity in which it is born, to the kind of adult who listens to elderly people tell stories about their youth and reads voluntarily and receives gifts they already own with every evidence of real pleasure. Sometimes I look at my own children and the detritus that inevitably surrounds this process of civilization, and I say to them in mild despair, “Look at you! Were you raised by wolves?”
In this book by Maryrose Wood, Miss Penelope Lumley, recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, gets to answer that question for herself when she becomes a governess to three children mysteriously found in Ashton Forest. These children can’t speak English, can’t read or write, don’t know how to put on clothes properly, and can’t… well, to be honest, they can’t refrain from chasing squirrels.
None of this daunts Miss Lumley, who is a Swanburne girl through and through. (None of this nonsense about falling in love with the dark, brooding lord of the manor for her.) She adores animals, and she begins with gentleness and treats for Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia (soon abbreviated by the children themselves to Alawoo, Beowooo, and Cassawoof.) Under her care, the children are soon reading, writing their own poetry (chiefly about the moon) and quivering with restraint around squirrels.
But why is Lord Frederick Ashton interested in these children in the first place? And why is he so attached to his battered Farmer’s Almanac? And what is the mysterious howling behind the wall in the attic? And why do all Lord Frederick’s friends seem to believe that the children are savage animals, incapable of speech? Penelope uncovers many mysteries during her brief time at Ashton Hall, including how to dance the schottische, but there are many more in store for her.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s funny and self-aware — it’s got hilarious segments in which Penelope reads aloud to the children from her favorite children’s books, the “Giddy-Yap, Rainbow!” series — and it plays with its governess tropes beautifully: the red-faced and selfish master, the spoiled mistress, the various servants, the children. But nothing is exactly what it seems at first glance. This was wonderful fun, and stars an intelligent, composed, and capable heroine. I’ll definitely be looking for the others in the series.