Hear and attend and listen, oh my Best Belov– whoops! Sorry, folks, just been reading lots of Just So Stories with the Changeling! (We’ll talk about them another day– I’d forgotten both how wonderful they are, and how much of Kipling’s racism permeates even these pretty innocent stories.)
But today we’re going to talk (relatively briefly) about another set of books: do you remember my first Saturdays post? In it I mention Maryrose Wood’s series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place? We began, way back then, with The Mysterious Howling, in which we’re introduced to the Incorrigibles, their governess (Penelope Lumley), and their home at Ashton Place. I noted then that they both played with the conventions of the Gothic and of Victoriana, but without taking themselves seriously. There was, for example, never any doubt of a happy ending.
I admit freely that I had concerns about this final volume. I was worried that the mysteries had mounted up so high that the grand finale would be completely impossible to pull off without losing the lighthearted tone of the first five books: would it get sad and scary and– horror of horrors!– serious? In hindsight, I have no idea why I worried. Maryrose Wood had kept a consistent tone running through five novels even while the stakes got higher and higher; why would her skillful lightheartedness suddenly fall apart in the last book?
I won’t spoil the read for you by detailing every example of her beautiful balancing act between humour and an intense plot, but here are a few points to watch out for: Penelope’s harrowing escape from Plinkst, Russia (don’t feel stupid if you’ve never heard of Plinkst– it’s delightfully fictional, thank God); a ride against time in a balloon with an old friend; and a final, brilliantly dramatic seance in which– well, I can’t tell you that, can I?
But what you really want to know, I’m sure, is this: Now that I’ve finished the series, what do I think of it as a whole? And should you, new to the series, start it now that you can finish it? Is it worth reading the whole shebang?
My thoughts on the series as a whole are these: As I said above, it’s beautifully balanced between maintaining an intense plot while at the same time never falling into grim, gritty, noir drama. You will never stop smiling as you read. You will never feel worried that the next page will plunge you into melancholy.
But I worry that you think this means that the books are empty, frivolous tales; they aren’t. You consistently think, as you read, about questions of good parenting, loyalty, friendship, child-rearing, and, generally, good behaviour. You think about what it takes to be a good person, and why it is that we so love Penelope and the Incorrigibles. They just make you laugh as you think.
The only situation the series avoids is testing your thoughts by presenting the alternative: there is no use of horror to make us appreciate the gentleness on the other side. Drama, yes. Theatrics, definitely. Just no horror or darkness.
In point of fact, the closest adult equivalent might be P. G. Wodehouse: there’s the same sense of eyes twinkling behind the text, just waiting for the next page to bring you to laughter, while at the same time holding you in suspense as you await the next plot twist. The difference is that whereas P. G. Wodehouse generally hangs out with the wealthy and (affectionately) teases their excesses, Maryrose Woods, despite the wealth of the Ashtons, focuses her affections on the hard-working Penelope and her precariously situated students, the Incorrigibles. We are delighted with their ingenuity and how they maintain life and security as the world teeters around them.
So, if you’re looking for ease from these tempestuous times, I can strongly recommend these books. They’re wholesome, heartening, and funny. They’ll give you respite from harsh reality, but never, ever lose track of what’s really important in life: love and respect for one another.
And let me tell you this, too: if your reading time is limited, these are fantastic, absolutely brilliant. You can read each of these in a few hours, and while there’s a certain amount of suspense, you really can space them out without biting your nails to find out “what happens next?” Altogether, I cannot think of better summer reading. So go forth and read!