Fifteen-year-old Penelope Lumley has just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. The principal of the school suggested she apply for a job of governess at Ashton Place, the country seat of the exceedingly wealthy Lord Ashton and his new young wife, the Lady Constance.
Naturally Penelope is very nervous, and almost has a fit of panic over the possibility of bandits attacking the train, but she's a Swanburne girl, so she stiffens her resolve, arriving unmolested to the unsettling discovery that Lady Constance appears to be as nervous about this interview as Penelope is. What transcends is that Penelope is hired at very advantageous terms, through no effort of her own, and without even meeting the children.
Their first meeting is memorable. The three children, named Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia, after the first three letters of the alphabet, are completely wild, in the most literal sense. Barely wearing clothes, they are cavorting in the barn barking and howling. Penelope isn't fazed at all, and immediately, as any Swanburne girl would, takes command of the situation at once. She quite literally has these three waifs eating out of her hand in short order. She dedicates herself to their civilization first, with their classical education a very close second, and the progress she makes is remarkable. the children turn out to be sweet, very intelligent, eager to please, and completely entrancing to the reader.
I had the audio book of this from the library, and although this robbed me of the illustrations which evidently appear in the print version, I think I got the better deal, because Katherine Kellgren's narration is as riveting as the text itself. She embraces Maryrose Wood's creation with complete abandon, and totally owns the characters. I was in love with this before the first five minutes was up. I returned to the library the very next day to pick up the other three volumes before someone else could snatch them and prevent me reading them. I blitzed the first two books with the velocity of Beowulf chasing squirrels. Unfortunately, after that, the honeymoon was over! This series went down hill rather quickly after volume 2.
On the topic of these three children, who become known as the incorrigibles, the story Penelope is given is that Lord Ashton found them while he was out hunting one day. Under his motto, "Finders, Keepers!", he took them in, yet he doesn't appear to be someone who is very charitable. Neither is his wife, who appears to detest the children It becomes apparent - although nowhere near as quickly as it should - to Penelope, that something not so obvious is going on here.
Why is Lord Ashton so addicted to his almanac? What is the mysterious howling (it isn't the kids!) Why are the children so obsessed with chasing squirrels? Will they ever master Latin declensions and Greek History? And does someone have an agenda of exposing the children purposefully to experiences which seem designed to trigger their wildest instincts? Penelope is rather slow, I'm sorry to say, to catch on.
The children appear to pick up English remarkably quickly, which suggests that they were not really raised by wolves. Either that or the wolves had a fair command of the British empire's master language, yet despite their remarkable facility, the two boys and the young girl aren't quite able to shed their barks, yips, and howls quite as quickly as they pick up the rudiments of a refined education. The pressure to succeed only heightens when Penelope learns that she must present her charges at the annual Christmas ball, which by then is only one month away. The ball turns out to be one the attendees will never forget once a squirrel is introduced into the proceedings. The kids go rapidly from science curious to sciurus....
I was completely captivated by this book, but it strikes me that it may be written on a level slightly too high for the youngest of the recommended reading age. That doesn't mean it won't work for them, because there is lots going on. It is written at a level that will entertain both young and mature, so perhaps the best solution would be to listen to the audio book or for a parent/guardian/older sibling to read it to younger readers.
I'm not convinced that this is a bedtime book however - the children may well want to emulate some of the incorrigible's behavior, and I say let 'em have at it, what?! I recommend this as a very worthy read with laugh-out-loud moments and an engrossing story - but keep in mind that it's rather episodic in style, so while each volume is self-contained after a fashion, there is an over-arching story that will, likely as not, remain unresolved until the final volume is released in 2016. Some readers may wish to wait until then before embarking on this charming voyage of enlightenment.
Having positively reviewed Maryrose Wood's The Poison diaries back in April 2015, it was nice to read something else by this same author. I recommend this audio book, and wish I could say the same for the whole series.