Maryrose Wood is the author of the The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, a series that revolves around three young children who were actually raised by wolves, and the plucky young governess charged with educating them. Hilarity ensues.
Byrt: Why do you think we Americans are so fascinated by the iconic British governess? (Should we blame Julie Andrews?)
MW: I scarcely need to point out that Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way. Which means she must be blameless in this matter and all others!
The appeal of the iconic British governess is complicated. I think the fascination stems from the perspective of the child in all of us who craves this idealized, strict but loving, crisp and amusing and superbly competent caretaker—more mysterious than one’s parents in a way, yet more accessible, too. It answers the longing for that perfect parent that one never truly outgrows.
From a historical perspective, of course, the British governess was something else altogether. Being a governess was virtually the only type of employment available to respectable women who didn’t have husbands, fathers, or brothers to support them, either directly or through an inheritance. Women often became governesses because they had no other choice—the next rung down on the social scale was seamstress or household servant, and below that, prostitution.
At age 15, Miss Penelope Lumley has a far superior education than her wealthy mistress, Lady Constance Ashton, but she lacks money and family connections and therefore must work to support herself. The British governess of this era occupied a strange, in-between status: she was an employee but not quite a servant, often more educated than her employers but far, far down the social ladder, able to be fired on a whim. I find this precariousness both compelling and weirdly familiar. I think it has something in common with the life of the creative artist in this country!
MW: Jane Eyre is absolutely my favorite governess story. I like Mary Poppins a great deal too, but it always troubled me that she was not more affectionate. I found it incredibly sad when she left the children at the end of the film version. I always thought it would be better if she stayed and the parents left!
Byrt: I just about fell out of my chair laughing when the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series first made its appearance – was there any particular inspiration for the series? Did you read sappy horse books as a kid? (Oh did I ever…)
MW: I loved sappy horse books! I got into them at the usual age many girls do – ten or eleven, I think?— and it never, ever dawned on me that there was anything odd about a nerdy suburban kid who had not once in her life been near an actual horse dreaming of thoroughbreds and curry combs. I adored Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, and My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara. The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley was probably my most serious horse book addiction, largely because there were so many books in the series.
Byrt: Do you have a favorite Agatha Swanburne quote? And do you ever find yourself spouting Swanburne-isms at odd moments? How do you come up with them?
MW: I do love catchy sayings—what’s more fun than leafing through a book of quotations? I haven’t yet found myself channeling Agatha Swanburne except when writing, but I suppose it could happen. Then I could get a job writing fortune cookies.
From The Hidden Gallery, I am partial to this one: “Few would waste a perfectly good sandwich; why waste a perfectly good mind?’
And also: “When things are looking up, there’s no point in looking elsewhere.”
There’s no magic formula for coming up with Swanburnisms; it’s the usual mix of one part inspiration and ten parts perspiration. They tend to rise organically from the plot. I’ll be writing merrily along and all of a sudden it seems like a perfect opportunity for an Agatha Swanburne quote. I’ll write whatever bit of advice Penelope needs at the moment, and then tweak it and revise it a hundred times until it’s Swanburne-worthy. Many are drafted, but few are chosen!
MW: The connection never occurred to me!
Byrt: When it comes to writing the narration for this series, what kind of editorial notes do you get? (More silly? Less silly?) And do you ever crack yourself up while you’re writing it?
MW: I crack myself up constantly, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. If I don’t think a scene is funny I can’t really expect anyone else to, right?
I am pleased to report that I have not yet been told to make the books less silly. To me, a big part of the fun of the series is the movement between high and low registers: for example, mixing the relatively formal narrative voice of classic British children’s fiction with the shameless slapstick of three children who bark and howl and chase after squirrels.
Byrt: As someone from a theatre background, did you ever experience a live audience catastrophe on a par with the scene in The Hidden Gallery?
MW: It does not involve thespian pirates or howling parrots, but it’s all true: I was in my early twenties and still baby-faced enough to play teenagers, at least on stage. In this instance I was in a musical playing the role of a very geeky 13 year old girl. I’d been outfitted with a frizzy black wig, a pair of baggy overalls, glasses and a custom-made retainer that made it look as if I had a mouthful of braces (which I did, as a kid, but by then they were gone).
One night, during my big number, alone on stage in a spotlight, I hit the climactic note and held it—and the retainer just FLEW out of my mouth, sailed out over the stage and landed someplace in the audience. I finished the song and went backstage in a panic, whispering frantically to the stage manager, “I think my retainer landed in the third row!” Well, what could we do? The show must go on! And it did.
They did eventually find it, after the show was over and the audience had cleared out. Since retainers are expensive, we washed it off and I wore it for the rest of the run. Say it with me: ewwwwww!
Byrt: Two books in, and you’ve hinted quite a bit at the mystery surrounding the origins of the Incorrigibles and Penelope, but you’ve doled out clues very sparingly – have you given us enough pieces to figure out the puzzle on our own? Or is there still too much to come, such that we can’t yet make an educated guess?
MW: There are a lot of clues lying around, but there’s a lot of puzzle, too, and some of it hasn’t yet been revealed. I hope that readers have fun figuring out the mysteries along with Penelope and the Incorrigibles, but I wouldn’t want the answers to become obvious too far before the end of the series. The plot will thicken and thicken again, I promise you!
Byrt: Would you maybe be willing to rule out one of the following possibilities? 1) The Incorrigibles are the secret descendants of royalty! 2) The author of the Giddy-Yap Rainbow! series is actually Penelope’s father, writing under a clever female pseudonym! 3) Penelope is a descendant of Agatha Swanburne herself!
MW: I absolutely can rule out at least one of those, but I’m not telling you which one! That would spoil the fun. ; )
Byrt: And lastly, can you tease a little bit about what’s coming up next for the Incorrigibles? Do you have a plan for how many books the series will be? And will Penelope ever see Simon again?
MW: Book 3 of the series is called The Unseen Guest. In it, Lord Fredrick Ashton’s mother pays an unexpected visit, and secrets will tumble out of the family tree quicker than you can say “mysterawoo.” As Agatha Swanburne once said, “Sunny days are all very well, but sometimes it take a full moon to shed light on the subject.”
I am pleased to say there will be six books in the series. And, yes: we have not seen the last of Simon Harley-Dickinson, that perfectly nice young man with the gleam of genius in his eye!
Thanks again to Maryrose Wood for stopping by the Book Yurt!
For more on all things Maryrose, you can find her website here.
(And you can find our review of The Mysterious Howling here.)