I find all sorts of interesting things when I’m checking in books returned to the library. More than once, I’ve left my desk to hunt down the first book in a series when a book catches my eye, or check one in and then check it out to myself right away. Working at the library has opened up so many new avenues of reading to me.
This book, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone, was a book I found while checking in a cart of books that I had retrieved from the book drop one morning. It was actually a later book in the series, and I had opened the front cover to search for the barcode (our books have barcodes conveniently placed on the back cover, but other libraries put them in a dozen other places, and sometimes I really have to hunt for them!). The inside was papered like an old drawing room wall with striped paper and ancestral portraits. I noticed the name BYRON under a cute little doodle of a regency man, and then GODWIN not far over. Seeing these names together struck that long dormant chord in me — the one that I had tuned in college where I studied the Romantic poets with a tunnel-visioned obsession. I just thought it was strange, that someone would use those names together in a middle-grade chapter book, so I flipped to the back to read the synopsis. You could have knocked me over with a feather! A middle grade novel about Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, two friends who formed a detective agency to give their restricted lives a little color; a series of novels about their exploits and adventures.
I was so, so hesitant to read on. That protective bit of me felt that no one could write novels for children about this group of people whose lives so transcended fiction in their reality, that it would be all wrong because there was very little in those lives that was suitable for children and thus much would have to be rearranged and invented or left out. That academic bit of me, which had been hibernating but was no less aggressive for it when confronted with such matters, adamantly refused to partake in such tom-foolery. I talked myself around to trying out the first novel, if, and only if, we had it at our library. To my surprise, we did. I checked The Case of the Missing Moonstone out and in two days I had finished it. Surprisingly (only to me, perhaps), despite the mixing of timelines and rewriting of history, this cute little novel did not ruin anything at all.
In fact, this novel handled its subjects and its endeavor much more maturely and professionally than most adult projects with similar goals. The story was prefaced by a note from the author (who is quite like Lemony Snicket in their ambiguity and caricature) that alerted the audience that though they were using characters based on real people, their story was entirely fictitious and quite impossible, and that if they were so interested, they could read about the real people at the end of the novel and do their own research, which, the author assures us, will reveal that the lives of the real people are far more interesting and fantastic than even their novel. This reassured me. I carried on.
The novel follows the exploits of an eleven-year-old Ada Lovelace, whose famous dead father, Lord Byron, she hardly knew at all, and the optimistic Mary Godwin as they come together for the first time under the tutelage of one Peebs (as Ada dubs him), who turns out to be one Percy Bysshe Shelley incognito. Ada is vastly intelligent and suffers from that familiar affliction of the brilliant, which is a complete inability to socialize with others or understand human behavior. She’s a scientist and has several projects underway, including a hot air balloon which she keeps tethered to the roof of her fancy gentry home in London. Fourteen-year-old Mary Godwin arrives to be tutored alongside Ada, and revels in ideas of romantic adventure. Ada discovers the newspaper, decides that there are criminals to be caught and that she can catch them, and recruits Mary to help her with the simple operation of such an enterprise. They take on the case of a sixteen year old girl, soon to be married, whose priceless treasure was stolen. Mary and Ada, growing as friends, crack the case with plenty of thrill and wit.
The novel’s greatest success is its cultivation of the friendship between the two girls. It’s touching and heart-warming. I absolutely adored each character, found them well-suited to each other, and enjoyed watching their characters develop as the novel progressed. The mystery itself was quite backseat for me, as the love and affection between the two grew. They came to understand one another, to respect one another, and to rely on one another in ways that were refreshing and inventive for middle-grade novels about regency era girls. It also pressed on the roles of women in regency society, and in turn on the roles of women in the modern age.
There was a lot that had to be suspended here: the timeline of Mary Shelley was adjusted to fit the timeline of Ada Lovelace, where in fact Mary was at least ten years older than Ada. I think the novel is set around 1826. By this time, Mary was well into her twenties, Percy Shelley was long dead, and Byron had only been dead a year, instead of the six or so that the novel claims. Likewise, there isn’t any evidence that Mary Shelley ever crossed paths with a young Charles Dickens, stowing away in a carriage. There is a lot of bending of timelines and twisting of history here, but if you suspend belief for a few hours, this novel is highly enjoyable, and certainly the stuff we’d like our young girls reading today. It was a pleasant reflection of everyone, and everyone was made real and personable in a way that stiff academic texts can’t reach. The inclusion of short biographies and a disclaimer was absolutely key here though. It’s fun to write fiction about interesting people, but we should always be able to point out the lines between the real and the imaginary.
This book satisfied part of my Bookriot challenge: read the first book in a new-to-you YA or children’s series. It was fun and an easy read, and I definitely see myself reading this to any future nieces/nephews/children that may come into my life.
Have you read any children’s books that deftly handled historic people/events that might be a bit more adult in nature?