“Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him.” So begins The Young Visiters; or, Mr Salteenas Plan, a comic novel about a social climber who loses the woman he loves. It was written in 1890, when its author, Daisy Ashford, was nine.
There are two obvious ways for a child’s novel to be funny. First: naively, by reminding the adult reader of what a child does not know. Every 42-year-old knows he isn’t elderly—while remaining aware, uncomfortably, that to the nine-year-old still inside him, he catastrophically is.
“He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue,” runs Ashford’s next sentence. Here is the second way for a child’s novel to be funny: sharply, by revealing how much a child does know, after all. A nine-year-old may not be able to put into words everything that is involved when a 42-year-old man lives with a 17-year-old girl who isn’t related to him. But in the matter of Mr Salteena and Ethel Monticue’s life together, Ashford knows even if she can’t say—which, for a novelist’s purposes, may be the most congenial way of knowing.
What makes The Young Visiters exceptional, rather than merely entertaining, is that in addition to naiveté and cunning, Ashford has a third way of being funny, all her own. It’s a fortified strain of free indirect discourse, the literary technique of allowing a narrator’s voice to dip into and out of the consciousnesses of a novel’s characters. Ashford’s lack of quotation marks removes a usual barrier between consciousnesses, and her phonetic spellings establish further links between them. For example, when Ashford writes, of Ethel, that “she had a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves,” the sharing is audible in the spelling rarther. The reader can’t tell if the qualification is Ashford’s or Ethel’s, but it isn’t, in any case, the way the word is ordinarily written. Maybe it’s a qualification that Mr Salteena has made to his perception of Ethel’s sleeve length? The exact attribution matters much less than the flavor the word gives of a shared way of seeing the world, in which people praise homes as “sumpshous,” deliver their more pointed compliments in “rarther a socierty tone,” or describe an impressive mantelpiece as “hung with the painting of a lady in a low neck looking quite the thing.”
A silly world, in other words—a world where everyone is either preening themselves on their status or scheming to acquire more of it; a world where no one seems to be interested enough in other people, in and for themselves, to be capable of receiving any serious harm at their hands. The satire is accordingly ruthless. “One grows weary of Court Life,” sighs the Prince of Wales during a levee he is holding in Buckingham Palace, at which the prince learns that Mr Salteena longs for nothing so much as the chance to “gallopp beside the royal baroushe.”
The action of the novel is launched when a friend invites Mr Salteena to visit his country house. The invitation arrives accompanied by the gift of a top hat, and maybe, in late Victorian England, gentlemen were not in fact in the habit of sending top hats when they sent invitations, but who cares, because Mr Salteena’s reaction to the top hat is realism of a higher order:
Then Mr S. opened the box and there lay the most splendid top hat of a lovly rich tone rarther like grapes with a ribbon round compleat.
Well said Mr Salteena peevishly I dont know if I shall like it the bow of the ribbon is too flighty for my age.
Dialogue cannot be made more revelatory of character. “I am not quite a gentleman,” Mr Salteena writes, in accepting the invitation, “but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow.” Ashford makes no bones about it: in the world he inhabits, Mr Salteena is doomed and, what’s more, deserves his fate. But, with the cruelty of a master, Ashford is just as clear-eyed about the pathos of his ridiculous humanity.
Skepticism about marital bliss came naturally to Ashford. Her maternal grandparents were famously unhappy with each other. It was family lore that one day, when her grandmother came to breakfast in a low-cut gown, her grandfather commented, “I see, my dear, that you have appeared in a state of semi-nudity which, during the course of the day will, no doubt, become total.” He died young and unregretted.
The daughter of this ill-sorted union, Daisy’s mother, became engaged to a peer at age 21 and then eloped with a cornet, who took her to Ireland, went bankrupt several times over, gave her two daughters and three sons, and died of tuberculosis. Her plight loosened a stipend of a thousand pounds a year from her cranky father’s estate, and once she returned to England, at age 38, her parish priest set her up with a shy, musical forty-four-year-old named Willie Ashford. The man had been living with his mother for 16 years, in the house where Charles Dickens had written Nicholas Nickleby, and though he had once worked in the War Office, he had resigned a decade earlier, for reasons never explained, and was short on funds. On the day of their wedding, the youngish widow wrote in her diary, “Willie looked as tho’ he were on to a good thing, as no doubt he was.” On their honeymoon they had to pawn his gold watch.
The happy couple quickly added three daughters to the five children from the widow’s first marriage. The mother read Dickens aloud to the children, “skipping the dull passages,” Ashford’s niece reports. Daisy was the eldest of the new daughters and showed an early talent for storytelling. At age four, she dictated the fictional biography of a Jesuit priest who was a family friend. When she and her two sisters played dolls, they did so with a Dickensian appreciation of social hierarchy; the sisters’ dolls were understood to be aristocrats and Daisy’s to be “mere,” the family word for working-class.
The brilliance of “The Young Visiters” was a piece of unrepeatable, inexplicable luck, as any successful novel written by a child has to be.
The Young Visiters, which Daisy wrote in her own hand, was her third work of fiction and was followed by three more, written at the ages of 11, 12, and 14. No one thought of publishing them at the time, but her mother salted them away, and in 1917, after her mother’s death, Ashford found them again in a box of mementos. She was by then 35 and, still single, running a canteen in Dover as her contribution to the war effort. She showed The Young Visiters to her sisters, who laughed over it, and then loaned it for amusement’s sake to a literary friend who had come down with the flu. The friend, once recovered, read a chapter aloud after dinner one night while on a country-house visit. It so happened that an editor from Chatto & Windus was also a guest; he bought the rights and recruited J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, to write an introduction.
The Young Visiters went on to sell about half a million copies over the course of the 20th century. “I can never feel all the nice things that have been said about ‘The Young Visiters’ are really due to me at all, but to a Daisy Ashford of so long ago that she seems another person,” Ashford wrote in 1920.
She burned the only manuscript she is known to have written as an adult. The brilliance of The Young Visiters was a piece of unrepeatable, inexplicable luck, as any successful novel written by a child has to be—and as most successful novels written by adults probably are as well. The luck in this case had to do with how well the child’s frankness described adult vulnerabilities, such as the essentially childish weakness of poking at a lover’s vanity when in danger of losing her.
“You will look very silly,” Ashford imagines Mr Salteena telling Ethel, as Ethel considers putting on rouge for a trip that the two are planning.
Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superier run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.
Well said the owner of the house she has a most idiotick run.
About the sort of bad habits that are never outgrown, a child already knows everything there is to know.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.