On 30 May 1919, the Athenaeum published a review of a new novel. The reviewer was Katherine Mansfield; the novelist was a 39-year-old secretary called Daisy Ashford. The novel was The Young Visiters, summarized by Mansfield thus:
‘This is the story of Mr Salteena’s plan to become a real gentleman . . . of his unrequited love for the fair and flighty Ethel Monticue, of Bernard Clark’s dashing and successful wooing of Ethel, together with some very rich, costly pictures of High Socierty, a levie at Buckingham Palace, a description of the Compartments at the Crystale Palace occupied by Earls and Dukes, and a very surprising account of the goings on at the Gaierty Hotel.’
As Ashford aficionados will know, this quotation is not symptomatic of eccentric proofreading. The Young Visiters was published in 1919 but written in 1890, when its author was 9. It appeared with a Preface by J. M. Barrie and with the manuscript’s many spelling mistakes faithfully reproduced. Within two years it had sold 230,000 copies, given rise to a stage play, and caused a rumpus in literary London. It has never been out of print since. This is an exceptional record for a slight work. Why was The Young Visiters so popular and why does it endure?
Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters over a twelve-day period, in pencil, in a tuppenny red-covered exercise book. It was not her first work, but it was the first she wrote rather than dictated to her parents, and it was one of her most sustained pieces of writing. As the Athenaeum review indicates, it tells the story of Mr Salteena and Ethel Monticue, whose lives are changed forever when they are invited to visit Lord Bernard Clark, ‘a tall man of 29 . . . rather bent in the middle with very nice long legs fairish hair and blue eyes’. Bernard is a recluse who lives alone at his family seat of Rickamere Hall, with only several footmen and his impossibly grand butler Minnit in attendance. He has ‘somber tastes’ and is ‘rather pious’ but neither taste nor piety prevent him from falling for the fascinating Ethel, who snares potential suitors with a devastating combination of rouge, brightly coloured dresses and a ‘very superier run’.
A battle ensues between Bernard and Mr Salteena, who is also in love with Ethel. In order to gain the upper hand Mr Salteena takes himself off to the Crystal Palace, home of several earls and dukes, which houses a finishing school for aspiring gentlemen in its ‘Lower Range’. Despite being ‘not quite the right side of the blanket’ Mr Salteena throws himself into the task of self-improvement, ably assisted by Bernard’s friend the Earl of Clincham.
It’s not really giving too much away, however, to reveal that Mr Salteena’s efforts are in vain. Bernard seizes the opportunity offered by his rival’s absence to whisk Ethel up to town for a week’s gaierty, and love flourishes. Mr Salteena does propose but is refused and told, kindly but firmly, to ‘be a man’. Having dispensed with one suitor, Ethel flits off to Windsor with Bernard, although not before providing my favourite line in the novel: ‘Oh Hurrah shouted Ethel I shall soon be ready as I had my bath last night so wont wash very much now.’
It is in Windsor that The Young Visiters reaches its romantic climax, in a proposal so sublime I quote it in its entirety here:
Bernard placed one arm tightly round her. When will you marry me Ethel he uttered you must be my wife it has come to that I love you so intensely that if you say no I shall perforce dash my body to the brink of yon muddy river he panted wildly.
Oh dont do that implored Ethel breathing rarther hard.
Then say you love me he cried.
Oh Bernard she sighed fervently I certainly love you madly you are to me like a Heathen god she cried looking at his manly form and handsome flashing face I will indeed marry you.
How soon gasped Bernard gazing at her intensly.
As soon as possible said Ethel gently closing her eyes.
My Darling whispered Bernard and he seized her in his arms we will be marrid next week.
Oh Bernard muttered Ethel this is so sudden.
No no cried Bernard and taking the bull by both horns he kissed her violently on her dainty face. My bride to be he muttered several times.
Ethel trembled with joy as she heard the mistick words.
Oh Bernard she said little did I ever dream of such as this and she suddenly fainted into his out stretched arms.
Oh I say gasped Bernard and laying the dainty burden on the grass he dashed to the waters edge and got a cup full of the fragrant river to pour on his true loves pallid brow.
After this stirring event Bernard and Ethel get married in Westminster Abbey and live happily ever after, although poor Mr Salteena weeps copiously throughout their wedding. Ashford marries him off to a red-faced serving-maid from Buckingham Palace and gives him ten children (Bernard and Ethel have seven, one of whom makes his appearance on their honeymoon), before closing the door on her world with a suitably firm final flourish: ‘So now my readers we will say farewell to the characters in this book. The End. by Daisy Ashford.’
Daisy Ashford was no ordinary child scribe. The Young Visiters is funny, moving, acutely observed and brilliantly plotted, shifting between the parallel stories of Mr Salteena’s education and Bernard and Ethel’s romance with breathtaking style and rapidity. Some of its humour is entirely deliberate: Ashford has a keen eye for the ridiculous, deployed to devastating effect as she describes Mr Salteena ‘getting rather flustered with his forks’, and in her account of the one-upmanship engaged in by Mr Salteena and Ethel when they meet again in London. Some of it is inadvertent, as is evident in the description of Mr Salteena sitting down to ‘eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him’. Much of it comes, however, when Ashford’s description of a grown-up world mingles with nursery lore. Mr Salteena ‘gets down’ from his breakfast and forswears an egg before travelling ‘in case he should be sick on the jorney’. The altar boys at Ethel and Bernard’s wedding are very ‘clean’, as are the underclothes Bernard dons to go away in. And the diplomats gathered at Buckingham Palace eat ices while they talk about affairs of state.
At such moments, it’s easy to say whence The Young Visiters derives its inspiration. At others, it’s much trickier, although Ashford’s background does offer some clues. She was the eldest daughter of William and Emma Ashford, well-to-do Catholics who encouraged both Ashford and her younger sisters to write. Central to the genesis of The Young Visiters, however, was the fact that Emma Ashford had a complicated past. As a young woman she eloped with an army officer with whom she had two daughters and three sons. She converted to Catholicism after her first husband’s death and was subsequently introduced to William Ashford by the local priest. Daisy grew up, therefore, in a household less conventional than those of her peers. Her adult step-sisters were at home, squabbling over beaux and rouge, and her step-brothers and their friends provided an appreciative audience for her literary efforts. It seems likely that the discovery that she could render such elegantly Bernard Clarkish young men helpless with laughter acted as a powerful stimulant to her writing, although she did later recall being very put out when they roared through readings of her tragedies.
By the time Daisy and her younger sisters were born both parents had reached middle age, and both had been buffeted by fortune. Perhaps as a result, they were relaxed, unorthodox parents, who were actively involved in the upbringing and education of their daughters. Notably, they allowed all their children free run of the library, and Katherine Mansfield conjectured that Bernard and Ethel’s story owed something to the popular novels of Maria Ramé, more commonly known as Ouida. Daisy’s daughter, however, wrote that her mother was more influenced by things she saw than things she read, a view supported by the fact that she grew up in a house full of young men and women. Mansfield agreed that The Young Visiters was a triumph of perception as well as a work of remarkable literary synthesis. ‘Signs are not wanting’, she observed in her review, ‘that she enjoyed exceptional opportunities for looking through keyholes, peeping through half-open doors, gazing over the banisters at the group in the hall below, and sitting, squeezed and silent, between the grown-ups when they took the air in the barouche.’
This partial perspective is one of the things that make the novel endure, for its magic derives not just from its humour but from the mirror it holds up to adult behaviour. In Ashford’s world rouge and velvit dresses and silver paper stars are weapons in a grown-up battle to become ‘less mere’ – a battle as universal as it is fruitless. From her position peering through the banisters Ashford recognizes the inherent hilarity of much grown-up aspiration, but she is always magnanimous towards those she mocks and never writes about her characters with anything other than affection. The Young Visiters is ultimately about the pursuit of happiness, and in the end Ashford is unable to leave even Mr Salteena unhappy.
The Young Visiters was published when Ashford discovered the manuscript after the death of her mother and sent it to a friend, who was recuperating from a bad bout of flu and was in need of cheering up. Her friend sent it in turn to Frank Swinnerton, an editor at Chatto & Windus. Swinnerton was so entranced he decided to publish it, and he prevailed upon J. M. Barrie to provide a preface. Barrie thought the novel a ‘scrumptious affair . . . fit to make the right people jump for joy’, but his involvement landed him in trouble. Several early readers refused to believe it was the work of a child and accused Barrie of perpetrating an elaborate hoax. Debate on the subject raged in newspaper correspondence columns. ‘We have known many children as intimately as it is ever possible to know them at all, and some of them have been horrid,’ ran one letter. ‘But we have never known a child horrid enough to write The Young Visiters. As the playful fantasy of an elder, it is charming. As the work of a child, it would be repulsive and contrary to all we have learned to like and admire in our young friends. Children are never facetious; they do not understand snobbery.’
Chatto & Windus responded by producing the manuscript of The Young Visiters and by publishing further juvenile works by both Ashford and her sister, which gave the novel a context and put its authorship beyond doubt. Barrie was left feeling rather sore about having his word doubted, and both he and Ashford had to deal with a deluge of manuscripts that flowed in from parents determined that their offspring should be the next Daisy. Ashford, meanwhile, quite deliberately faded from view. She married, had four children, and never attempted to publish more than the occasional article again. During the war she wrote an autobiography but she later burnt the only copy during a fit of spring cleaning. She made her final public appearance in 1968, as she was helped to her feet to receive applause at the end of a musical version of The Young Visiters, and died in 1972. ‘I wonder’, wrote her daughter in 1983, ‘if she had continued to write, she would as she became more proficient have relegated her earlier stories to the waste-paper basket, so depriving the world of so much fun. I am glad that she stopped when she did.’
I am glad that she stopped when she did too, for a world without The Young Visiters would be a dreary world indeed. So now my readers we will say farewell to the characters in this book. The End. by Daisy Hay.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 28 © Daisy Hay 2010