The Young Visiters
Mr. Salteena's Plan
... by Daisy Ashford
, aged nine, written about 1890, published in 1919. In twelve chapters and with a preface by Sir James Barrie
. Yes, not only is it a published novel by a nine-year-old, but it's hilarous
, and ironic
. It is almost impossible to believe that something this good could have been written by someone of that age, but Daisy Ashford (1881-1972) swore that she did, when as a young woman she unearthed the manuscript and agreed to have it published. It took Britain by storm, and is still a perennial favourite.
There is only one way the young Daisy could have acquired the vocabulary, the social observation, the literary skill, and the fluency with conventions and the freedom to break them, which is what she actually did: by reading everything that came her way. She must have devoured dozens, nay hundreds, of adult books, and have appreciated to a nicety how they moved their characters around.
Some of the charm is in the misspellings and punctuation and (presumably) accidentally comic images ("Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him"): the 1919 edition faithfully kept all of them, such as wiskers, velvit, thorght, rarther, brekfast, quear, tishu, parshial, presumshious, ruge, superier, rithum... But she's a pretty darned good speller for nine, and there's nothing ludicrous, we don't laugh at her. The ruge becomes quite a motif. But I have to object that they weren't quite as scrupulous as they claim. They also published a facsimile of the first page, and Daisy's handwriting is quite good. It's clear that the title should really be The Young Viseters.
Actually Ethel Monticue is the only young visiter in the story. She is 17, and is staying with Alfred Salteena, who is "an elderly man of 42". Having attractive young women visit him is plainly one of his habits, for in chapter one he gets a letter from his friend Bernard Clark, who writes "Please bring one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face." So Mr Salteena and Ethel visit Bernard's palatial house. Bernard and Ethel rather take a shine to each other, much to the dismay of Mr Salteena.
In his reply to Bernard's invitation, Mr Salteena writes that "I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow." Or can it? He is wistfully keen to be a gentleman and mix in higher society as Bernard does, and into which Bernard whisks Ethel, so his friend sends him off to the Crystal Palace, where many noblemen live, to be tutored by the Earl of Clincham. This is the other great strand of the plot.
Everything is quotable: everything is marvellous. I don't know where to begin looking for the most delicious lines.
I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.
You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.
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.
The visitors are overwhelmed by the opulence of the house and the servants, who try to put them at ease. The first meal together is a gem of observation of nervousness, class, pretentions, world-weariness, the lot:
The butler Minnit was quite ready for the fray standing up very stiff and surrounded by two footmen in green plush and curly white wigs who were called Charles and Horace.
Well said Mr Salteena lapping up his turtle soup you have a very sumpshous house Bernard.
His friend gave a weary smile and swollowed a few drops of sherry wine. It is fairly decent he replied with a bashful glance at Ethel after our repast I will show you over the premisis.
Many thanks said Mr Salteena getting rarther flustered with his forks.
You ourght to give a ball remarked Ethel you have such large compartments.
Yes there is room enough sighed Bernard we might try a few steps and meanwhile I might get to know a few peaple.
So you might responded Ethel giving him a speaking look.
Mr Salteena was growing a little peevish but he cheered up when the Port wine came on the table and the butler put round some costly finger bowls. He did not have any in his own house and he followed Bernard Clarks advice as to what to do with them.
Did she know what jokes she was making? She must have. Possibly not all of them, but a lot of the subtleties and puns are too good not to be intentional: "Bernard always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rarther pious
but Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers so he marched up to bed."
She enters into their feelings with apt words: Mr Salteena leaves by train "feeling rather flabergasted", thanks the servant "in a most airy voice", and enjoys the first-class compartment by crossing his legs "in a lordly way". On arrival in London "he began to strolle up the principle streets thinking how gay all was." The big city gets to him: "He beat time to the music and smiled kindly at the waiters and he felt very excited inside. I am seeing life with a vengance he muttered to himself as he paid his bill at the desk."
Lord Clincham accepts Bernard's letter of introduction and (for a fee) outfits Mr Salteena in finery and presents him at a grand gala hosted by the Prince of Wales, and they stand around eating strawberry ices.
Meanwhile, Bernard, alone with Ethel, invites her to London for a week of Gaierty. The bedrooms at their hotel are described with such attention to detail that I wonder... but no, surely not. Nevertheless, romance is in the air. They encounter Mr Salteena, who is anguished and jealous, and Bernard takes Ethel on a picnic, where after summoning up his courage, in the immortal lines: "No no cried Bernard and taking the bull by both horns he kissed her violently on her dainty face. My bride to be he murmered several times."
Read it all: www.stonesoup.com/ash2/ash1.html