I’ve recently read a couple of books that do not have a great deal going for them in terms of plot, characterisation or narrative structure. (I’ve decided not to review them on this site as I’m not in the mood for getting the hatchet out!). So, instead, of bewailing the time invested in these not-very-inspiring reads I decided to re-read a book which has all the elements I look for in a book and is also chock-full of charm. It is not strictly a children’s book, but one written by a child, nine year old Daisy Ashford.
This is a book which was written for sheer pleasure. Produced at home in Lewes in 1890 the manuscript turned up amongst her mother’s papers and came to the attention of JM Barrie who championed it when it was published in 1919. By this time Ashford had given up writing but must have enjoyed the critical success her childhood project achieved as she lived until 1972 aged ninety. If ever there was a book produced for the love of writing, rather than for publication then this is it. The spelling throughout is Ashford’s (apart from the title in which she spelt “Visters”) and the only corrections made are to put her words into paragraphs, which she had neglected to do, probably in her eagerness to get her story down. In twelve chapters with such evocative titles as “Mr Salteena’s Plan”, “A Gay Call”, “A Proposale” and “Preparing for the Fray” Daisy produced an excellently structured story which she saw through to its conclusion.
The most amazing thing is how Daisy absorbed information. She was apparently a voracious reader, obviously of adult novels as her tale has none of the sanctimonious piousness which was in much children’s literature of the time. This is closer to Jane Austen than the turgid moral tracts which the Victorian child would have been expected to devour. But this is more than a book churned out by a child who had read a lot. She must have absorbed so much in terms of language and how adults lived their lives and Victorian society itself. If the Victorian child is often depicted as one who is seen and not heard then Daisy must have fitted that description, but she must have been soaking everything up like a sponge. There were visitors who came to the house who talked about things that Daisy used in her novel, not knowing that the little girl in the corner was taking in everything to write up in her tale of Mr Salteena’s quest to make his position in society and to find love. This is a story written with supreme confidence in her craft and when there is something she doesn’t fully understand she freely admits it. Here is an exchange between Mr Salteena (“an elderly man of 42”), the heroine, Ethel Monticue (17) and Bernard Clark whose house they are visiting and whose family portraits they are admiring;
“It was of a man with a fat smiley face and a red ribbon round him and a lot of medals. My great uncle Ambrose Fudge said Bernard carelessly.
He looks a thourough ancestor said Ethel kindly.
Well he was said Bernard in a proud tone he was really the Sinister son of Queen Victoria.
Not really cried Ethel in excited tones but what does that mean.
Well I don’t quite know said Bernard Clark it puzzles me very much but ancesters do turn quear at times.
Peraps it means god son said Mr Salteena in an intelligent voice.
Well I don’t think so said Bernard but I mean to find out.
It is very grand anyhow said Ethel.”
This is a world where one of the greatest joys is to be brought a cup of tea in bed, where you might receive a letter saying;
“I want you to come for a stop with me so I have sent you a top hat wraped up in tishu paper inside the box. Will you wear it staying with me because it is very uncommon. Please bring one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face.”
Mr Salteena’s letter in response to this states;
“I do hope I shall enjoy myself with you. I am fond of digging in the garden and I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature.”
There are so many joyful quotations I could make from this book but it would only antagonise my spell-checker and I would like you to discover a world where there are rooms in the Crystal Palace where you can learn to be a gentleman and meet the Prince of Wales wearing “a small but costly crown” and where you must make sure you do not miss out on your chance of true love. I just can’t resist one more quotation on the preparations to visit Mr Bernard Clark.
“When the great morning came Mr Salteena did not have an egg for his breakfast in case he should be sick on the jorney.
What top hat will you wear asked Ethel.
I shall wear my best black and my white alpacka coat to keep off the dust and flies replied Mr Salteena.
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.”
How this book is not prescribed reading on every creative writing course I do not know.
Before you go off rummaging around in boxes to see if you have any juvenilia lurking around which might make your fortune (most childhood books are unfinished, the junior writer not having the stamina to maintain the writing chore) I’m already ahead of you. An aunt died recently and amongst her papers (in a strange correlation to the Ashford family) was found a book I wrote at the age of nine. The book I wrote about a donkey who lived in Scotland Yard, which I believed was a strip of land separating Scotland from England (!) has been sadly lost. My discovery was more structured than Daisy’s as it had pictures which you had to sort into an order for your story. Entitled “Teddy’s Holiday” I’ll give you a sample of my manuscript alongside Daisy’s. I’ll even let you work out which is which! I might win out on the use of speech marks compared to Daisy, but that’s about it!
After the success of “The Young Visiters” Daisy’s other childhood novels were published. These are harder to find but “The Young Visiters” remains in print (the most recent edition with illustrations by Posy Simmonds). I have not read any of the others but intend to do so. It has been adapted for television and turned into a musical but that would be to miss out on the joy of Daisy’s use of language and probably wouldn’t be able to get across her potent combination of innocence and precocious sophistication. I often re-read this as an antidote to bloated plots, paper-thin characterisation and implausible narrative. In the half hour or so it takes to read this I am revived.
The Young Visiters was published in 1919. My copy was the 1977 edition. It is still in print published in the UK by Chatto and Windus.