It all began on the back cover of the great poet James Schuyler’s 1958 novel Alfred and Guinevere. In the novel, Schuyler creates an absolutely odd and believable childhood world, told only through dialogue between the young brother and sister Alfred and Guinevere Gates and excerpts from Guinevere’s diary. Alfred and Guinevere is the best novel I’ve ever read about childhood, because it accurately depicts the way children brilliantly and hilariously mimic adults, the way that children’s conversations are imperfectly observed imitations of adult conversations. Because of this insight, it doesn’t read like an adult imitating children—and it is incredibly funny. I’ve read it many times; I can’t get enough of it.
Going through it again this spring, I was caught by a review from Commonweal quoted on the back cover. “A deft and funny creation of a high quality,” the critic wrote, “somewhere between the terror-haunted humor of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica and the placid, presumably unselfconscious amusements of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters.” I had never heard of The Young Visiters. Neither, as it happens, had any of the dozen people I’ve mentioned it to in the months since. When I sought The Young Visiters out at the library, I was startled by what would seem to be the most important fact about it. “You could have told me,” I said silently to Commonweal, “that this book was written by a nine-year-old.”
When in 1919 a grown-up Daisy Ashford rediscovered and agreed to publish The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena’s Plan, which she had written twenty-eight years earlier, it was an immediate and absolute success. It is a Victorian “society novel” following “an elderly man of forty-two” named Alfred Salteena and his friends, the young lovers Ethel Montecue and Bernard Clark, as Mr. Salteena strives to become a gentleman. With its distinctive, graceless narrative voice and original spelling errors intact, readers regarded it as a remarkable specimen of children’s grand and unselfconscious ridiculousness. It was so popular in the United States and in Ashford’s native United Kingdom that it went through eight printings in its first year.
But I was only beginning to discover at the time I began The Young Visiters that I had stumbled upon one of the most original artifacts of Victorian literature and the cause of a fascinating literary craze. The connection between Daisy Ashford’s childhood creation and Alfred and Guinevere is clear—both derive their surprising, loopy humor from the idiosyncrasies of youth. Both conceal narrative art behind “presumed unselfconsciousness.” And while Schuyler is striving toward the freedom and wildness and weirdness of a child’s mind in his novel, in Ashford’s we see no such effort: it comes straight from the source. The same thing is indicated in the comparison of Schuyler’s and Ashford’s books, the enthusiastic but puzzled public response to The Young Visiters, and the delights of the novel itself: the debt adult writers owe to children.
Most critics writing about The Young Visiters in 1919 emphasized its comic value—it was, as the New York Times reported in two different articles from August 1919, “one of the most humorous books in literature,” or even “quite the most humorous thing that ever found its way into print.” These evaluations were not necessarily a credit to the savvy of the book’s young author, but rather the opposite; the book’s humor was a product of her guilelessness.
The innocent and accidental strangeness of the story is certainly one of its pleasures. Ashford’s mania for description can reach a fevered hilarity, as in this passage about the book’s male ingénue:
Bernard heaved a sigh and his eyes flashed as he beheld her and Ethel thorght to herself what a fine type of manhood he reprisented with his nice thin legs in pale broun trousers and well fitting spats and a red rose in his button hole and rarther a sporting cap which gave him a great air with its quaint check and little flaps to pull down if necesarry.
In early coverage of the novel, critics’ delight in this artlessness could veer uncomfortably toward the mean-spirited. As a reviewer for the magazine The Living Age wrote in July 1919, “To laugh at a child’s story is almost as bad as laughing at the child herself.” But this was only one aspect of readers’ confused reactions to The Young Visiters. The book was published with an introduction by Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie, provoking persistent rumors that Barrie was the book’s true author. They discredited Ashford for the novel by saying that all of the book’s value was achieved accidentally, in its unintended humor, while at the same time saying that the book’s merits were too great to have been achieved by a child.
Critics were unconsciously running up against the problem with appreciating The Young Visiters as a piece of juvenilia. Writers of the era tended to stress the innocence and purity of children’s art. In an article titled “Our Awakening Appreciation of Juvenile Literature and Art” in the September 1919 issue of Current Opinion, a critic is quoted as saying that in children’s work “there is a nature untrammeled by the impedimenta of intellectual knowledge, uncorrupted by useless, if inevitable, association, unhampered by concepts.”
That the tone of The Young Visiters does not come off as “unhampered by concepts,” but is in fact knowing, even ironic, does not indicate that it is then a bad example of a child’s art, or that it might not have been produced by a child at all; it indicates that these writers’ idea of the value of children’s work was false. Attesting to the purity of The Young Visiters, one writer claims that, “the author, we think, need not have read many novels.” This is maybe the most absurd thing these misguided adults ever wrote about this novel.
As Barrie writes of Ashford in his introduction, “She read everything that came her way, including, as the context amply proves, the grown-up novels of the period.” What is truly remarkable about The Young Visiters isn’t its naïve comedy but its subtle craft, the way it is brilliantly derivative of the “grown-up novels” the author had read. Ashford develops the love triangle between Mr. Salteena, Ethel, and Bernard quietly, with only winking indications of what the parties are secretly feeling. Mr. Salteena and Ethel visit Bernard at his house, and at dinner there is this exchange:
Well said Mr Salteena lapping up his turtle soup you have a very sumpshous house Bernard.
His friend gave a weary smile and swallowed 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 over his forks.
A character’s small outer lapses pointing to emotions that exist within—so that feelings are revealed to the audience sometimes before they are known to the character herself—has been a hallmark of British comedies of manners from Jane Austen to E. M. Forster to Barbara Pym to Alan Hollinghurst. And The Young Visiters centers on the greatest theme of British literature: class and the possibility (or impossibility) of social mobility. Both Mr. Salteena and Ethel are attempting to raise their status in the world. From the beginning, Ethel is painted, in soft strokes, as a bit rustic: her dress is said to have “grown rarther short in the sleeves” and the author writes that she “did not really know at all how to go on at a visit.” When Ethel marries Bernard we learn that
Ethels parents were too poor to come so far but her Mother sent her a gold watch which did not go but had been some years in the family and her father provided a cheque for £2 and promised to send her a darling little baby calf when ready.
In much of the book Ethel must rely on the wisdom of the provincial Mr. Salteena, whose obsession with customs like the tipping of servants gives away his identity as, in his words, “not quite a gentleman.” But while Ethel has a fairly straightforward opportunity to advance in society by marrying aristocratic Bernard, Mr. Salteena must find his way to the upper class by some other path. He enlists the help of the Earl of Clincham, who lives in the Crystal Palace, a facility for “people who have got something funny in their family” to legitimize their status and train in the ways of the aristocracy.
What is maybe most remarkable about Ashford’s exploration of this theme is the contrast in perspectives on the social hierarchy held by characters of different classes. Members of the nobility generally express ambivalence about social status. “Being royal has many painfull drawbacks,” the Prince of Wales complains. “At the Day of Judgement what will be the odds,” the Earl of Clincham says to put class differences in perspective. “Mr Salteena heaved a sigh,” Ashford writes. “I was thinking of this world he said.”
The ironic society novel isn’t the only genre Ashford is drawing from—she also borrows, impressively for her tender age, on the melodrama of high romance. The scene of Bernard’s proposal to Ethel was the focus of many early reviews—“Her love passages are extraordinary,” wrote one reviewer—as the level of ardor this nine-year-old describes necessarily pushes the novel over into the farcical. In the open air of the country near Windsor Castle, Bernard confesses his feelings: “Words fail me ejaculated Bernard horsely my passion for you is intense he added fervently.” Ethel replies, “You are to me like a Heathen god,” swoons, and faints. The scene of course reads like it was written by someone whose only encounters with romantic love were in books. But it also highlights how closely, whether comprehending or not, children observe the adult world.
The talent of a novelist depends on how they observe the people and patterns around them and how shrewdly they imitate the craft of earlier novelists. Ashford succeeded in both of these things not in spite of her age but because of it. In his introduction, Barrie describes how Ashford studied the adults she encountered and borrowed and modified things she heard discussed at home for use in The Young Visiters—the Crystale Palace became the Crystal Palace; the Gaiety Theatre became the Gaierty Hotel—and cautions readers against spending “another week-end in a house where there may be a novelist of nine years.”
Journalists at the time that The Young Visiters was published took pains to make connections between Ashford the adult and Ashford the nine-year-old. They wrote of her as a young woman “always at the centre of a great deal of fun” at parties. They noted her “eyes in which fun sparkles,” where one “could still see the lurking merriment and joie de vie depicted in her childhood’s portrait, undiminished—if anything, increased.” They were trying awkwardly to deal with the fact that although Ashford wrote intensely all through childhood, she never had an adult literary career. In the Chicago Tribune in July 1919, she said, “I’m afraid my literary genius—such as it was—lapsed with my schooldays.” Barrie doesn’t seem to find this surprising. He closely associates a talent for synthesizing reality into fiction with childhood, because once a person is initiated into the adult world, she never again pays as close attention to it. He describes how Ashford “gives me a few particulars of this child she used to be, and is evidently a little scared by her.”
It is not a sort of mystical “purity” that makes children’s art worth attention; it is curiosity about the adult world and the freedom with which children can try out, and then discard, adult conventions. In August 1919 a New York Times writer asked, “Is it possible that in The Young Visiters the publishers have stumbled upon a posthumous work by Lewis Carroll?” This was a popular comparison among critics of The Young Visiters, and an inappropriate one. Ashford was imitating the serious, sophisticated worlds of William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry James. Carroll—in his work’s frenzied pace, his free and easy manipulation of time and location, his rejection of logic, his silliness—was trying to imitate a mind like Daisy Ashford’s.
Alice Bolin is a writer living in California. Follow her on Twitter.