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. Read More