Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford - my life will be sour grapes and ashes without you

Would you believe I was reading Miles Franklin because of Rudyard Kipling?  He had got me thinking about teen prodigy writers.  The decades at the end of the 19th century had an unusual number of them – Alfred Jarry, Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Rimbaud if I can slip back a bit, Trakl if I can skip forward.

I used to think that the there was no such thing as a literary child prodigy, but I was wrong, even setting aside clever 17th century haiku written by six year olds, for there existed Miles Franklin’s exact contemporary, the amazing Daisy Ashford, author of The Young Visiters or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan, unpublished until 1919 but written in 1890 when the author was – see left – nine.

Mr. Salteena “was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him” (17).  His current guest is the young, beautiful Edith, who Mr. Salteena would like to marry, except that he is “not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow” (19).  The story is in two parts, Mr. Salteena’s attempts to become a gentleman, and the courtship of Edith my someone more her age and less pathetic.

Bringing a duel-plot novella (the book is perhaps sixty pages) to completion is an achievement for a child, but enthusiasts for the novel care about it because of how it is written, because of this sort of thing:

This is agony cried Mr Salteena clutching hold of a table my life will be sour grapes and ashes without you.  (71)

The better writers are so often separated from the lesser by their audacity, their sense of when to plunge in and write incorrectly, when to say the thing that is new and right.  I perhaps should have saved this, my favorite line in The Young Visiters, until last, but “my life will be sour grapes and ashes” has stayed with me ever since I read it.  Ashford is blissfully free from convention.

Earlier in the novel, Mr. Salteena pays a visit to Edward, Prince of Wales, who is “in a lovely ermine cloak and a small but costly crown” (57):

Then the Earl chipped in and how is the dear Queen he said reveruntly.

Not up to much said his Highness she feels the heat poor soul and he waved to a placard which said in large letters The Queen is indisposed.  (59)

Then the Prince has a strawberry ice.  I suppose a bit of the appeal of Ashford is the silly dash of avant-gardism created by her cavalier attitude towards spelling and punctuation, but it is the recurring surprises like the placard that make up the novel’s original touches.  She just writes the oddest things sometimes:

… he passed on to a lady with a very tight waist and quearly shaped.  That is Mary Ann Fudge my grandmother I think said Bernard she was very well known in her day.

Why asked Ethel who was rarther curious by nature.

Well I don’t know said Bernard but she was and he moved away to the next picture.  (30)

I don’t know either.  A book in its own category.

My page numbers refer to the 1951 Doubleday edition.


  1. Your perceptive declaration about audacity, the child writer thing, the strawberry ice, the "silly dash of avant-gardism" all make me think you could be referring to César Aira's How I Became a Nun instead of this alleged nine-year old's "dual-plot novella." C'mon, Tom, fess up already!

  2. A second volume was published in 1920 ("Daisy Ashford: Her Book"), containing her other childhood writings, including her most ambitious work, "The Hangman's Daughter." And a story by her sister Angela! It's worth seeking out; she was a vivid writer, whatever her age.

  3. I've been away from this site for too long. This review is a good example of why I like your blog as much as I do. Who ever heard of this book or this author? While I am taken by the passages you quote above, I wonder how much of what you call avant gardism is really just youth. I often see passages like this in my own students writing, though not quite up to this quality. Have you read her adult work? Is there any available?

  4. She was nine? She seems to write both like and unlike a child. The placard and the strawberry ice are things a kid would come up with but to write them so well is really amazing. I wonder if she had any adult assistance?

  5. The Aira connection is metaphysically plausible. Both writers were likely working on the same "forward only, no going back" restraints. In Ashford's book, unlike Aira's, everyone's gender is stable.

    I remember where I heard of this book, as an aside in an article about Jane Austen, something about her juvenilia. Then, offhand, a mention of the greatest novel ever written by a nine year old. "No way" I thought, then I tracked it down and swallowed it whole.

    My understanding is that Daisy did not have help from adults, at least. Her siblings might have offered suggestions - they were the audience.

    Almost thirty years after she wrote it, Ashford (who was not at all a writer as an adult) came across the "manuscript," a notebook, and showed it to a friend who showed it to a friend who was a publisher. This is in the book Doug recommends (at Google Books).

    J. M. Barrie wrote the preface to The Young Visiters - it's easy enough to see why he would like this. Like C.B. says, it is just youth. But this is exactly the period when artists, writers as well as painters, were investigating free writing and "primitive" art and anybody else who had somehow and in some way shaken off the baggage, even if it is just spelling or capital letters.

  6. Daisy seems to have lost interest in writing after she finished "The Hangman's Daughter" at 13. A pity! I bet her adult writing would have been lively.

    Ring Lardner parodied her in a piece called "The Young Immigrunts" (a road trip as told by his son). Come to think of it, Lardner's narrators sometimes sound a lot like her.