"Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him.”
— Opening of The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford
Who can remember what childhood was really like? Who would really want to? What comes back to me of childhood are a few hazy outlines, like half-remembered snippets of dreams glimpsed just before awakening and quickly forgotten. As a child, I’m sure I knew that the world around me was a very real place and that I was indisputably its center, but I somehow can’t recapture the innocence of a boyish imagination still unclouded by age or experience. Perhaps it’s the natural order of things that such perceptions disappear, which is why most authors can never truly portray children or childhood. Even if you rattle off the names of a dozen wonderful stories or novels which seem to do just that (To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind), these are still only the clever impersonations of children filtered through adult sensibilities.
A work which does present an authentic child’s view of the world, however, is The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena’s Plan written by Margaret Mary Julia Ashford (“Daisy”) and concerning not children and their habits but manners, class, courtship and marriage in Queen Victoria’s England. The manuscript was handwritten in a red-covered exercise book in 1890, when the precocious Daisy was nine years old. Here was a child who, from the earliest age, seems to have been permitted unlimited access to the family library and to have absorbed whatever she wanted of its contents, principally Victorian fiction, whose tone and trappings she made irresistibly her own. Why read this short novel? Because it presents a picture of the Victorian world, refracted through the prism of its literature and transformed once again by the perceptions of a bright and uncannily observant child who is, underneath it all, still very much a child. The result is an unintentionally hilarious comic masterpiece which has not been out of print since its first appearance in 1919.
As the story opens, the “elderly” Mr. Salteena, who we have already learned “was fond of asking peaple to stay with him” has “quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue.” All might seem well in this world of Mr. Salteena’s, but still he is nagged with regrets at being “not quite a gentleman.” For help with this problem he applies to his younger, better-born friend, Bernard Clark, who sends him to “the Crystall Palace” and “my old pal the earl of Clincham who lives there he might rub you up and by mixing with him you would probably grow more seemly.” As Mr. Salteena gains polish and is finally introduced at court to the “Prince of Whales,” who warns him that “being royal has many painful drawbacks,” he unfortunately loses his great love, Ethel, who refuses his hand in marriage.
"I think not replied Ethel and all the same it is very kind of you to ask me and she smiled more nicely at him. This is agony cried Mr. Salteena clutching hold of a table my life will be sour grapes and ashes without you. Be a man said Ethel in a gentle whisper and I shall always think of you in a warm manner. Well half a loaf is better than no bread responded Mr Salteena in a gloomy voice. . "
While Mr. Salteena is being groomed for the upper crust, Bernard Clark finally comes to realize his love for Ethel and, in a bucolic setting “surrounded by the gay twittering of birds and the smell of the cows” he offers one of the most passionate marriage proposals in English literature, besides which Cathy and Heathcliff’s romance seems neurasthenic in comparison. “When will you marry me Ethel he uttered you must be my wife it has come to that I love you so that if you say no I shall perforce dash my body to the brink of yon muddy river he panted wildly.” To which Ethel’s only response can be, “Oh Bernard she sighed fervently I certainly love you madly you are to me like a Heathen god she cried looking at his manly form and handsome flashing face I will indeed marry you.” Then Bernard, “taking the bull by both horns. . .kissed her violently on her dainty face.” Daisy Ashford's vision of adult passion is quite a startling one.
Like all proper Victorian novels, this one ends in a wedding. As a gift, the rejected Mr. Salteena sends Ethel "a bible with a few pious words of advice and regret.” Although "Ethels parents were too poor to come . . . her mother sent her a gold watch which did not go but had been for some years in the family and provided a cheque for £2 and promised to send her a darling little baby calf when ready.” The baby calf is only one of the many glorious images which come to vivid life in this book. The Young Visiters was published with an introduction by J. M. Barrie and became an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. There was a theatrical version in 1920, a musical in 1968, and a BBC film with Jim Broadbent as Mr. Salteena in 1984. In 1920 Daisy Ashford: Her Book appeared, which included some of Daisy’s other and even earlier writing, such as “A Short Story of Love and Marriage,” dictated to her father at the age of eight. In this brief tale, a happy couple go on a bridal tour of India and “seven hours after they got there had two twin babies.” By thirteen she had started “The Hangman’s Daughter,” which, as she later wrote in her introduction, she considered to be her “greatest literary achievement. . .for the reason that I had put more into it than any of the others. ” She finished this story of a gentleman hangman who moved to Kenelham “where only about two people were hung a year” at the age of fourteen and apparently wrote nothing more afterward. What changed for Daisy Ashcroft? Was the flame of childhood inspiration so quickly and completely snuffed out? Perhaps she had no more to say. More likely, as happens to most of us, she simply grew up.
I was delighted to learn that the original exercise book containing the manuscript of The Young Visiters is now held in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.