The Young Visiters, and Other Works by Daisy Ashford and Her Sister
Born in 1881, Daisy Ashford was the daughter of a minor civil servant in the War Office and the eldest of three sisters, all of whom enjoyed writing stories. When she was nine Daisy wrote a novella called The Young Visiters. The story follows a Mr. Salteena who, though “not quite a gentlemen,” is striving to become one so that he can marry the lovely Ethel Monticue. It’s a tale filled with romance and social commentary, at once uproarious and astute. Like most writing by very young authors, The Young Visiters sat in a drawer alongside other childhood keepsakes for almost thirty years. In 1919, however, it would be re-discovered and published. It was so successful that a year later it was followed up by a book of short stories collected from various stages of Daisy Ashford’s childhood, including one by her younger sister Angela.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the praise showered on The Young Visiters has a tinge of condescension. The publishers’ decision to leave spelling and grammar mistakes uncorrected draws attention to the writer’s remarkable age, but also invites the reader to take what they’re reading less than seriously. Much of the books’ humour is probably unintentional, such as Daisy’s ecstatic descriptions of her characters’ outfits. The bridegroom’s costume from “A Short Story of Love and Marriage” is an unforgettable example: “a red swallow tailed coat, with a green silk sash tied in front ... black knickerbockers and white woollen socks, and black dressing slippers.” Daisy also has an uncritical relish for the kind of plot devices, such as characters dying of grief or confessing love on their deathbeds, that later periods would ridicule in Victorian sentimental literature. And yet it’s a disservice to consider their precocity the only valuable thing about these books: the vision which the Ashford sisters bring to bear on human nature has an uncomfortable sharpness that is remarkable, regardless of their age.
Both Daisy and Angela Ashford seem quite aware, for example, of the ways that married people fight. The couple bickering about tardiness in Angela’s story “The Jealous Governes” (sic) is as spot-on as anything I’ve seen in literature. And there are other signs that these child-writers had their ears open for things that their adult guardians might not have wished them to hear. While Daisy frequently portrays men and women cohabiting before marriage and seems to see nothing wrong with it, there is a certain slyness of tone in her novella “The Hangman’s Daughter”: when Helen moves in with her fiancé Cyril, the narrator tells us that the latter “[seems] to prefer being engaged so the marriage was put off.” Even less subtle is the detail in The Young Visiters that Mr. Salteena came from “not quite the right side of the blanket.” It’s unclear whether nine-year-old Daisy knew that this was a reference to an illegitimate birth, but understood or not, the phrase is used impeccably. Most sophisticated of all is her sister Angela’s story “The Jealous Governes.” It starts with the charming notion that babies are delivered by doctors in special boxes tied up with string, but from this whimsical starting point, it becomes a surprisingly dark tale about murder and having a secret baby out of wedlock.
The Young Visiters has had two screen adaptations, most recently a BBC film made for television in 2003. The film-makers have expanded some elements of the plot. For example, unable to emulate Daisy's breezy attitude toward cohabitation, they felt the need to create some back-story to account for why seventeen-year-old Ethel Monticue is living with forty-two-year-old Mr. Salteena. In other places they take the critical spirit of the novella and broaden it. Mr. Salteena’s social climbing brings him to the “Crystale Palace,” which Daisy portrays as a kind of training institute for those aspiring to the upper classes. She refers to the residents in some passing dialogue as “inmates,” presumably with no other motive than to show off her genteel diction, but the film-makers have jumped off from this word to create a set that is claustrophobic and even subterranean, evocative of a workhouse or prison. Working in this extra commentary may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that the satire is fully in the spirit of the work that Daisy created.
It’s odd to reflect that Daisy Ashford was born in exactly the same year as the great humourist P. G. Wodehouse, and would have lived through the same historical events at exactly the same age. If she had kept writing, would her keen critical eye have led her to produce a dazzling send-up of her society like Jeeves and Wooster? It’s possible that Wodehouse enjoyed greater opportunity because of his sex and circumstances, or it may be that no explanation is needed for Daisy's abandonment of literature, other than that many child-writers do simply lose interest as they grow older. When Daisy grew up she worked first as a secretary, and then as a canteen-manager during the First World War. She didn’t marry until her late thirties, when she had several children and owned a flower shop with her husband. These details, though sparse, suggest the biography of a woman very much in charge of her own life, as we would expect of a writer whose heroines are unfailingly strong-willed and resourceful.
If Daisy Ashford had made writing her career the world might have received some delightful and sharp-witted novels, but in that case I doubt that we would ever have been allowed to read The Young Visiters or her other early work. It is much more difficult for a professional writer to enjoy publishing her juvenilia –the internal editor’s voice is too strong. So, while imagining the books that might have been, I feel nonetheless grateful that circumstances gave us the pleasure of sharing this child’s exuberant, and sometimes unsettling, perspective.--Mary Thaler