Sometime around 1890, a 9-year-old English girl named Daisy Ashford, who had apparently been spending the same number of hours inside grown-up novels as 9-year-olds today spend watching TV, sat down to write a book of her own. The result was The Young Visiters (the spelling is Miss Ashford’s, as is the creative spelling throughout her book). It first made its way into print in 1919 but has not been available for many years in this country; now here it is again, just in time to stuff stockings or seal friendships as it once did.
Like all good Victorian novels, this one’s about love, money, and class, and it’s more frank and less foolish about them than most. Mr. Salteena, ”an elderly man of 42,” confesses, ”I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow.” His ward, Ethel Monticue (you must have a young ward in such a story), falls for Mr. Salteena’s friend Bernard, and Bernard volunteers to help Mr. Salteena become ”more seemly” — which involved paying for lessons in gentlemanliness from Bernard’s friend the Earl of Clincham, who lives in the Crystal Palace: ”You see these compartments are the haunts of the Aristockracy said the earl and they are kept going by peaple who have got something funny in their family and who want to be less mere if you comprehend.” Indeed Mr. Salteena can, and gladly pays up.
How Bernard and Ethel break Mr. Salteena’s heart (for of course he was in love with her himself); how Mr. Salteena gets smuggled into a royal levee by the wonderfully worldly Earl; how Bernard proposes marriage: Every scene, every effect she attempts, this astonishing writer achieves. She manages a ball, a wedding, a party, each with its grand and intimate moments, its revelations and reverses, with the aplomb of a Virginia Woolf or a Jane Austen, and all in a hundred small pages.
Daisy Ashford has that cruel honesty that comes with a child’s acceptance of her society’s rules. She understands that the good life must be paid for: ”costly” and ”sumpshous” are favorite adjectives. Her happy ending is qualified: Mr. Salteena becomes a gentleman, ”galloping madly after the Royal Carrage,” but has to marry a nobody who ”was a bit annoying at times especially when he took to dreaming of Ethel and wishing he could have married her.”
For obvious reasons, literary prodigies are rarer than musical ones; writers have to have lived. But for The Young Visiters, the only adjective is Mozartian. A