I’ve just read the most ridiculous and wonderful novel. It’s called The Young Visiters (sic) Or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan by Daisy Ashford. Written around 1890 by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford, the novel was published in 1919. (I love the internet. You can read the original text here.) According to the Academy Chicago Publishers 1991 preface by Walter Kendrick, J.M. Barrie, my icon and one of my favorite writers, doomed this novel to obscurity in our time. Kendrick writes: “I would lay the blame for juvenilizing The Young Visiters on Sir J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, who wrote a treacly preface to the 1919 edition. Barrie drew a precious picture of little Daisy at work, now with ‘the tongue firmly clenched between her teeth,’ now with ‘her head to the side and her tongue well out.’ He imagined her sucking her thumb and called her the ‘blazing child.’ The British stomach such goop better than Americans do; they seem to place a smaller premium on growing up. Barrie, however, falsified The Young Visiters for all readers when he made it out to be merely the product of a precocious imagination. It is that, of course, but it is also a Victorian novel in miniature, a tidy précis of English fiction circa 1890.” (I know that’s his opinion, and I might argue–have not yet read Barrie’s preface, but will later, as it’s online at Project Gutenberg. Stay tuned. And more on Barrie in a moment.)
But rather than tell about the novel, let me show. On p. 86, Miss Ashford treats the reader to the following, with the original spellings:
Chapter 9: A Proposale
Next morning while imbibing his morning tea beneath his pink silken quilt Bernard decided he must marry Ethel with no more delay. I love the girl he said to himself and she must be mine but I somehow feel I can not propose in London it would not be seemly in the city of London. We must go for a day in the country and when surrounded by the gay twittering of the birds and the smell of the cows I will lay my suit at her feet and he waved his arm wildly at the gay thought. Then he sprang from bed and gave a rat a tat at Ethel’s door.
Are you up my dear he called.
Well not quite said Ethel hastilly jumping from her downy nest.
Be quick cried Bernard I have a plan to spend a day near Windsor Castle and we will take our lunch and spend a happy day.
Oh Hurrah shouted Ethel I shall soon be ready as I had my bath last night so wont wash very much now.
No don’t said Bernard and added in a rarther fervent tone through the chink of the door you are fresher than the rose my dear no soap could make you fairer.
I have never read a book like this. The allure for me as reader hides in its layers, and in the child’s awareness of the weary adult world. Her prose. Her exuberent misspellings. And the allure is also in imagining this nine-year-old in the context of the nine-year-olds I know–smart and imaginative as they are–writing a book like this.
As Kendrick writes in the preface on p. xvii, “Ashford’s masterpiece truly deserves the overworked adjective ‘unique’: there is nothing else like it, and nothing can match the special pleasure it gives.”
In writing this post, I thought about a presentation I gave in graduate school about J.M. Barrie and the story behind Peter. I forgot how deeply I had then delved into Barrie’s work and life, but here are some of my presentation notes, which explained (in my words from twelve years ago, which I would re-write today, but for expediency, won’t) why this is interesting to me: “I have been working on an adult novel from a child’s point of view. I did not anticipate the power of looking through a child’s eyes at all the small things adults tend to overlook. This has been a great lesson in detail and imagery. Perhaps to normalize my obsession with childhood and the connection between child and adult, I keep coming back to Peter Pan as an important emblem. Reading Peter and Wendy has helped me think about the layers a writer can use to involve both child and adult awareness.”
I’m so grateful to my daughter’s teacher, Ann Guthrie, who knew of my fasciation with this kind of story, and loaned me Daisy Ashford’s book.
Now off to buy my own copy.