I can’t stop thinking about The Young Visiters; or, Mr Salteenas Plan. A social satire about a status-seeker who loses his young lover when they take a trip to a friend’s country house, it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—and its author is a nine-year-old child.
Daisy Ashford was only nine when she wrote The Young Visiters in 1890, but the novel was stowed away and forgotten until Ashford rediscovered the manuscript in a box of childhood items in 1917. Then 35, she showed it to friends as a kind of joke, and it made its way to an editor from Chatto & Windus, who bought the rights. The Young Visiters was published with an introduction by J.M. Barrie, who described the work thus: “It has an air of careless power; there is a complacency about it that by the severe might perhaps be called smugness. It needed no effort for that face to knock off a masterpiece.”
I agree with Barrie. Ashford is ruthless from the very opening lines: “Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple [sic] to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue.” The simple, tossed-off language skates over the . . . less say-able aspects of Salteena and Ethel’s relationship—but as readers, we know all we need to know. “Fond of asking peaple to stay with him” conjures an acquaintance euphemistically describing Mr. Salteena, as do many of Ashford’s descriptions; Ashford’s lack of quotation marks mean we never quite know whose point of view we’re getting. As Caleb Crain points out for Public Books, Ashford’s lack of quotation marks combined with her phonetic spellings (“rather” is “rarther”; “idea” is “idear”; “sumptuous” is “sumpshous”) blurs her characters’ world views together into a single silly, high-society affect. Says Crain, “The exact attribution [of the spellings] matters much less than the flavor the word[s] give of a shared way of seeing the world…a silly world.”
The world of The Young Visiters is silly and “sumpshous.” Ashford’s characters are deeply funny, caring mostly about “sumpshous” food and outfits and homes—and yet her incredible descriptions of foods, outfits, and homes are immense fun to sink into. I highly recommend reading the entire novel, but in the meantime, here are five things about adult society Ashford got right:
The art of debasing yourself for party invites:
Perhaps my readers will be wondering why Bernard Clark had asked Mr Salteena to stay with him. He was a lonely man in a remote spot and he liked people and partys but he did not know many. What rot muttered Bernard Clark as he read Mr Salteenas letter. He was rarther a presumshious man.
Getting ready for an event when you and your S.O. are fighting:
I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.
You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.
Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superier run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.
Well said the owner of the house she has a most idiotick run.
The silliness of tip-based payment systems:
Will [the footman] bring our luggage asked Ethel nervously.
I expect so said Mr Salteena lighting a very long cigar.
Do we tip him asked Ethel quietly.
Well no I dont think so not yet we had better just thank him politely…
I was right not to tip him whispered Mr Salteena the thing to do is to leave 2/6 on your dressing table when your stay is over.
…Does he find it asked Ethel who did not really know at all how to go on a visit. I beleeve so replied Mr Salteena anyhow it is quite the custom and we cant help it if he does not.
The quiet horror of learning a friend has a much nicer apartment than you:
Yes well let us go up replied Bernard and he led the way up many a winding stairway till they came to an oak door with some lovly swans and bull rushes painted on it. Here we are he cried gaily. Ethels room was indeed a handsome compartment with purple silk curtains and a 4 post bed draped with the same shade. The toilit set was white and mouve and there were some violets in a costly varse. Oh I say cried Ethel in supprise. I am glad you like it said Bernard and here we have yours Alf. He opened the dividing doors and portrayed a smaller but dainty room all in pale yellow and wild primroses. My own room is next the bath room said Bernard it is decerated dark red as I have somber tastes. The bath room has got a tip up bason and a hose thing for washing your head.
A good notion said Mr Salteena who was secretly getting jellus.
How people with awesome lives complain about their lives:
One grows weary of Court Life [the Prince] remarked.
Ah yes agreed the earl.
It upsets me said the prince lapping up his strawberry ice all I want is peace and quiut and a little fun and here I am tied down to this life he said taking off his crown being royal has many painfull drawbacks.
True mused the Earl.
The awkwardness of making conversation with an ex:
Doubtless it is charming said Mr Salteena who was wanting peace tell me Ethel how did you leave Bernard.
I have not left him said Ethel in an annoying voice I am stopping with him at the gaierty and we have been to lots of theaters and dances.
Well I am glad you are enjoying yourself said Mr Salteena kindly you had been looking pale of late.
No wonder in your stuffy domain cried Ethel well have you got any more friends she added turning to the earl.
Well I will see said the obliging earl and he once more disapeared.
I dont know why you should turn against me Ethel said Mr Salteena in a low tone.
Ethel patted her hair and looked very sneery. Well I call it very mystearious you going off and getting a title said Ethel and I think our friendship had better stop as no doubt you will soon be marrying a duchess or something.
Not at all said Mr Salteena you must know Ethel he said blushing a deep red I always wished to marry you some fine day.
This is news to me cried Ethel still peevish.
[via Public Books]