Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford

I met this book for the first time six weeks ago in an antique shop in Hobart, and I'm amazed that I'd never heard of it till then. This runaway bestseller, written in 1890 and published in 1919, is the bonafide work of a nine-year-old little girl, published when it came to the attention of JM Barrie. The book, with its beguiling unintentional parody of sensational Victorian fiction, became an instant hit; I am advised that writers like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton referred to it in their own works.

The Young Visiters, Or, Mr Salteena's Plan tells the story of Mr Salteena ("an elderly man of 42") and his young friend Ethel Monticue, who go to stay with the brooding yet devout Bernard Clark ( who "always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rarther pious"). Only one thing blights Mr Salteena's life: he is not quite a gentleman. Bernard recommends that Mr Salteena go to take lessons from Lord Clincham in London, which introduces him to the best society and even culminates in an introduction to the Prince of Wales.
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.
 But despite his progress in society, will Mr Salteena's new-found gentility qualify him for Ethel Monticue's hand?

Many readers have enjoyed The Young Visiters for its unintentional commentary on Victorian social mores, to the point of reading much more into it than there really is. To be sure most of the fun of reading this book comes from seeing late Victorian culture from a nine-year-old's perspective--as witness this utterly hilarious passage, when Bernard shows his visitors around the ancestral portrait gallery:
My great uncle Ambrose Fudge said Bernard carelessly.
He looks a thourough ancester said Ethel kindly.
Well he was said Bernard in a proud tone he was really the Sinister son of Queen Victoria.
Not really cried Ethel in excited tones but what does that mean.
Well I dont quite know said Bernard Clark it puzzles me very much but ancesters do turn quear at times.
Peraps it means god son said Mr Salteena in an inteligent voice.
Well I dont think so said Bernard but I mean to find out.
And then there is the scene in which Ethel receives a proposal of marriage, which I am not going to quote at all, because it is much too good to spoil.

According to JM Barrie, in the book's Preface,
The Author
The "owner of the copyright" guarantees that "The Young Visiters" is the unaided effort in fiction of an authoress of nine years. "Effort," however, is an absurd word to use, as you may see by studying the triumphant countenance of the child herself, which is here reproduced as frontispiece to her sublime work.
I also reproduce it in this review, because it Says It All, Really. If you are looking for a classic work of humour, you cannot go wrong with The Young Visiters. But I would particularly recommend it to everyone who is as fond, as little Daisy Ashford so evidently was, of Victorian fiction.

The Young Visiters was filmed for TV in 2003 starring Jim Broadbent as Mr Salteena and Hugh Laurie as Bernard Clark. I have not seen it, but from what I hear it runs with the social-criticism reading of the book. Got to keep an eye on those proto-Marxist nine-year-olds (eyeroll). That said, Hugh Laurie as Bernard Clark...I could be persuaded.

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